Thursday, 14 July 2016

A Dulwich Hamlet photo essay (part one)

Welcome to part one of a collection of photos that I hope will give existing Dulwich Hamlet fans a welcome journey down memory lane, and potential new fans a glimpse into the absolute madness of the past few years celebrating England’s finest non-league football team. Scrap that, England’s finest football team.

In my three seasons of supporting the Hamlet, the experience has changed exponentially. My first experiences of Saturdays at Champion Hill were spent with 400-500 fellow onlookers (already a 25% attendance increase – I don’t pretend that I was part of the very first wave of newcomers). There was ample room all around the pitch for OTT supporter celebrations, for games of keep-ups with stray match balls, for the setting up of outdoor paddling pools in the summer months. You could hear every word of Rob, Michael and G-Man’s hilarious, bizarre, blue, insults directed (playfully) towards opposition goalkeepers. You could swap ends at half-time without queuing in an orderly fashion for 5 minutes before you made any headway. You could sit down if you wanted, hell you could lie down. With a fat suit on. Wrapped in thick cheese.

I was hooked. And the more months that passed, the bigger the crowds grew. The bigger the crowds grew, the more we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. 1,000… 1,500… 2,000… 2,500. They came, and they came, and they came. And the less I wanted to come. The matchday experience at Champion Hill changed. Where once I sat down and laughed at Rob comparing the opposition keeper’s kit to an ironing board cover, I now stood packed in like a sardine surrounded by day-tripping Chelsea and Arsenal fans necking cans of Stella and laughing at Nyren’s slightly overhit cross.

In the final weeks of the 2015-16 season, with the Hamlet team going through a tough period on the pitch, the Rabble sang and sang and sang. It banged advertising boards, it hit (sometimes rhythmically) corrugated iron, it hoisted aloft flags of 30ft x 20ft, it gave its all. I gave my all (Brentwood away, anyone?)

Before I knew it, the Hamlet had made the playoff final. As quickly as it had come around, it had slipped away. 3-0 down after 30 minutes was too big a mountain to climb and East Thurrock grabbed the final promotion place into the Conference South.

I write this opening passage as an insight into why I am writing any of this at all. The end to last season, and the change in the “Dulwich Hamlet Experience”, made me question my commitment to this incredible club. That then made me question what DHFC actually means to the newer supporters – is it something you can walk away from? This would certainly give validity to many critics’ views of us. But you know what, it isn’t. Despite how much it has changed, despite the heartbreak of last season, Dulwich Hamlet is my club. I can’t walk away.

I hope you enjoy viewing these photos, and reading my (often useless) anecdotes. Collating them further confirmed to me that I’ll see all you beautiful bastards behind the goal on the first day of the 2016-17 season.

Edit: A huge big up to the photographers whose work over the past few seasons has done so much to help grow crowds and promote the club online. Namely: Mike Urban (Brixton Buzz); Joel Virgo (Joel Virgo Photography); Duncan Palmer (Duncan Palmer Photography); Laraine Bateman and David Bauckham. I have absolutely no doubt that without your hard work and amazing talents, the club wouldn't be where it is today.

Saturday 27th April 2013. Dulwich Hamlet captain Peter Adeniyi roars in celebration in the Champion Hill tunnel after a Xavier Vidal goal clinches the Isthmian League Division One South title on the last day of the season. I wasn’t there that day but this shot by the excellent non-league photographer David Bauckham surely captures the raw emotion, the relief, and the pride felt by all. Pete left the Hamlet a couple of years ago but he is still a popular face around the club – running school holiday football camps at Champion Hill and regularly attending home games. He has recently taken up his first management position, with Carshalton Athletic.

Photo credit: David Bauckham

Saturday 10th August 2013. After 12 seasons away, Dulwich Hamlet have returned to the Isthmian League Premier Division. Nerves over what was supposed to be a daunting opening day fixture at home to Lowestoft Town – thrice playoff finalists in the previous three seasons – are banished as winger Ellis Green smashes home after 25 minutes. Green would be sent off early in the second half after reacting to a particularly bad challenge but Erhun Oztumer would bury a 74th-minute penalty to hand the Hamlet a hugely impressive 2-0 win.

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

It’s Saturday 26th April 2014 and Dulwich Hamlet’s 1-1 draw at home to Kingstonian means they slip out of the final playoff spot on the final day of the season. Taken around 20 minutes after the full-time whistle, DHFC fan Robert Molloy-Vaughan and his bottle of £3.99 prosecco dominate the photo. A common theme throughout recent years, Hamlet fans still managed to have a pitch side party despite the result on the pitch. This author openly admits that Robert (or at least photos of his face and infamous voodoo stick) is one of the main reasons he first ventured along to Champion Hill. If I hadn’t already caught the Hamlet bug, this photo would’ve done it. Where the fuck else would you see a 30-something man dressed in an outfit of a plastic lilac wig, leopard print felt and shoulder spikes spraying a bottle of cheap fizzy wine in front of a homemade pink and blue banner? Answer? Absolutely nowhere.

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

4.41pm, Saturday 29th November 2014. Continuing his comeback from a horrendous leg break almost a year previous, Hamlet striker and Patrick Bateman-in-American-Psycho-lookalike Harry Ottaway has just slammed home an equaliser at home to Kingstonian. Admit it, we all winced as he landed back on the turf given his injury record… Land he did though, and ten minutes later he combined with Ashley Carew to set up Nyren Clunis to grab a 2-1 victory for DHFC. This photo sums up Harry. Athleticism, style, and passion. Fuck I miss you, Harry.

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

I must admit I have absolutely no idea of the exact date that this shot of Hamlet fan Rod Laird was taken – sometime in 2015, I reckon. There are many reasons why I love this photo… Firstly, Rod is one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met. A friendly, compassionate, humble, dependable man who is now an important component of the idiots (come on, we are) behind the goal both home and away. Secondly, with his downward-facing pose and the light illuminating the left-hand side of his face, the photo looks like a scene from a 1940s Chicago backstreet. It’s the most atmospheric shot out of the lot – I was taken aback the first time I saw it and it still stops me in my tracks. Thirdly, it’s a glimpse of a facet of the recent increase in crowds that is oft forgotten – it’s not just 20-somethings with b*ards drinking craft beer who have found a football home in East Dulwich. It is all. In this case, an older gentleman whose love of the game forced him away from the Sky Sports/Gary Lineker/Opta Stats/Barry Glendenning wankfest and into the arms of the Rabble. Long may it continue.

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

Saturday 17th January 2015. Playing in Margate’s orange away strip after the referee took a dislike to the Hamlet’s Altona-inspired striped number (fool), Dulwich Hamlet have just taken the lead at Hartsdown Park thanks to a 56th-minute Ethan Pinnock header. With the home team sat in second place and DHFC in third, the glee on the faces of Aspire Academy graduates Nyren Clunis, Xavier Vidal and Ethan tells its own story. Hamlet held on for a famous 2-1 win and it was genuinely one of the best days of my life. In the days and weeks after I wondered if I’d got caught up in the emotion of it all and overstated what an incredible trip it was… But now, 18 months on, it still stands as one of the most memorable 12 hours of my life. Turns out the Deserter lads enjoyed it, too. See?

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

I’m not done with the Margate trip yet… Just over an hour earlier, Nyren Clunis had swept DHFC into a 1-0 lead on this bitterly cold January afternoon. Now, he’s swamped by the jubilant Rabble moments after the full-time whistle. I love this shot for so many reasons – Nyren’s closed, happy eyes; Grotty’s outrageously good pink camo cap; and the sea of outstretched arms hinting at the imminent arrival of more celebrating Hamlet players. Moments like this are why you sit on a shitty, slow train for three hours in the depths of the English winter to watch a game between two teams playing 7 levels below the premier league. Give me this over Soccer Saturday any day. Any day, in fact, for the rest of my life.

Photo credit: Joel Virgo

We'll post part two in a week or so - come back for more amazing photos and average anecdotes.

Thanks for indulging me, Ben.

I'm @vicar_of_sibley on Twitter - give me your memories/abuse!

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