Mixing with the locals

By - Tuesday 10th February, 2015

As ticket prices rocket and FIFA plummets into a cesspit of shamelessness and corruption, join Nadim Lilani as he seeks refuge on the non-league terraces of South London. Featuring: alternative chants, Austrian hot dogs, 2,000+ crowds and lots of mud

Disillusion is rife amongst football fans in England. Astronomical ticket prices, business moguls opting for flashy brand names over tradition, perpetual playacting, the ethical storm surrounding Ched Evans – oh, and lest we forget the lord of the underworld himself – FIFA President Sepp Blatter – under threat of being usurped by a shameless publicity stunt involving Paddy Power and their good old mate, David Ginola. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a mess.

What’s fun about dragging yourself through muddy side roads just to stand out in the cold for a couple of hours?

Unless you peer down far enough to see what is brewing below the fourth level of England’s footballing pyramid. In the depths of the nation’s concrete jungles lies a glimmer of hope: namely, non-league football.

Granted – it looks like a slow burner, an acquired taste. But think of it this way: your nearest seventh division ground is very much like a local haunt. It’s not glamorous or squeaky-clean, yet it emanates a friendly aura. Before being advised of its existence, you’re likely to write it off. Why should I drag myself through muddy side roads and unkempt car parks just for this? What’s the fun in standing in the cold for a couple of hours?

A record crowd of 2,856 saw Dulwich Hamlet draw 2-2 with Hampton & Richmond Borough in September

The weather conditions are easily forgotten though, when the customer service is refreshingly brilliant; when your half-time snack consists of a authentic Austrian hot dog rather than a processed piece of nothingness; when a trip to the toilet does not require a pre-full time exit; when you’re stood just yards away from a local lad as he wallops in a 30-yard winner – and celebrates with absolute mud-stained, rain-drenched zest.

There’s a communal aspect, as well. To actively engage with your local team is great; to do it with like-minded folk is even better. You’ll encounter people who have come along for the same reasons: the convenience, the atmosphere, the affordability – and probably the Austrian hot dogs, too. Local fan bases are like the queues in Primark on a Thursday evening – ever-growing.

Let’s look at a concrete example: Dulwich Hamlet FC. Last Saturday the South Londoners enjoyed an away day at Margate – and the travelling contingent totted up at around 400. The home attendance record was broken last September, with a crowd of 2,856 witnessing a 2-2 draw with Hampton & Richmond Borough. A ‘pay what you like’ policy was used, in order to raise community awareness of the club. The match took place on ‘non-league day’ – which happens during football’s international break once every year – in order to whip up more interest and support for lower league teams, to foster a sense of community. Sure enough, it worked a treat: Dulwich’s mayor and mayoress were in attendance and greeted the teams before kick-off.

The Dulwich Hamlet Ultras – or ‘Dultras’ – happily serenade their team as ‘South London’s number one’

This could be described as a one-off, but only up to a certain extent. Crowds of this size are becoming the norm rather than an anomaly at Dulwich’s Champion Hill. The average attendance at home league games between 9th December and 13th January stood at a mighty 830.

And don’t feel under any obligation to dump your soccer squeeze to fully enjoy yourself, either. The Dulwich Hamlet Ultras – whose identity is often neatly packaged into the two-syllable “Dultras” – happily serenade their team as “South London’s number one” and “The Pink and Blue Army”, without enduring pangs of guilt. Most of them will still pursue their first love – be it Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Chelsea or Millwall – and watch them in action whenever  finances and TV rights allow them to. They won’t enjoy it half as much as roaring on the Pink and Blues at Champion Hill, mind.

Wanderers FC round-up

If you’re hungry for goalfests, then head down to The Mayfield Stadium. Wanderers’ first three league fixtures at their new ground have seen a whopping 19 goals scored in total. Sadly not all of the 19 have been plundered by the home side. Their hotly-anticipated Mayfield debut (on 29th November) started with rich promise – a 5th minute goal from Nathaniel Smithies only serving to crank up the volume. Visiting side AFC Ewell are flying high in the league though, and they proved to be the most ruthless of housewarming party poopers – hitting back four times without reply.

A fortnight’s rest turned out to be the perfect tonic for Wanderers. On 13th December they almost reversed the scoreline of their last match, notching up an impressive 4-2 win over Norbiton Dragons. The Dragons came to Mayfield as league leaders, but their flames were well and truly extinguished thanks to a Smithies double, and a goal apiece for James Byrne and Simon Edwards. The less said about the following game – a 6-2 home reverse to Trinity Reserves – the better.

Nathaniel Smithies did his best Lionel Messi impression early in the second half  to give Wanderers the lead against the league leaders

But what’s that? A chance of almost instant reprieve against AFC Ewell, I hear you ask? Indeed there was, with the away fixture taking place on 10th December. It was a bit like watching Barcelona in their pomp, with Wanderers passing their way through Ewell at will. And Smithies did his best Lionel Messi impression early in the second half – finishing off a flowing move to grab his 4th goal in as many games. It was not to be, as Ewell eventually equalized to leave the final score at 1-1. The signs were positive for the former FA Cup winners though. Watch this space.

Read articles like this – and many more – in our monthly print magazine

Politics, reviews, photography, #Croydon #TechCity, sports and plenty more besides: Our monthly print newsmagazine brings all the most relevant, features, news, opinion and analysis together into a single publication. Written entirely by citizens, it’s the perfect way to catch up on what really matters to Croydon over a drink or a coffee, or on the way to work.

You can find the magazine in venues all over the London Borough of Croydon.

Get your copy today. Write for the Citizen and you may well see your own article next time you pick it up.

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani

Nadim Lilani is a recent Hispanic Studies graduate from the University of Birmingham. A keen football fan and writer, he enjoys expressing his love for Croydon by documenting all things sport in south London.

More Posts - Website - Twitter