Amid scenes of wild jubilation at Champion Hill on the final day of last season, Dulwich Hamlet gained the point they needed to win the Ryman South championship and return to the League’s top flight for the first time since 2001. Now in their 107th season as members of the Isthmian League competition, theclub with the famous pink and navy blue shirts can boast an illustrious past. Indeed, between the two world wars, they were the giants of amateur football.
The Dulwich Hamlet Story began way back in 1893, during the closing years of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Towards the end of the summer that year, Lorraine Wilson was handed the princely sum of one shilling and eight pence (less than 10 pence in today’s coinage) by a couple of keen young footballers and asked to start a Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. ‘Pa’, as Mr Wilson was affectionately known, tackled the task with great relish and over the next thirty years, he helped to build Dulwich Hamlet into a powerful force.
Life in the early days was fairly tough. The club’s original ground in Woodwarde Road had no changing facilities. On match days the players used to walk half a mile through the streets of Dulwich Village to get from their dressing room to the pitch. Usually they had to carry the goalposts, crossbars, and corner flags with them. One consolation was that the players’ route took them through the gardens of the local inn where no doubt they paused on their return journey for a post-match drink or two!
Dulwich made their debut in competitive soccer when they joined the local Camberwell League in 1894/95. The following season the championship of that league’s ‘B’ Division became the first entry on what has proved to be a long list of honours. Achieving senior status in 1900, the club proceeded from strength to strength and in 1904/05, they won the Surrey Senior Cup for the first time. They have now won the Surrey Cup a record 16 times, most recently in 1974/75. In 1907 Dulwich gained election to the Isthmian League (now sponsored by Ryman), where they have remained ever since.
During the First World War, the legendary Edgar Kail joined Dulwich. In his brilliant fourteen-year career with the Hamlet after that war, Kail scored 427 goals (including a club record of 53 goals in the 1925/26 season). He also played three times for the FULL England International side, scoring twice on his debut against France. Kail helped Dulwich to the Isthmian League championship in 1919/20, 1925/26 and 1932/33, two FA Amateur Cup triumphs in 1919/20 and 1931/32, and the London Senior Cup in 1924/25. Another Hamlet legend of that era was goalkeeper Bert Coleman who gained a FULL England cap in 1921, keeping a clean sheet against Wales. Dulwich’s other major successes during their heyday between the wars were two more FA Amateur Cup wins in 1933/34 and 1936/37, and another London Senior Cup victory in 1938/39; they were also runners-up in the Isthmian League five times. Incidentally, their 7-1 win over Marine (Liverpool) in 1931/32 equalled the record score for an FA Amateur Cup Final.
Dulwich were quickly into their stride after the Second World War and in 1948/49 they were Isthmian League champions for a fourth time. In 1949/50 they lifted the London Senior Cup again, and it was in the same season that fullback Reg Merritt embarked upon a long career with the Hamlet during which he made a club record 576 appearances. One of the most popular players of the immediate post-war period was flying left-winger Tommy Jover whose career goals tally for Dulwich has only been bettered by Edgar Kail. Tommy completed more than seventy years magnificent service to the club, as player, official and latterly club President from 1985 until his death at the grand age of 91 in 2008. The club’s main stand is now named in his honour.
Dulwich were runners-up to Wimbledon in the Isthmian League in 1958/59, but then went through a very lean spell, which, apart from three good seasons in the mid-1970s, culminated in relegation from the top division. However, they bounced straight back under manager Alan Smith (who later managed Crystal Palace), winning the Division One championship at the first attempt in 1977/78. Midfield dynamo Chris Lewington was an ever-present that season and he repeated the feat in each of the next four seasons to complete a remarkable 290 consecutive appearances, another club record.
Since the phasing out of amateur football and the end of the FA Amateur Cup in 1974, Dulwich have been a semi-professional club and competed in the FA Trophy. Their best run so far in the competition was in 1979/80 when they reached the quarterfinals, losing to Boston United in a replay.
After their return to the Premier Division in 1978, Dulwich were soon challenging for honours once more and in season 1979/80, they finished third. However, as the 1980s progressed, the club fell on hard times again and despite a London Senior Cup success in 1984 they struggled in the Isthmian League, being relegated to Division One at the end of 1989/90. This time it took them two years to get back to the top flight – an exciting finale to the 1991/92 campaign saw the Hamlet win their last seven league games to pip Boreham Wood for a promotion place on the final day of the season.
It was most appropriate that Dulwich were able to celebrate their centenary by moving into a new Champion Hill Stadium. Their famous old ground, which was situated on the same site, opened in 1931 and for a long time was the mecca of amateur football. Numerous Amateur Internationals and other important matches were staged there, including the FA Amateur Cup Final between Kingstonian and Stockton in 1932/33 that attracted a record crowd of 20,744. Sadly, the old ground fell into disrepair over the years and in order to satisfy safety regulations several alterations had to be made which reduced the capacity considerably. Eventually, in 1991, the stadium was totally demolished as part of Sainsbury’s redevelopment of the area.
Frank Murphy was appointed as manager in March 1994 and he soon transformed Dulwich into serious championship contenders. In 1995/96 they were the Premier Division’s leading scorers and could have won the title but for a hiccup in the closing weeks of the season. Eventually they had to settle for fifth place, but they finished just six points behind the champions, Hayes.
An even higher spot seemed likely in 1996/97, but after Murphy resigned in February 1997 the team slipped down to mid-table. Since then league results have generally failed to live up to expectations. During his spell as manager, Dave Garland briefly raised spirits with some long overdue cup success in 1998/99. He guided the team to the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time in exactly fifty years (and the fourteenth time overall), before bowing out to an own goal at the hands of Southport. Then, at the season’s end, the club celebrated a 2-1 victory over Uxbridge at Charlton Athletic in the final of the London Challenge Cup. Dulwich finished bottom of the Premier Division in 2000/01 and there followed a long spell in Division One. During his period as chairman/manager, Martin Eede brought some stability back to the famous old club and in 2003/04 they came within a coat of paint of regaining a Premier Division spot when they lost 4-5 on penalties to Wealdstone in a promotion play-off. Somehow, after such a heart-breaking experience, the team raised themselves just three days later to win the London Senior Cup, when two goals from Omari Coleman gave them a 2-0 victory over old rivals Tooting & Mitcham United at Hendon. The following season was generally disappointing, but veteran defender Lee Akers joined a select band of players who have reached 500 appearances for the Hamlet. In 2005/06, goalkeeper Paul Seuke became the first player since the late 1980s to appear in every first team game, although that record was nearly snatched from his grasp until a late substitute appearance in the final fixture, as a forward!
Wayne Burnett succeeded Eede as manager and took Dulwich to the top of Division One South during 2006/07 but after prolific sharpshooter Chris Dickson was sold to Charlton Athletic the goals dried up and the team even failed to make the play-offs. It was all-change at Champion Hill during the summer of 2007. Current chairman Jack Payne replaced Eede and Craig Edwards took over as manager. Edwards had two seasons as manager, narrowly missing a play-off spot in 2007/08, before being replaced by current manager Gavin Rose and his assistant Junior Kadi, both former Hamlet players. Rose has blooded several youngsters during his time in charge, with a gradual improvement in results.
For much of the 2010/11 campaign, Dulwich appeared to be drifting towards a third successive mid-table finish, but during the closing weeks they won eight and drew one of their last eleven games to surge up the table and claim the final play-off spot. In the play-off semi-finals, fifth placed Hamlet upset the form book with an impressive 3-1 win away to second-placed Bognor Regis Town, who had finished a mere 31 points above them! In the final, away to Leatherhead, Gavin Rose’s team were within touching distance of promotion to the Premier Division when they led 3-1 with only minutes remaining; unfortunately the home side produced a storming finish to draw level deep into stoppage time and then run out 4-3 winners in extra time. Dulwich also reached the final of the League Cup for the first time, but lost 0-2 to Wingate & Finchley at Imber Court.
In 2011/12, Hamlet enjoyed their best season for many a year and were in pole position with three games remaining. Unfortunately, a rare home defeat at the hands of eventual champions Whitehawk proved crucial and they had to settle for a final placing of third. In the play-offs, they defeated Folkestone Invicta 2-1 in the semi-finals, but lost by the only goal in the final away to Bognor Regis Town where a missed penalty sealed their fate. It was no consolation, but the match at Bognor attracted a crowd of 1,981, easily the biggest to witness a match between two Ryman League sides that season. During the summer, at the League’s AGM, the club collected a remarkable hat trick of awards. In addition to winning the League’s Respect award for Division One South, awarded for the fewest yellow and red cards for dissent, for the second season running, Dulwich also picked up the Fair Play award for the division and the Macron Team Performance prize for their excellent disciplinary record. After the heartbreak of defeat in successive play-off finals, Gavin Rose and his squad had another crack at promotion last season and this time they displayed real mental strength, pipping a well-supported and talented Maidstone United outfit to the Ryman South title. In an exciting finale to the season, Dulwich drew 1-1 with Burgess Hill Town in front of a 1,137 crowd to finish top of the table, one point clear of rivals Maidstone. The team also reached the League Cup Final, but for the second time in three years fell at the final hurdle, losing 2-3 after extra-time to a strong Concord Rangers side, now plying their trade in Conference South. Dulwich’s Reserve and Youth teams have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. In 2006/07 the Reserves achieved a notable ‘double’, finishing as champions of the Capital League’s South Western Division and winning the President’s Cup too. The previous campaign saw the under 18s defeat Worthing 1-0 to lift the Isthmian Youth Cup. The club’s youngsters have also distinguished themselves in the FA Youth Cup, before bowing but in memorable games at Champion Hill against Norwich City (on penalties), Newcastle United and Oxford United. The cup runs have led to three of the youngsters being signed by professional clubs for transfer fees, with Quade Taylor and Michael Chambers going to Crystal Palace and Paul McCallum to West Ham United. Another teenager, Daniel Carr, attracted considerable attention with 25 goals for the first team last season and during the summer he signed professionally for Huddersfield Town.
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