DULWICH HAMLET, one of non-league football’s most celebrated names with a rich and colourful history, unusual strip and a modern social movement that has seen crowds soar from a very lowly position, will be weeping this weekend.
The club’s most devoted fan, Mishi Morath, died this week after enduring ill-health for much of 2019. A larger-than-life character, Mishi was a great lover of non-league football and understood its place in society.
He was typical of many stalwarts around the country, people that clubs like Dulwich rely on to carry the flame. He was instrumental in driving support for Dulwich when they looked like they were going to remain homeless and he was a great student of the club’s history. Not for nothing was he known as Mishi Dulwich Morath.
Mishi’s passing means there will be a gap on the terracing at Dulwich. Indeed, there will be something missing from South London non-league football. One of its great characters has seen his last game.
There are dozens of Mishi Morath’s around the country and mostly, they are taken for granted. They might be club officials, secretaries, gatemen, supporters club officers, stewards, in charge of hospitality, programme editors or just fans who pay their entrance fee every game for decades.
The devotee whose weekend is ruined by a bad result never truly gets repaid for their loyalty. The players can never feel as much pain or joy as the fan who never misses a game and considers the local “United” are his or her family. But in this age of great distractions, it is possible that we are seeing the gradual fade-out of the die-hard.
Mishi Morath was a much-loved figure at Dulwich and was instantly recognisable by fans at other clubs. He lent his support to a campaign to save Hitchin Town’s Top Field, speaking with intensity about the need to preserve non-league football grounds. His death is a reminder to clubs to cherish the people that do give up their time, their nervous systems and their energy in support of their local non-league club.
This weekend, we should not only remember Dulwich’s Mr Morath, we should also acknowledge that he epitomised the spirit of non-league football.
THE ongoing saga of Dulwich Hamlet is a sad story, for many reasons, and one that should cause non-league club chairmen and officials a few sleepless nights.
Not for the first time, a non-league club is being bullied by people who know how to manipulate and also, most importantly, how to use money and the law to get their own way. The club’s landlords are now being compared to a two-horned creature with cloven feet and a spiky tail.
But they won’t particularly care, for such people come from the hard-nosed world of high finance, of spin and corporate speak – the audience that’s against them at present amounts to 1,500 people that watch Dulwich and a relatively modest non-league audience. Not insignificant, but for big finance firms, some of whom are used to affecting entire cities, towns and investor bases by their actions, this is small beer.
More often than not, financial intrigue centres on property and in the case of Dulwich’s landlord, they are real estate investors as well as asset managers. Dulwich is one of London’s most sought-after locations – the average terrace house costs £800,000-plus and apartments come in at just under half a million. It’s a neighbourhood that has increasingly becoming the territory of investment bankers, hedge funders and other financiers. Non-league football won’t figure very high on the agenda for most of those residents, but Dulwich’s ground and surrounding areas are undoubtedly prime real estate sites.
It has always been tough in modern times for London-based non-league clubs to attract crowds and remain relevant, and Dulwich themselves went through a period where their crowds were painfully low. In 2008, they averaged 315 (actually respectable), but today they are one of non-league football’s better supported clubs with a vibrant fan base that has demonstrated its importance to the community. Moreover, having seen one of the club’s spokespeople in action, Mishi Morath, there’s real passion in this corner of South London.
Looking at the bigger picture, though, the events of the past few days should make non-league fans up and down the country think hard about the status of their own club. It appears to be all too easy for clubs to get bullied and that’s because of their status – most are run on a part-time basis with very few possessing the financial acumen to combat smart-talking businessmen who can loophole the system. Furthermore, many don’t have the critical mass to fight the assassins in dark suits that eye opportunity. This is where Dulwich have some significant advantages.
First of all, they are in London where the politics are shifting and the argument of “haves and have nots” is simmering away towards the next General Election. Football is a game of the masses, generally of the “have nots” and certainly at non-league level, not about high finance. This drama is very symbolic of the big man stepping on the little man.
Secondly, Dulwich have a very vocal and colourful following (and not because of the pink and blue shirts). They average almost 1,400 people per game, bettered only by 25 clubs in non-league football. For any club at Step 3 level, that’s very impressive, but for a London club, it is exceptional, especially as a decade ago, crowds were less than a quarter of the current level. Dulwich have been pointing the way to how the future of non-league could look, especially if big-time football continues to marginalise huge sections of its support. At the moment, only 36 non-league clubs nationwide can count on a crowd of 1,000-plus.
Should Dulwich fail, the repercussions for non-league football could be dramatic. It would send a signal that big finance can intimidate the little person, destroying micro-communities in the process. But fans can act to demand more transparency at their local club. Some have created community clubs where their financial affairs are available for scrutiny. But equally important is that fans should know who runs their club, what their business is and their background. Whenever a club gets inflated investment from an individual, the rumour mongers immediately start speculating on how “Mr Big” has made his money and frequently – and mostly unfairly – there are snipes about illegal sources.
In the financial world, the process of “Know your customer” has become more vital since the crisis of 2008, similar measures should be implemented in non-league football so that the men and women on the terrace know where their money is going and who is managing it.
Put bluntly, football without fans is a kick-about in front of an empty stadium. A crucial part of the game is its atmosphere, the buzz of the crowd feeding-off the players and the men on the pitch being motivated by the sound of applause, encouragement, criticism and that very contentious word, “banter”. Clubs have to cherish their supporters, make the “customer experience” enjoyable so that the baton is passed-on down the generations. They need to be treated with respect and clubs need to understand the value of gratitude.
So, the very best of luck to Dulwich, non-league football is counting on you to win through. Because you never know where the next property developer, hedge fund or investor will turn up. We should be asking, though, how many Dulwichs are out there?
DULWICH HAMLET have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, but back in the 1930s, they were one of the leading clubs in the amateur game. Big crowds flocked to their Champion Hill ground, especially for important cup-ties.
Dulwich were remarkably consistent in the late 1920s and through to the mid-1930s. In that period, they won the Isthmian League in 1932-33 and won no less than three FA Amateur Cups – 1932, 1934 and 1937. They also won the Amateur Cup in 1920 and were Isthmian champions in 1920 and 1926.
Their star man in the inter-war period was one Edgar Kail, who not only won 29 England caps, but also played three times for the full England eleven. He was selected in 1929 to take part in England’s European tour and played against Spain, Belgium and France, scoring twice against the French. Kail remains a Dulwich legend to this day.
Kail, who was born in 1900, was coming to the end of his career when Dulwich secured the Amateur Cup in 1932. It was a season that saw them finish just three points off the Isthmian title, which was won by Wimbledon. In the FA Amateur Cup, the run started with a win at Gorleston and gathered pace with a 7-1 trouncing of Cambridge Town. Stockton were beaten in round three after a replay and then Dulwich faced London rivals and eventual Isthmian runners-up Ilford. A crowd of almost 16,000 saw Dulwich beat Ilford 2-1, with Kail scoring the winner.
The semi-final was another local clash, this time against Kingstonian, and 27,000 saw Dulwich win 1-0 thanks to a 75th minute goal from Buster Court.
The final was easy going for Dulwich, a 7-1 win against Marine of the Liverpool Combination. The game, played at Upton Park, drew 22,000 and in a one-sided first half, Dulwich were kept to a single goal. But in the second half, they were rampant and scored six times to Marine’s single strike. The match was a personal triumph for Jack Moseley, who netted four times. Kail added two and the other goal came from George Goodliffe.
Dulwich were again in contention for the Isthmian title in 1932-33 and this time, they emerged triumphant, but only by the slenderest of margins. They succeeded in winning their last five games of the campaign to overcome the challenge of Leytonstone, the only team to beat Dulwich at Champion Hill in the league that season. Hamlet lost four away from home, at Ilford, Kingstonian, London Caledonians and Wimbledon (0-5).
In the FA Amateur Cup, Dulwich reached the last eight, but Kingstonian beat them 4-2 to avenge their semi-final defeat in 1932.
In 1933-34, Dulwich were knocking on the door again in both the league and Amateur Cup. Their Isthmian title only just slipped away from them, with two points separating champions Kingstonian from second-placed Hamlet, who had beaten them 5-1 earlier in the season.
The Amateur Cup was a hard road, with Finchley of the London League beaten 2-1 in round one. The came Athenian League champions Walthamstow Avenue, who went into a 2-0 lead at Champion Hill. Hamlet came back to win 3-2 with goals from Court and Goodliffe (2). The third round brought a short trip to Sutton United, a 3-1 win, before round four paired them with the Casuals, a game that was packed with amateur internationals. Once again, Court and Goodliffe came to the fore, scoring the goals that gave Dulwich a 2-1 win.
The semi-final was against Spartan League Metropolitan Police and two goals from Court were enough to see Hamlet through to the final, where they would meet Leyton of the Athenian League. Playing again at West Ham, Dulwich had to contend with a robust Leyton side. Dusty Miller was taken to hospital after a collision and Ernie Toser and Herbert Benka both sustained head injuries. Taffy Hamer also broke his nose. At the final whistle, with Dulwich 2-1 ahead (goals from Horace Robbins and Buster Court), they had just seven fit men on the pitch.
They almost retained the trophy the following year, but lost at the penultimate stage to eventual winners Bishop Auckland. In 1937, they beat Leyton again in the final 2-0 with Leslie Morrish scoring both goals. These were halcyon days in South London!