DH have been high up on our list of teams to visit for a while, but for one reason or another we have yet to, not that I don't seem to be constantly reminded of that, because after Clapton FC, they might just be the most prolific ultra sticker, stickerers going, so in one way or the other they have been in the forefront of our thinking, for a while.
The long trek south is a less than cheery one, my love loss for the tube is well documented, but it is at least quiet so I don't have that to grumble about. It might be the fact that the woman opposite is attempting to surreptitiously feed herself handfuls of salted peanuts, but by trying to do it on the down low, is making it into much more of a song and a dance then it need be or perhaps it’s my choice of documentary to watch on my tablet, 'Himmler: The Decent One', informative, yes, but far from uplifting, not the best pre match entertainment.
Once I’m finally free of the labyrinth that is Elephant and Castle underground station, I’m grateful for the fresh air and stiff breeze blowing away the mental image of the peanut snacker, and those of wartime atrocities.
I’m late, Tom is already there, his texts to me asking where I am, are dripping with smugness, my 100% record of being on time so far this season, has been dashed to the pavement. By no fault of my own may I add, but that of the strange premature terminating buses. You don't get this sort of behaviour north of the river I’ll have you know, or neither it would seem in Washington DC, according to the DC United fan standing next to me at the bus stop, who is looking equally quizzically at his phone for updates. Only because of his football themed jacket, and not because I’m a public transport chatter kind of guy, more of an eyes down, please don’t touch me kind of one, I take the gamble and ask if he is also going to see DH.
He tells me he was advised to see two teams while in London “Clapton and Dulwich” and having seen those from the Old Spotted Dog already, today like us was his chance to check out ‘The Rabble’ DH’s ultra group, which surprisingly is a concept probably more familiar to someone from the USA to that of the UK, a DC United season ticket holder, he tells me it was they who had the “original ultras in the MLS”, which he suggests not a lot of people realise, because the Seattle Sounders go around giving the impression "they invented it”.
The entrance to a major supermarket is not what you would expect to find when arriving at a football ground, only perhaps the road sign for ‘Edger Kali Way’ alludes to what is beyond the Sainbsury’s, and that’s only as the song puts it “if you know your history”. One has to join the Saturday shoppers, only to divert from those making their way to to do the weekly shop at the last moment, and head towards the car wash, are you then on the right track.
Tom is waiting for me not by the turnstile as arranged, but a few feet back because as he tells me he was “getting wet” from the spray of the aforementioned car wash.
“I have a little surprise for you” he says, and I instantly wonder if he has brought us a packed lunch, admittedly his choice of sandwich fillings can be a little outside the box, but I long for the halcyon days of Tom presenting me with a selection of tinfoil wrapped morsels, however any notions of homemade cake is quickly quashed, when he retracts his black hood, to reveal he no longer has any hair, well he has some hair, he's not bald, but he has about the same amount as a Chickaboo, and looks a bit like CM Punk.
The signs of DH fanatic support are soon apparent, however they are not gaudy or showy, in fact they are quite the opposite, understated and stylish, the blue and pink David Bowie stencil on the wall on the way in is very neat. Tom who has been waiting for about half an hour, like I said not my fault, blame the buses, tells me he has not seen any “Hendon” (HFC), DC opponents today, but he has seen “lots of pink and blue”.
We enter the long window lined bar in the main stand, which must offer one of the best, ‘stay out of the cold, close to the beer, but still have a good view of the pitch’ vantage points in all of football. “Do what you want” are the to the point instructions of DH club security Martin, who has kindly granted us access to various parts of the ground and pitch, to allow for photographs and filming.
I am a little distracted, as there are a phenomenal amount of ultra stickers here, from teams all over the country as well as Europe, and its not long until I’m wandering along, scouring every possible spot, trying to find a new one for the collection, thankfully for Tom and the content of this blog, not too many new ones have been added since our last visit, so it doesn't take me long to document the new additions.
‘Burning Down The House’ by Talking Heads crackles over the sound system, and has to compete with the noise being made by both teams warming up on the pitch.
“I’m starving” announces Tom, and he is in luck, because not only are DH known for their impressive turnouts and support, but I’ve heard the food on offer here has got a fair few people excited in the past, a step up from the raw onion, over cooked meat pattie he is used too, and I think there is a good chance the small marquee in one corner of the ground, emitting a heady smell of lemongrass, might be a good place to start.
Taking in a lap of Champion Hill, it is hard not to be impressed by the facilities of the Ryman Premier League team. The main stand, the 'Tommy Jover Stand' is all seater, with the bar along its back, and a tiny clock perched on its top, opposite a covered standing terrace, and behind each goal an open section, with scaffolding to allow the fans to hang banners. At one end two stripes one pink and one blue decorate the fence, in the middle “Up The Hamlet”.
However, for me what is of most interest, are the home fans efforts to personalize the ground. Admittedly the surroundings are modern, functional and a bit drab, however the touches of colour and in particular one section of the ground dedicated to recognising past players, is particularly awesome. “On the fields of Champion Hill” it reads, in pink and blue of course, dotted around it are gold stenciled frames, each one with the image of a different player from the clubs past, imagine a cross between a Banksy, and the wall of photographs your Great Aunt or Grandmother has of all the members of your family.
“Welcome to Champion Hill and a special welcome to our visitors Hendon” announces the voice over the speakers. “Our man on the burger bar is in Cyprus, so you'll be going a long way for one” he tells a hungry public, such is Tom's commitment to football food, I’m sure I see him checking flights on his phone. Today is an FA Cup game, and not a league one, and because of this the voice informs all, with an obvious hint of displeasure that the “outside bar” will not be opening, he is quick to make sure that any miffed punters aim their strongly worded letters at the right people “not our regulation” he makes clear, but that of the FA. When he reads out the teams, he also reads out the sponsors of the players as well, one who I think I hear correctly is sponsored by the “Camberwell Green Under 11’s”, which only reinforces what is wrong with modern football, these big time charlie ten years olds dishing out the moola.
Following the news of a certain person's ill timed trip to the Mediterranean, Tom tells me, just like how my son does when he tells me, he doesn’t want to eat his vegetables “I don't want Thai food”. I distract him from thoughts of his stomach, with his second favorite thing to do at football, shopping, to be precise shopping for a pin. Inside the “mega container” as it’s described by the stadium announcer, the club shop, a pink and blue, that goes without saying really, shipping container, with coats rails outside, and a most impressive selection of merchandise.
It is not however where you get a programme, or match day magazine, which is becoming a more common name to give it these days, they are from the lone man with the Sainsbury bags at his feet and an armful of the ‘Pink’N’Blue’. He looks like he would quite like a spot in the container, a little corner to call his own, but maybe he is a lone wolf, happy to stand by a brick wall with a sign hanging just beside him, "programmes on sale here".
“Looks quite nice doesn't it” says Tom, after seeing what's on offer at the oriental eatery and the fact they have “dumplings” means he may well be swayed to trying a curry or at least something that isn't a boiled hotdog. Considering he once brought couscous to a match, I would have thought it would be right up his street.
The buzz notifying each team its game time, can be heard from behind the door of each changing room, at the end of the long narrow white corridor at the base of the main stand. No need for any extra encouragement from the linesman today, as both teams promptly appear, and in the tight conditions jostle for position, queuing up shoulder to shoulder, in two single file rows. “Ref” says a woman to the man in charge, who is waiting on the teams “Hendon this side” she tells him, pointing to one side of the tunnel “Dulwich this side”, pointing to the other, “superstition”, she explains.
“Come on Dulwich” shouts someone in the crowd as they emerge after crossing the DH pink and blue door mat at the mouth of the the tunnel, and onto the pitch. The mascots each get a high five from one of the home coaches, but only after he has had to hurry them off the pitch.
We join ‘The Rabble’ and their immense pink and blue scarf that has been hung behind the goal, and our proximity to the food, has reduced Tom to leering and dribbling at a man chopping up what I think is meat, with a giant cleaver, and he finally succumbs “I’m gonna have to eat”.
DH get the first chance of the match, and HFC go close themselves, shortly after, in front of the small turnout of their fans behind the opposite goal, a group we might be well advised to steer clear of, because they could rightly consider us a bit of a bad luck charm. The last two times we have seen them, they lost, once in a promotion play off final and secondly at the end of last season in the London FA cup final, so we should keep a low profile around anyone in green and white.
Despite the game being a little subdued, the crowd are far from it, “la, la, la Dulwich” they sing, one fan swooshing a flag as he does, which is quickly followed by another chant “super Dulwich from the Hill, know one knows us, but we don’t care”. Now I’m not sure that is completely true, DH might just be the most written about non league team going, admittedly for all the right reasons: their community work, their stance on anti fascism, anti homophobia, their remarkable attendances for a club at this level, but this perhaps also has its downside, as they have become a bit of a destination for those who want to be seen there, for those who want to check in on Facebook, people for who the football is not their main concern, but that they are now able to tell people they have been to Champion Hill, and in turn accruing some bonus points on the trendy scale.
This is perhaps illustrated perfectly by the man about 20 minutes into the match who asks me “who are Dulwich playing?”, I tell him and he asks me “where are they?” thinking he means what league, what step of the football pyramid, I tell him they are in the same division, but I was wrong “no where in the country” he asks. Maybe I’m being unkind, geography is not everyone's strong point, and maybe I’m being judgemental, and his tighter than tight jeans, disheveled trench coat, and ironic white socks half way up his shins, doesn't put him in the ‘hipster’ bracket, but it screamed to me that his interest was not in the football.
“I could eat dumplings all day” mumbles Tom, still chewing one on his return, and I must admit I have a bit of a penchant for them to, so I accept Tom’s kind offer, daintily plucking one from the Styrofoam bowl, and elegantly nibbling on it. About halfway through it though, it’s deliciousness overwhelms me, I finish my first one will all the dignity of the fucking cookie monster, polish off the remaining few, and quickly fill Toms hand with change, sending him and his shocked face to get more, they were wicked.
DH have a chance cleared off the line, however this is inconsequential when Tom returns once again, with only three instead of the advertised five dumplings. Has he eaten them already, was I such a dumpling fiend before that he had to eat them before getting back, as to make sure he got some? Thankfully the answer is ‘no’, the woman behind the stall just has to make some more, stand down everyone, panic over, there are more dumplings!
Some of the fans around us get their house keys out, and start jingling them. Having first seen this certain phenomenon in Berlin, and thinking at the time it was some kind of polite distraction technique by the fans as opposed to shouting obscenities, when the away team took a corner or nearby free kick, it was not until returning to England, and reading about it, that I realised exactly what they were doing and now seeing it for myself for the first time since, it becomes clear that it is not to put off the opposition it is in fact to highlight a ‘key decision, or moment’ in the match.
Unfortunately, any such moments are a bit thin on the ground, and the game is getting a little bit bad tempered, “come on it's all fun and games everyone” says one person next to us, she could do with saying it a little louder and directing it at the HFC number 6 who we have seen be a bit of a naughty boy before, but that’s for another time, because today it looks like he has elbowed a player behind the referee's back, and got away it. “No idea how he didn't get booked” says one shocked supporter, “Ryman North is calling number 6” shouts one gruff fan, who thinks he might be a bit out his league and the person who wants everyone to remember it’s all “fun and games”, describes his antics akin to how someone would describe a child who's been caught scrumping in ‘Swallows and Amazons’, “oh he’s a little rascal”.
Like the fumbling addict I am, when the man passes us offering “50/50 tickets” for “£1” I'm all fingers and thumbs as I rifle through my pockets, dropping my coins on the floor, but recovering them and completing the all important transaction. Tom an addict all of his own, just for different substances, wants more dumplings, which up until now are about the most interesting thing that’s happened this half, as the game continues to descend into a bit of a fractious one and Tom mutters his timeless catchphrase “someone is getting sent off” after a DH player this time gets a yellow for what looks like a punch and HFC’s number 6 is back at it again, with Arthur Ransome suggesting “he needs to control himself, he has a short fuse”.
“Score in a minute, we're gonna score in a minute” sing ‘The Rabble’ and two dogs, who I can’t confirm were singing, after on the stroke of halftime, HFC score, and in doing so, they push the dumplings off the top spot of the most interesting things to happen.
We join the tail end of the blue and pink move to the other end of the pitch, but not before we watch one fan scale the scaffold and take down the uber striped scarf, fold it carefully with a fellow supporter, all ready to put it up again down the other end. When we get there a few are standing reading with paperbacks in hand, and some have clearly nipped to the nearby Sainsbury's, and are tucking into all sorts, I guess they weren't digging the idea of Thai food either, they don't know what they are missing.
The halftime entertainment is the mascots having a kick about on the pitch, and getting a cheer when one scores against the other in the dwarfing goal. I almost have a moment when I hear “if you took part in the 50/50”, over the speakers, I scramble for my tickets as he reads the first number “6”, yes, come on, what are the rest? “603” DARN IT, mine is 693 and for a fraction of a second I had already spent the 100 odd pounds, that I now won't be claiming from the “boardroom”.
“Come on Dulwich” rings out as the teams appear again, unfortunately for the home team, but not so much for the away team, who would seem to have shaken off a certain ‘Two Men In Search Of……’ shaped monkey off their back, they score again, after about three minutes on the pitch. “Show some fucking passion” shouts a less than impressed home fan, one woman in the main stand lets out such a gut twisting, ear shattering “come on Dulwich” I fear it may have been her last words, the second goal calling time on her existence.
Despite going further behind, it has had the opposite effect on the crowd to what you might normally expect, the DH fans are now singing more than ever, “we’re pink and blue” and slowly but surely the keys are coming out more and more, DH are creating chances, but still seem a little lethargic and there is still an underlying tension between both sets of players. When a DH player clearly gives a HFC player a slap as he goes down and stays down, following a challenge, right in front of us, he gets little sympathy from those behind us, “call the hospital”.
“Save” say the relieved home supporters after HFC get their first chance since scoring their second, only for it to be kept out well by a strong single hand of the keeper, low down to his side, and not long after a curling DH shot hits the post and goes out, it happened so quickly the fans around us were unable to get their keys out quick enough.
“South London la, la, la” sing the supporters, “North London, wank, wank, wank”, hang on that's not very nice, admittedly parts are not great, but Muswell Hill is very nice in Spring “oh South London is wonderful” they finish, it’s ok I guess, Denmark Hill seems nice enough, however it’s no Crouch End.
Into the final moments a DH player shoots wide, after demands from the fans to do so, that is to shoot, not to put it wide, the fan who demanded the attempt, bemoans the players decision making “don't listen to me” he says, another suggests that DH have been a little “toothless” in attack. There are though always those who are positive, and take Eric Idle's advice and always look on the bright side of life, “we’re gonna win 3 - 2” sings one, another when the board for extra times goes up showing four minutes says to a friend “four minutes to score three goals”.
Only after leaving ‘The Rabble’, and now taking up position between the two perspex dugouts in front of the main stand, am I able to appreciate quite how many home fans we were standing among and quite how much I like the vast scarf. Perhaps only a foot or so away from me, the up close and personal dimensions of the ground lets me overhear one HFC coach say to another “great result against this mob”.
There is one last rally from the home fans, half chanting “blue army” the other half replying “pink army”, “blue army”, “pink army”, but it's not enough to muster the necessary goals, and DH are out of the FA Cup for another year.
A huge cheer goes up from the small away section of the directors box in the stand directly behind us, on the final whistle, the few visiting fans are quick to make their way to the tunnel to clap off their team, some holding their scarves above their heads. Although defeated the DH players approach their supporters behind the goal, applauding them for their considerable support.
"Worst competition to be a chairman" is how the man in charge at HFC, Simon Lawrence, describes the FA Cup, although you wouldn't know it from the Cheshire Cat grin he has on his face, after descending the stairs of the stand at 100 miles an hour, and coming to say hello. He confirms like so many people have done, that playing in the FA Cup still holds a lot of prestige for the players, "they don't think about the money" he explains, £4,000 to be precise is what HFC have just won, which Simon explains is "weeks of their budget" but what they are thinking about is that they are "playing the FA Cup".
The next potential prize fund is "£7,500" after that "£12, 500", thinking beyond that he explains starts to make him feel "giddy".
Practically skipping away, overjoyed with his teams performance, confirming as one of the coaches had done, that its quiet the result for them today, against a very good DH side, it is quiet the contrast to the last time we saw him. His mood then could be comparable to that of a thunderstorm, when we tried to talk to him after their loss in the Ryman Premier league play-off final, not the best timing on our part, the lighting bolts, should have been a clue, to leave him the hell alone.
We say good bye, and "have a good night", he looks back with a glint in his eye, "don't worry, I will". North West London lock up your daughters.