The supporters of Dulwich Hamlet have enjoyed the last few years.
Since Gavin Rose took over as manager, the club have gone from strength to strength on the pitch, winning promotion to the Ryman Premier in 2013 playing an attacking brand of football that has seen the average attendance soar from around 200 to between 600 and 700 in a very short time. At the same time, Rose’s shrewd management skills have seen more than one player make his way up the pyramid into the Football League, earning the club large transfer fees in the process. Danny Carr left for Huddersfield as soon as the 2012/13 season was over and this summer, the much talked about Erhun Oztumer has gone to Peterborough United in League One.
However, everything at the club is not rosy and, behind the scenes, things have been getting decidedly unrosy whilst those on the pitch were gaining plaudits from all sides.
Financial mis-management and a sprinkling of what looked like apathy at best and downright dodgy dealings at worst by the former owner were eventually discovered midway through last season and the club was sold to that most feared of investors – a property development company – along with the site of Dulwich’s famous old ground, Champion Hill.
In February, the new owners – Hadley Property Group – held a public meeting after a home game which was attended by more than 300 people. However, despite many probing questions about their intentions, precious little information regarding the future of the club and the ground was forthcoming and the fans, as usual, were left wondering what to make of a very vague situation.
On the one hand, it was clear that the club had been saved from extinction by the new owners. Huge bills had been racked up by the Club with seemingly no intention of finding a way to pay them and the company first set about steadying the ship, earning the respect of many of the Club’s supporters. Matt Rimmer was put in charge of the project and within weeks, issues with unpaid bills, mis-management of the bar and a legal problem with a car wash business operating in the car park had been sorted out.
At the same time, no-one with any knowledge of investors in property – especially in London – was under the impression that Hadley were just benevolent do-gooders, stepping in to help out Little Dulwich Hamlet in their time of need. They paid the princely sum of £5.75m just to get their hands on the site – in a prime area of South London – and it wasn’t ever likely that that money was charity.
Property development companies like to develop property. But how?
On Saturday, the developers – along with their architects and the PR company Four Communications – held a public consultation at Champion Hill with locals and fans alike hoping to finally see what the future may hold for both the Club and the site.
As expected, it is Hadley’s intention to redevelop the site of the existing pitch and main stand although no firm plans regarding the precise nature of the development were displayed – not even the footprint of the new development.
I spoke to a representative from Four Communications who has previously been involved with football clubs such as Brentford (and their move to a new stadium) and Sunderland and he told me that Hadley had decided that the main stand – built in the early 90’s with the money Sainbury’s paid money for the original ground – did not make the best use of the space and therefore must go.
If they wish to build on the existing pitch, the developers are duty bound to provide suitable facilities for the football club and in this regard, they intend to develop a disused astroturf pitch – just behind one of the goals – into a brand new stadium, featuring a 4G pitch along with changing facilities and a bar.
The 4G aspect, for me, is a big draw. I have been hugely impressed with Maidstone’s Gallagher Stadium, having visited it several times since it opened a couple of years ago and it is very clear that the revenue they earn from being able to rent the pitch out during the week as well as the total lack of postponements of League fixtures in the winter is having a very positive impact on the finances of the club. In both of the previous two seasons, Dulwich’s home game with Maidstone – one which can make a large amount of money due to Maidstone’s huge away following – has been postponed and rescheduled to midweek, costing the club a large payout. It seems certain that the FA will change their stance on these new types of surfaces eventually and by ensuring that the pitch is future-proofed in this way, Hadley are doing the Club – as well as the local community – a huge favour, despite the obvious cost involved.
There is, however, one rather large stumbling block. The intended site of the new stadium is on a piece of land which is designated to be Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) by the government and, at least in theory, cannot be built on. Peter John, Leader of Southwark Council has been quoted as saying
Please be reassured. I have now told these people twice in the clearest terms that they will never build on or remove any MOL at Greendale.
According to Hadley’s rather vague diagrams and maps at the consultation, the new ground would have to encroach onto Greendale fields “slightly”, whilst also using some small proportion of the existing Champion Hill stadium area. During my discussion with the representative of the PR company, a local resident expressed his concern that this would be the “thin end of the wedge” and that the need for extra space around the pitch would inevitably require more of the open land to be used. There is clearly a huge political angle to all of this and the decisions of planners and local councils will have to take into account many viewpoints and will, as always, be affected by the direction of the political winds at the time.
I was informed that, if the plan to build on the disused astroturf was approved and Southwark Council were to sell it to Hadley, the new ground would probably be leased to the Club for a peppercorn rent and it was also suggested that any income from renting the pitch to others when it was not being used by the club would go directly to the football club, which seems to me a very dubious suggestion. I was told that , despite Hadley owning the pitch, it might be possible for some supporter’s group to obtain what was called a “golden share” in the site, ensuring that the owners could not sell the pitch on at a later date, leaving the club homeless, as so many clubs have been in the past.
Long term, Hadley have no interest in running a football club and would eventually look to hand the club back to be run by fans or another owner but it is not clear how this might happen and who it might be sold to or when. The only thing Hadley want to do is to build an unspecified number of residential units (one would assume) on the site of the existing Champion Hill, sell them, take their money and run. This is not a cheap venture for them, though – they have already spent nearly £6m to buy the site and once you factor in the costs of architects, PR companies, planning applications, construction of the actual development and building a new stadium with a 4G pitch, it is going to add up to a fair amount of money. Having said that, no-one is under any illusions about the amount of money that can be made by selling housing in the capital at the moment and there is clearly a bulky pot of gold laying in wait at the end the rainbow if they can find it.
In general, at least this far, Hadley’s influence has been nothing but positive. The Club has been saved and at long last, it feels as if someone is actually doing their best to run it in a vaguely competent manner. But there are far from any guarantees here. None of the promises regarding 4G pitches, peppercorn rent and golden shares have been confirmed by Hadley and it is by no means the case that the Club is in safe hands.
The real cause for concern – and for some the doomsday scenario – is what might happen if the planning application, when it comes, is refused and the development is cancelled. In the words of Four Communications, if that happens, Hadley will “walk away”. But what would this mean for Dulwich Hamlet?
A plot of land such as Champion Hill will not be worth anything like £5.75m if it’s been proved that the local council are not willing to contemplate developing it. One would assume that Hadley would have to sell to the highest bidder and accept a potentially huge loss. Who would they sell to? Would they be interested in continuing to help an ailing old football club? Let’s be honest, that would be very doubtful indeed. Unless the club could be run in a sustainable manner by whoever took it over, it would seem that another famous old club would be confined to the history books and disappear forever. With no football club to house, the owners of the ground would, presumably, then be within their rights to develop the site as they wished and the story will come to an inevitable, but sad, conclusion. Someone would make a hell of a lot of money but it won’t be any of us.
When discussing this issue at the consultation, the word Sainsbury’s was mentioned more than once. The suggestion appeared to be that the neighbours are such big hitters that they may hold enough sway with the local council (and government) that they might be able to succeed where others have failed. What they might actually want to do, only they would know but I was assured that their branch next to Champion Hill was one of the most profitable in the country so it seems unlikely that “propping up the non league football club next door” would be high on their agenda.
Hadley are asking for feedback on their embryonic plans and can be emailed at email@example.com – they are looking to hold a further consultation on the project later in the year, apparently – around September – when we may find out some more detail around the plans.
As with so many football clubs in the last 25 years, the future of Dulwich Hamlet is by no means certain. At this stage it is extremely hard to predict what will happen but the sceptics among us are certainly not convinced that there are enough people in this story who have the football club’s best interests at heart. The fact that crowds are up at Champion Hill and that the club is doing well gives us a better chance than we might have had a few years ago but that might count for nothing if the all-powerful might of the housing market has it’s way and forces yet another great club out of existence.