Non-League Highs

In recent months I’ve been to watch two different non-league teams – Chippenham Town FC and Dulwich Hamlet FC.The connections? The ‘Hamlet’ was my late Grandad’s team. He grew up and lived in South London, Camberwell, and he was invited (I’ve seen the invitation postcards) to play in several reserve games for Dulwich during his youth. Whenever he looked after me and they were playing we both at home took me to see them play. Later, in my early teens, my Grandad and I went to nearly every game. At the time due to circumstances out of my control I wasn’t able to attend Arsenal matches so Dulwich became my adopted team.
Chippenham Town is where my mother has a second home. If my own family get the chance we head down there for a relaxing weekend getaway from the ‘big smoke’. The last two times we took a break to Chippenham, including a long break, I took my son to see 2 of their league matches.
Chippenham_stand_smallChippenham Town FC are based in Wiltshire and play in the Evo-Stick league Southern Premier Division. The “Bluebirds”, as they are known, play at Hardenhuish Park which is a nice 10-15 minute stroll from the centre of town. The ground holds 2,815 (500 of which are seated) and has a small main stand which includes the players tunnel, changing rooms and has a bar above that looks out toward the pitch. The opposite side to
the main stand is corrugated aluminium covered shelter which runs the length of pitch. This side also is where you find the manager benches looking back to the stand. There’s a fun looking mini 3 step steel covered terrace behind one goal where fans stand and sing together. It slightly reminds me of standing at the back on the Clockend right under the executive boxes, possibly like what the Northbank was like at the back. The other goal is open-to-the elements with concrete steps.

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The Bristol Road End. Like the very back of the Northbank?

My son and I got to the ground 20 minutes early on a beautiful sunny Saturday. I bought my programme outside from the lady sitting behind a table and paid my entrance fee (£10 Adult, £4 child) to the only turnstile attendant. The entrance is in the corner of the ground and you enter into the ground you first see both the “VIP lounge” (a plush & modern portacabin) and the Food & Drink shack. As you look at the pitch it wouldn’t be wrong to say the pitch is on a hill running down towards you. We walked towards main stand to take our positions for the game but as I didn’t pay the £1 extra for a seated ticket you’re diverted behind the main stand. Walking around the back of the main stand you pass two sets of fire escape steps positioned at either end of the stand which you realise is the entrance to the club bar. Through thin walls you can hear players or managers hyping themselves or their players up for the match. Now the other side of the stand we walk passed the Directors box, 2 plush porta cabins stacked on top of each other, and settle in front of the club shop (A hut). The match starts and Chippenham are kicking uphill in the first half and my son already fancies a change of view. I didn’t complain as we’re in the shade so we walk behind the goal and stood virtually opposite to our original position. I’d already noticed as we walked around that my son is eye level with the top of the metal bar fence that surrounds that side of the pitch. Luckily I spot that the floodlights on that side of the ground have square concrete bases, perfect to raise my son an extra 2 foot off the ground!
IMG_6582During the first half one of the balls go flying out the ground. Hardly difficult feat with a small ground. BANG! as the ball crashes above our heads on the corrugated tin shelter. I’d pre-warned my son earlier about being so close to the action and that he should protect himself in case a ball was cleared or deflects to our direction however I didn’t think to warn him about the noise tin makes. A replacement ball arrives via the bench for the throw to Chippenham. The player, Andy Sandell, wipes his hands ready for the long throw in the box and stands directly next to me. To my son this is surreal he’s touching distance. We’re either side of the fence. Sandell is pitch side leaning back against the fence that we’re resting on ready to launch the ball. To my son this is a different world to that of the Emirates.

Late in the first half there’s a penalty claim. A ball touches the hand of one of the opposing players who quickly clears. The referee blows but only for a freekick outside of the box. The Chippenham players protest to the referee and the linesman, who’s running the line on our side and end of the pitch starts to get an ear bashing from the small numbers of fans nearby. Even I directed a word!

Both my son and I it was clearly inside the area. The official photographer (a home supporter) also angered has photographic evidence and the players warming behind the ‘lino’question him too. The referee now not convinced of Chippenham Townhis own decision decides to consult his fellow official trots over to us. We clearly hear the brief conversation which is only 12 feet away and the linesman agrees with the ref that was outside.
Bedlam! This infuriates the players and fans more. As I shout to the linesman “look where you’re standing! You’ve not moved [inline] outside of the box!”. In a broad West Country accent one of the other subs agree with me and we have a very brief conversation about the lunacy of the decision.

In truth we see these claims each week in the Premier league and the same reactions from players too. However being this close it feels so much more personal.

Take a moment to forget about the emotions of the event that took place and look at what just happened. I’m chatting to a player about the ref. You wouldn’t see an Arsenal player warming up and having an agreed discussion about ‘how much of a joke’ the officials are!

We stay on the same side for the second half but move down to the other end. Now Chippenham are kicking downhill.
The game finished 1-1 and the official attendance was 366. It was a lovely day, some decent football but ultimately we both really enjoyed it.
(Official match report: http://www.pitchero.com/clubs/chippenhamtown/teams/8730/match-centre/1-2191072)

Dulwich Hamlet are a slightly different kettle of fish.
Based in South ‘Laarrndon’ and although in different leagues play in the same regional equivalent divisions – The Isthmian [Rymans] League Premier Division. Both Chippenham and Dulwich are in regional subdivisions of the Pyramid system. If both were promoted they would meet together in the National league South (the old conference South) which is then one step away from the National League.

ChampionHill
The Original Champion Hill Ground
OldTimes
Tough times in 1987.

The ‘Hamlet’ play at Champion Hill. I remember visiting the original ground with its steeped terraces and in its heyday would often see attendances of 20,000 and the ground was used in the 1948 Olympic Games.

Due to financial problems part of the ground was sold off to the supermarket Sainsbury’s and a smaller but more modern ground opened on the same
site in 1992. It’s here that I really remember Dulwich and spent a couple of seasons going both home and away with my grandad. Although away games in a regional league doesn’t meant much as games are mostly spent in different corners of London if not just outside. The furthest we travel was by coach provided by the club to Cheltenham for a (I believe) FA Trophy fixture. I even recall one season watching a 6 foot lanky striker on loan from Tottenham going by the name of Peter Crouch.

The Hill
The current Champion Hill.

“The Hill” has a large stand, even 24 years on it still remains as a modern structure, and quite a contrast to that of Chippenham Towns with their porta cabins. Inside the stand is a large bar which serves as a function venue on non-match days. You can choose to watch the match in the warmth of the bar viewing through double-glazed windows. Most choose to take their pints outside to sit in the stand or around the ground. Opposite the main stand is the only other covered section but other than that you’d get wet unlike Chippenham with their pitch length covering. Both ends behind the goal are open concrete steps.

When I attended back in the 90’s attendances were only slightly larger than that of Chippenham however Dulwich were then one division lower in the Isthmian league One. Now the club has seen a change in fortune off the pitch bringing in much larger attendances which has also resulted in change of fortunes on the pitch, including a promotion to the Isthmian Premier which they are now in. The gentrification of Dulwich and its surrounding areas Dulwich appear to have been able to attract young hipster generation. The entrance fees are similar to that of Chippenham; £10 for an adult and concessions £4. However with Kings College Hospital up the road including the campus of the University of the same name the £4 concession fee applies to the following:

    • Seniors – 60+
    • Teenagers (13-19)
    • Unemployed (JSA)
    • NHS Staff
    • Blue Light Services
    • Serving Members of the Armed Forces
    • Full Time Students. (Please bring a form of valid ID for your concession as you may not admitted without that)
    • Under 13s FREE accompanied by a paying adult
Dulwich-Hamlet-fans-2
The new Dulwich following

Unlike fess at Chippenham I didn’t have to pay for my son. Likewise that above list of concessions serves a large section of the community most of which are young impressionable individuals. I can’t recall if you could previously drink around the ground but now it’s welcomed. This means that many, and I’m talking hundreds watch the game with a drink in their hand.
The Hamlet is the new pub.
Rather than sit with your mates in a pub on a Saturday you can ‘have a couple’ whilst taking in a live game. Like Arsenal it’s not just male orientated very mix and I’d say almost festival like. I still recall some of the old faces but they’ve been joined and welcomed by this new flow of supporters.
Just look at the attendance figures for last year:
Dulwich’s average attendance for the 2015/16 season is the highest by some margin; 1,343. Their lowest attendance was 555.
Compare this figure to the team below Dulwich in this same attendance table; Hampton & Richmond Borough’s average was 523. That’s lower than Dulwich’s lowest attendance!
The average attendance for the rest of the Isthmian Premier league is around 270.

Fans

It’s also worth noting that this new support which Dulwich continue to gain are also becoming supporters and are following the Hamlet away. Many of the other clubs highest attendance figures that season were when Dulwich were their guests.
There’s a real buzz about following Dulwich.

When you spend over £2,000 on two season tickets at the Arsenal with its sterile & corporate atmosphere and the shiny plastic appearance feels it’s nice to be brought back to ground.

Visiting these grounds has a real nostalgic appeal to it.

Firstly you can stand. Most of us like standing and I’m fortunate enough that I’m able to at the Emirates. Plus you can drink whilst watching a sport we all love. On a hot summers day there’s nothing better than being able to drink, even better whilst being a spectator or supporter. I wouldn’t encourage this at Arsenal as it works with smaller numbers. There’s some fantastic and original chants. There’s the direct banter with the players and even the officials. When you’re so close to the action there’s some really funny comments which you know the players have heard. The players themselves are more connected to the fans. I heard a Chippenham player, warming up, talk admiringly about a well known fans new attire. That’s like Chamberlin warming up and commenting on ‘Bully’s new bandanna’!  The players really appreciate the support. I’m not saying that Arsenal players don’t but it’s harder to tell whether they do or if they are just going through the motions. The clubs themselves are very connected to the fans, mainly as fans hold roles within the club. The club need them as much as the fans need the club. These clubs are very much part of the community with local businesses supporting the clubs and vice versa.
Every element from the club to the players, to the fans, the community and local businesses work together in unison.

When (I don’t think this is going to be an “if”) I get priced out of affording a season ticket at Arsenal it’s nice to know that I’ve got options to continue watching some fantastic and fun live football. I love it and can’t wait to go back!

Have you any experience of visiting either of these teams and/or grounds or had other similar non-league experiences? Let me know.

B5G

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