These articles are published in the Slough Town FC programme. The Rebels play in the National League South in a swanky new ground. I’ve been supporting Slough since the beginning of time despite now living in Brighton.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

CHAMPION HILL STREET BLUES

Printed in the National League South match v Dulwich Hamlet in Monday 27th August 2018 We lost 2-1 in front of 1010

It's good to back in the same league as our old friends Dulwich Hamlet. I love their evocative old name. Is there any other senior football team called Hamlet? And what about the kit. Who else dare play in pink and blue? I remember coach trips in my earlier Slough supporting days to their cavernous and crumbling old stadium where crowds of 200 rattled round in a ground built for thousands. Opened in 1931 it staged numerous Amateur Internationals and the Amateur Cup Final between Kingstonian and Stockton in 1932-33 that attracted a record crowd of 20,744.
In 1991, it was demolished as part of Sainsbury‘s redevelopment and the club moved opposite to a new home.
The last time Slough played at their new ground we outnumbered the home supporters, but thanks to a monumental effort behind the scenes, Dulwich were easily the best supported team in the Isthmian League. Then last March they were locked out of their ground, caught in the middle of a battle between an American property developer and Southwark Council. The developers - owned by a billion-pound New York hedge fund - bought the club in 2014 and promised to build a new ground if they got permission for new houses. With 20,000 families on the council housing waiting list Southwark quite rightly said that not enough of these houses were affordable. The developers retaliated by presenting the 125-year-old club with a rent bill of £121,000 and trademarked the club’s name saying they would have to pay to use it! They also rejected a £10 million bid from Rio Ferdinand’s social housing company Legacy.
Using the same savvy that has driven attendances, the club enlisted the support of many. From the Mayor of London to speeches in the Houses of Parliament to 1,200 people marching from East Dulwich to the padlocked gates of Champion Hill in protest.
So after 111 years in the Isthmian League promotion last season to the National League South was bittersweet, with Dulwich currently playing 'home' games at old rivals Totting and Mitcham's ground.
I chatted to Ben Sibley and Hugo Greenhalgh
How long have you been supporting Dulwich and have you got a role at the club?
Forward the Hamlet (FTH) 'Since 2014. I don't have an official role at the club but do host Dulwich Hamlet-focused podcast by the name of Forward The Hamlet with a pal, Hugo Greenhalgh.'
How's life in the National League South? How do you think you will do this season?
FTH 'Life in the National League South is as expected... tough. We are yet to be totally outclassed in a game but (at time of writing - Tuesday 21st August) have taken just 4 points from a possible 15. We have the quality to dominate games but we're not clinical enough up front, and we're making too many defensive mistakes at the other end. Teams are so much more streetwise at this level - their game management is on another level compared to the Isthmian Premier Division. I reckon as soon as our defence settles, we'll start picking up more points. If we can manage that, I think we'll be good for a mid-table finish. I'd be delighted with 14th or higher.'
What's the latest with the ground? 
FTH 'I'm not privy to conversations that may well be going on behind the scenes but as it stands we are still locked out of Champion Hill, with no real hope of returning soon. Owners of the stadium, US-based property developers Meadow Residential, continue to refuse to engage with Southwark council. The council made an offer to buy the site back in March - Meadow didn't even acknowledge it. Sports Minister Tracey Crouch told the House of Commons she is willing to find and appoint an independent mediator if negotiations between Meadow and the council fail but as yet, we've not seen this come to fruition.'
Is playing at Tooting affecting your crowds? 
FTH 'Yes - I would say our attendances are on average 40% lower.'
Just in the National League South yourselves, Truro and Gloucester are ground-sharing. Slough, Wealdstone, Chelmsford and Dartford were homeless for years, while Torquay have an uncertain future. What more needs to be done to protect football grounds and have them recognised as assets of community value?
FTH 'It needs to start from the top and the FA have been all too quiet on our situation, and on many others like us. It's frustrating that our current predicament is hardly a new one. The FA ought to be taking a more proactive approach to its member clubs and should be the first port of call when relationships break down with landowners. Perhaps a portion of the proposed £600m sale of Wembley Stadium could be allocated to help solve such disputes. Champion Hill was actually listed as an "Asset of Community Value" by Southwark Council in 2013 and of course this has proven to count for very little. Working with local government to ensure these statuses are more than just tokenistic is essential.'
The Battle for Champion Hill perfectly sums up the crazy way our society is run. When Mayor Khan came to a Dulwich game he met 99 year old Bill Kirby, a former anti-aircraft gunner who defended London during the Battle of Britain and who has been watching the Hamlet for 90 years! Khan said "You can see three or four generations here in the crowd, different races, different classes. There are so few places left in London that have that. It’s just corporate greed. Come here, buy a club, kick them out, build luxury flats. It’s going on across our country. But this time, the club, the council and the community have all stood together. It sounds like a romantic story, but it’s also the story of our city. I think Meadow will find they have made a big mistake."
It could be a long season for the club fighting on two fronts. Slough Town know from bitter experience how being homeless can seriously damage your health, so let's hope Dulwich can stay in the National League and with their friends in high places and people power defeat the developers and head back home. Infact let's hope society starts recognising the benefit football clubs bring to communities and give them much greater protection against property vultures and shareholders just out to make a fast buck.
* You can listen to the Forward the Hamlet podcasts here

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