I seem to recall in a recent post explaining why I tend to fly solo on my new ground treks. For a start, who else but me would want to catch an afternoon coach down to London, and not get back home until 3 in the morning, just to see a game of football between two teams to which I hold no allegiance whatsoever? Exactly. It’s not that I don’t get on with other people, although I grant you that I do adopt a Victor Meldrew approach to those who seem to think the world revolves only around themselves.
Like the dusky young woman on the return coach who insists on mobile-phone-giggling to her boyfriend for most of the early hours journey, before unleashing some drum and bass on the sleeping bus. I have my two-penneth and it goes quiet. Cretin! Then there’s the chain smoker (I bet you a pound to a penny) coughing her guts up on the train out to Dulwich. You can see fellow passengers frantically drawing invisible veils over their noses and mouths, lest they catch something terminal.
But there’s decent people out there too, like Jamie Hooper who runs Hoopers Bar just a short walk from Hamlet’s Champion Hill ground. He’s not at the pub when I arrive, having been unexpectedly diverted, but takes time out to call my mobile to apologise. Not necessary, Jamie, I’m enjoying your pub immensely. Where else can you find such an impressive array of microbeers primarily from breweries with London postcodes, the notable exception being the powerful Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, one of my all-time favourite ales. Hoopers is predominantly a big open-plan pub but there is a small cosy snug at the back. I have time to sample beers from Ha’Penny and Dorking breweries before making the five minute walk to the ground.
Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium is a bit of a surprise when you first see it, situated as it is right next to a Sainsbury’s Superstore. It almost looks part of the building. At Superstore level it’s Hamlet’s health club, and a sizeable clubhouse bar with two big screens, windows that look out onto the pitch, and a bar sporting four handpumps. Sadly on the night, there’s no evidence that these are in use. Two have the Fullers-shaped clips turned round, whilst the other two are entirely clip-less. The only consolation is bottles of London Pride and Directors in the fridge.
Down towards pitch level, the tiers of an impressive main stand dominate the eyeline, particularly when viewed from the far side where there’s a short covered terrace. At either end is uncovered raised terracing. Some high netting around the ground is supposed to stop stray ‘ave-it clearances from disappearing into neighbouring undergrowth, but in truth these are virtually ineffective, and a steady stream of substitute balls is in constant flow.
I take up position for the kick-off having procured a cheese cob from the snack bar, this being the only suitable thing for the travelling veggie. It’s a bright sight on-pitch with the pink and blue of Dulwich contrasting with the black and yellow diagonals of visiting Fleet Town. Looks more like two rugby league strips! The pitch is hard, the ball made of elastic, the breeze quite vigorous, and the players jet-propelled so we get quite a bit of headless chicken stuff in a first half where Hamlet – the lowest ranked of the teams – make most of the chances but can’t breach Town’s rearguard. In fact Fleet, despite being just outside the play-off positions, seen content to hump it and hope for an opportune bounce. When the home side do take the lead just after the break it’s a well-worked goal and not undeserved.
If anything, the pace of the game gets even more frenetic and I can’t help thinking that Hamlet will regret missing several good chances as Fleet begin to threaten at long last. In fact, the last fifteen minutes of the game is as eventful and exciting as anything I’ve seen this season. How it finishes at 1-0 I’ll never know!
I retire to the bar where half of the crowd seem to have spent most of the second half watching the Chelsea match on TV. Surely they could have saved £8 entrance fee and done that at home. What would Victor Meldrew have said? I don’t believe it! Then again, they’d probably all find me just as hard to fathom out as I set off on my six hour journey to bed.
Programme: £1.50 from a table just inside the turnstile. Run-of-the-mill. Cover design looks like some girls playing netball.
Floodlight pylons: 4
Parakeets: Just a solitary Robin singing away
Toilets: The ones under the stand are shut so you have to use the ones in the bar.
Club Shop: Scarves and badges on sale from the programme man
Tannoy music: Escapes me….
Player with the quirkiest name: Hamlet’s Alim ‘What’ Sesay