I really don’t want to gloat, but… while you lot, with good reason, whinge about the ownership of your club and its apparently interminable “transition” towards something or other, I’m wallowing in the reflected glory of an ultimately successful season with Dulwich Hamlet, promoted via the play-offs to the National League South.
In the end, it all comes down to the peculiar predicament of the modern football fan: you win some, you lose a lot. Most of us can only, mathematically, expect sporadic joy and routine disappointment unless you follow one of the ‘big clubs’, in which case you are in my humble opinion a glory-seeking hanger-on and not really a proper football fan.
Our emotional well-being is dependent on a small group of mainly young men over whom we have no real influence and who so long as they get paid don’t really give a sh*t what we think or feel. We are, for the most part, meant to suffer.
In the old days, that offered a valuable lesson in dealing with adversity. Now with the ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality, it just means a monopoly on success for the few and the occasional flutter of excitement for the rest of us. That’s capitalism, which tends to squeeze the joy out of pretty much anything it gets its greedy hands on.
Anyway, for the moment, let me wallow. On a ‘sizzling’ Bank Holiday Monday in South London, Dulwich Hamlet won promotion from the Isthmian/Bostik League for the first time in their 125-year history. Next season they’ll be playing such giants of the non-league game as Bath City and Chelmsford City (yes, clubs ending in ‘city’) and other such glamorous places (‘To Truro and Beyond’ as one placard put it).
The fact that they did it in Tooting, at a ground borrowed from a club heading in the opposite direction, makes for an even more remarkable achievement. A couple of months ago the club was evicted from its own ground in Dulwich by its New York-based private equity owners Meadow Residential, in ongoing dispute with the local council over development plans. Meadow even tried to trademark the club’s name!
This was the fourth season in a row Dulwich have been in the playoffs. The league title and automatic promotion were won by Billericay Town, or rather purchased at a reported cost of £1m in players wages by their waste-magnate multi-millionaire owner with the hard-core support of a few hundred white van men. “F**k off Dulwich Hamlet” was one of their first post-promotion tweets.
This time Dulwich went into the playoffs in second place, which gave them supposedly home advantage, first against a really good Leiston side in the semi (won 1-0) then the final against Hendon, a bit of a ‘bogey team’.
There were 3,500 people there, an amazing attendance for non-league and at a borrowed ground eight miles away from Dulwich. After almost three hours of sweaty football on a bumpy pitch, Dulwich beat Hendon 4-3 on penalties, second only to waterboarding in the catalogue of modern torture. The day after, I renewed my season ticket with a smile; £65 for over-60s, less than £3 a game. Combined with weekends with my first grandchild, due in November, that’ll do nicely.
For me the only downside is that there are no East Anglian teams apart from Chelmsford and the despicable Billericay in the National League South; there would have been Kings Lynn Town if they’d won their own play-off final.
I’ll miss my trips to Lowestoft and Needham Market, where Dulwich always seemed to do well. This season’s 3-0 win at Needham, where Dulwich “oozed class all over the pitch” (according to the Non-league Paper), was my personal highlight. The 3-1 win at Lowestoft, who have just about survived financial disaster and staved off relegation (despite losing their last game 8-0!) was, by contrast, a sad mismatch.
So what if anything can Dulwich Hamlet’s success teach Norwich City? First of all, to restate what should always be blindingly obvious, football is a team game. For as long as I’ve been watching, Dulwich have played a passing team style, with no obvious ‘stars’ (just heroes), and a clear collective joy in playing the game together. That for me was what was so special about the Lambert years at Norwich, an inclusive ethos since frittered away.
For all Stuart Webber’s talk of a footballing “identity” for City, it’s hard to discern one right now. It’s especially hard to see what Daniel Farke has brought to the club, apart from his captain at Borussia Dortmund reserves and a rather curious way with the English language (why is everything a “topic”?). For what it’s worth I think the ‘new structure’ makes a lot of sense, but it needs serious money to succeed, and the club adopted it three seasons too late. They should have gone for it as soon as Lambert left.
Secondly, football success really is a long-term project, based on making the most of your own local circumstances and opportunities. It takes patience, integrity and very good planning, even for a club with unlimited, obscene wealth like Manchester City. Dulwich have been run for nearly a decade by the same management team of Gavin Rose and Junior Kadi, who actually make their living by running an academy that has produced dozens of professional and semi-pro footballers (quite possibly more than Norwich City’s academy over the same period).
It does help that they have their pick of Crystal Palace, Millwall etc. cast-offs from the talent pool of South East London – including striker Reiss Allessani, who a Dulwich source tells me Norwich “played silly buggers with” in the January transfer window – but unlike Norwich they seem to have the knack of actually improving footballers.
I guess that’s what City are aiming towards now, but from what I hear the prospects are not great. The club are just too provincial and out of the way and well, how shall I put it, peculiar. There are reasons why washed-up, injury-prone old pros seem to end up here on lucrative contracts, and why proven managers and coaches don’t.
Having said that, the present Norwich management and ownership seem to be making just about the best of a pretty poor hand. As always a lot depends on context. If and when the Premier League bubble finally bursts over the next few years – what with the insanity of Brexit and the sheer boredom of watching the same ‘big clubs’ dominate every season, not to mention the dawning realisation that English football actually isn’t that good – then a ‘self-funded’ and relatively well-run provincial ‘family’ club like Norwich might be able to take advantage of the knock-on effects down the pyramid.
But again it may be a problem of timing. Sensible, sustainable business practice may have come just a few years too soon in a sport still dominated by dodgy foreign money looking for a quick return. It will all dry up, but not quite yet…
So, for now, you pays your money and you takes your choice: £65 for the season in my case, several times more in yours. I’d far rather be watching Dulwich Hamlet rise through the lower leagues, and hopefully return under fan ownership – when Southwark Council and Meadow Residential finally sort themselves out – to their own redeveloped ground in Champion Hill, than sitting through what you have had to endure this season and more than likely the next one too.