Is This Where You Learn To Love Football Again?

What does a Chelsea season ticket holder make of a trip to Isthmian League Dulwich Hamlet?

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I’d heard there was a football revolution happening. Behind a Sainsbury’s car park. In East Dulwich.

Friends of friends had mentioned it, local websites were dedicated to it and the national papers had got involved.

Talk was of a happy band of local fans, some disillusioned with the Premier League experience, some non-league stalwarts, some probably looking to get out of the house, who had put their support behind an Isthmian League team where the welcome was warm, the aggro is non-existent and you can drink beer while you watch. Like the footballing equivalent of Fight Club, without the black eyes.

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The club had a righteous feel, too – an alien concept for someone who only watches the Premier League – with a recent friendly game against Stonewall FC making the news and reports that DH FC supporters' groups had a utopian political bent and had a big say in how the club was run.

As a Chelsea season-ticket holder, I hadn’t paid it much notice. What’s the point in watching non-league football when you’re watching the Champions elect every week? And, to be honest, the words “community” and “grassroots” had always carried a worthiness that sounded like the opposite of fun. With rumours of hipsters and craft beer involved, I mentally earmarked it as a trendy bandwagon.

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Except, occasionally I started to question how much I was actually enjoying it. The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge could be poisonous, a cauldron of angry middle-aged men looking to vent their general disillusionment. Perhaps ‘friendly’ was an underrated concept after all. During one grim Champions League night in 2011, I’d been asked ‘outside’ by a man well into his fifties and who was apparently too angry to realise we were outside already.

The £1,000 a season cost, the 3 hour round-trip for every home game, and despite the club’s success, the football itself.

The chance to watch Eden Hazard every week was a genuine privilege but Mourinho’s tactics and the expectations to win at all costs did not exactly make for edge of the seat excitement every week. What was the purpose of it all?

With Chelsea edging closer to the title, Dulwich’s home tie against play-off rivals Enfield Town felt like an opportunity to see just how different – or similar – these two footballing worlds could be.

On arrival at the ground, the ticket queue, adjacent to a car wash, was much longer than the one to get into The Shed at Stamford Bridge. On the side of the stand stood the year this club was founded in 1893, 12 years before Chelsea. This stadium Champion Hill was built in 1991, their previous ground hosted matches at the 1948 Olympics.

The £10 entry instinctively felt steep but then what can you get for a tenner these days?

The Dulwich Ultras, bedecked in pink and blue, looked more like the queue at a village fete than a band of hardcore football fans. Beards mingled with baby harnesses. This is Dulwich after all.

With three minutes to go until kick-off, the casual air of general bonhomie provided an interesting contrast to the swagger, bravado and back-shoving that preceded entry into Stamford Bridge.

Where to get a beer? There’s a main stand on one side with actual seats and inside of which is a long bar with TV screens and windows overlooking the pitch. Far more impressive than the concrete corridor I’m used to.

Outside again to watch the game with beer in hand and the most striking difference is how loudly and frequently the players talk to each other, communication that gets drowned out amid the crowd in the Premier League.

After a promising first few minutes in which Dulwich string a few passes together, the combination of bobbly pitch, superquick pace and, possibly, Isthmian League technique, sees the game descend into a frantic affair, with hopeful balls into the channels the preferred tactic.

“We’ve been dire today,” one apparent regular tells us. “Dire.” At least that suggested things were usually better.

The real novelty was being able to move around the ground as you liked. One minute behind the goal, then stroll up to the halfway line for a different view. And back to the bar. Because when the football isn’t always compelling, you don’t mind missing a bit. This was more like the cricket. I could get used to this.

A small band of 50 odd away fans standd stoically behind the Enfield goal, swapping with the Dulwich Ultras at half-time, which seems a very civilised practice. Probably gets a bit more tense when Dulwich rivals Tooting and Leatherhead come to Champion Hill. Probably not.

At the urinals, that fail-safe sanctuary of awful banter with strangers, a voice from next door asks me, “you’re not Enfield are ya?” Except instead of threatening violence, I realised he was just interested to know.

Dulwich eased into a 2-0 lead, but the second half saw Enfield pushing hard with Dulwich defending deep and counter-attacking when they could. If the skill levels weren’t necessarily impressive, the fitness levels definitely were.

A spot right next to the dugouts brought an added sense of drama as Enfield pulled one back and had a man sent off. I bumped into the waiter from my local French restaurant, and a guy from the pub at the end of my road.

As the whistle blew and a healthy 1100 strong crowd finished their ciders and rounded up their children, the Dulwich players walked around the ground, applauding the home fans in much the same way as they do at The Bridge. Football rituals don’t change that much whatever level you’re at.

On the walk home I realised I had talked to as many people in one game as I had over the entire season at Chelsea.  Maybe it was the beer, the sun and the proximity to my house. Or maybe there is a reminder here for just how relaxed and enjoyable watching football can be.

Two weeks later, a record crowd of 3,000 saw Dulwich draw 2-2 with league leaders Maidstone United to secure thir spot in the play-offs. Local site Brixton Buzz described scenes at the final whistle as "reminiscent of a top notch ecstasy rave of the 90s as both sets of fans took to the pitch and hugged and applauded each other". I was at Stamford Bridge watching Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0. It should have been a season highlight but a little part of me wished I was back in the car park.