Present day enthusiasts of non-league football could be forgiven for regarding Dulwich Hamlet as just another Isthmian League team, with little silverware adorning the club's trophy cabinet in recent times. Yet the club can boast an illustrious past almost second to none.
Having competed for more than 100 seasons as members of the Isthmian League, the club with the famous pink and blue shirts were the giants of the amateur game between the two world wars.
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 10p 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 nurse, nudge and 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. The Hamlet have now won the Surrey Cup a record 16 times, most recently in 1973/74 and 1974/75.
In 1907 Dulwich gained election to the Isthmian League (now sponsored by Ryman the Stationers), where they have remained ever since. Following Clapton's relegation to the Essex Senior League during the summer, Dulwich are now the League's longest continuous serving members.
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 1946/47 they were Isthmian League runners-up. Two years later they won the championship again and also equalled their best performance in the FA Cup, reaching the first round proper for the thirteenth time. In 1949/50 they lifted the London Senior Cup again, and it was in the same season that full-back 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. Before his sad passing in September 2008, Tommy completed nearly seventy years' magnificent service to the club, first as player, then official and finally as Club President.
Dulwich were runners-up to the original 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. They bounced straight back, however, 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 quarter-finals, losing to Boston United in a replay. The club's next cup success occurred in 1983/84 when the London Senior Cup was won with a 3-2 replay victory over Kingstonian.
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. As the 1980s progressed, however, the club fell on hard times again and despite reaching the final qualifying round of the FA Cup in successive seasons, they struggled in the Isthmian League. Eventually, at the end of the 1989/90 season, they were relegated once more to Division One. 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 in 1993 by moving into a new Champion Hill Stadium (albeit one with a relatively short lease). 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 which 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.
Back in March 1994, Frank Murphy took over as manager 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 the table and finished twelfth. Since then league results have been generally disappointing. During his spell as manager, Dave Garland briefly raised the club's 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, 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's ground in the final of the London Challenge Cup. Twelve months later, Dulwich again reached the London Challenge Cup final, only for Uxbridge to extract revenge in a penalty shoot-out after the teams had drawn 2-2 after extra-time. The side also finished in the top half of the Premier Division, but even this represented a disappointment as they were right up with the leaders until Christmas.
After a poor start to season 2000/01, Dave Garland resigned. Les Cleevely and later Gwynne Berry had spells as player/manager but neither was able to arrest the slide and relegation became inevitable. Despite an encouraging pre-season with a new-look and much younger team, initially Dulwich struggled to come to terms with life in Division One and in September 2001 Gwynne Berry also resigned. Chairman Martin Eede, who had previously enjoyed success as manager of Molesey, then assumed the dual role of chairman/manager and proceeded to bring some stability back to the famous old club.
League results in 2001/02 were erratic – good performances against most of the leading sides being offset by some wretched displays when faced by the bottom teams – and they could finish no higher than 17th. Cup results were generally better though and they were very unfortunate to lose to a disputed penalty in the dying stages of the London Senior Cup final, going down 1-2 to Croydon at Leyton Orient's ground.
The gradual improvement under Eede's guidance continued in 2002/03 and Dulwich climbed into a leading position in the new regionalised Division One South. Indeed, going into Easter with just four games remaining, they occupied one of the two promotion positions. Sadly, the team faltered at the final hurdle and had to settle for fourth place. Dulwich also reached the last four of two cup competitions that season, losing at the semi-final stage of the League Cup and the Surrey Senior Cup to Yeading and Sutton United respectively.
2003/04 produced another promotion challenge, but after looking a sure bet throughout the winter for a place in the Ryman Premier Division they lost 4-5 on penalties to Wealdstone in a promotion play-off. Somehow, after such a heartbreaking experience, the team raised themselves just three days later to win the London Senior Cup, when old rivals Tooting & Mitcham United were beaten 2-0 at Hendon. 32-goal leading marksman Omari Coleman capped an excellent individual season by netting both goals in the final prior to a summer move to Watford.
Dulwich made a dreadful start to the 2004/05 campaign in a restructured Ryman Division One, and Martin Eede decided to give a number of the club's youngsters a chance in the first team. Although the likes of Tom Ababio, Kenny Beaney and Ellis Conroy all showed considerable promise for the future, the team failed to challenge for a play-off place and could finish no higher than 15th. They also lost their grip on the London Senior Cup, losing narrowly to Wingate & Finchley in the semi-finals. One high spot in a generally disappointing season was the achievement of veteran defender Lee Akers who joined a select band of players who have made 500 appearances for the Hamlet.
For season 2005-2006, boosted by some notable summer signings, hopes of a promotion challenge were high but a promising position at the end of November was spoiled by a subsequent shortage of goals and towards the end of January Martin Eede reverted to his sole post of chairman. Wayne Burnett, previously in charge of Fisher Athletic, was then appointed as the new first team manager. Under Burnett's guidance the team played some attractive football in the closing weeks of the season and won six of their last nine games to finish 13th with 65 points. Goalkeeper Paul Seuke became the first player since 1987/88 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's first season promised much as Dulwich's expansive, fear-free football threatened to see the Hamlet regain their place in Premier Division as they claimed the leadership of the South Division in the early running, the explosive firepower of striker Chris Dickson a key factor in that surge to the summit. Goals flowed like water with Godalming thrashed 8-1 on one glorious Champion Hill evening. However whilst attack ruled sometimes defence was missing from the plans, a stratagem all too clear on one amazing night as a rollicking FA Trophy tie against deadly rivals Tooting finished 6-7 to the visitors after extra time! In October Burnett would pick up Manager of the Month whilst Dickson claimed the golden boot. However a barren December and injury to their talismanic scorer hit the Hamlet hard. Dickson would return and score again but his remarkable record of 37 goals in 41 appearances had not gone unnoticed and Charlton snapped him up. Even without Dickson's goals a place in the play-offs looked within Hamlet's reach but a frustrating finish to the season saw just one win in the last ten and a disappointing 8th place.
Come the summer Martin Eede left Dulwich after many years' faithful service to become chief executive of Fisher. Burnett soon followed, cutting a huge swath in the Hamlet squad as all bar a trio of first team regulars followed him out of Dulwich, though not all of them out of Champion Hill! The Chairmanship passed to Jack Payne and one of his first acts was to appoint the highly experience Craig Edwards as the new first team supremo. Along with number two Paul Downes and Coach Lyndon Lynch, Edwards set about the tough task of rebuilding the shattered squad from scratch. A shaky start was peppered with promising results including a fine fight back to draw at eventual Champions Dover, but each time Dulwich threatened to gatecrash the play-offs a disappointing result slammed the door in their face. Unbeaten in December, Edwards collected the Manager of the Month at the year's turn but the albatross hung round his neck as January proved threadbare. Frustratingly the side reached its zenith just too late as another gaol scoring nugget was unearthed in the shape of Charlie Taylor, the peak of his golden boot winning March/April a quick fire hat trick against fellow play-off challengers Sittingbourne in a 6-1 rout. The season ended just too soon though, leaving Dulwich in 6th place three points off a play-off spot.
Dulwich failed to build on that promise as the belts were tightened in a gloomy financial climate the following season. Edwards' second campaign in charge of the club, saw the Hamlet finish a slightly disappointing 12th, having been hit by a 3 point deduction for fielding an ineligible player in the opening game of the season. It was a stop start season that saw Edwards pick up a second Manager of the Month Award in November only for its curse to strike once more.
On 1st May, the club confirmed that they had parted company with the manager and his assistant Paul Downes, with former youth team coach and Beckenham Town manager Gavin Rose appointed with immediate effect, bringing charismatic midfielder Junior Kadi as his number two. With a young side drawn from Rose's own ASPIRE Academy which produced the likes of George Elokobi of Wolves and Simeon Jackson of Gillingham, hopes were high of season of free flowing football ahead. Rose and Kadi took the opportunity to blood a number of young players throughout the campaign and results were again mixed with the club finishing a mid-table 12th for the second season in succession.
The 2010-2011 season proved to be one of ultimate frustration as Rose started to blend his youngsters with experienced campaigners, the side that finished the term barely recognisable from the one that began it. Indeed the opening days to the season proved disappointing as the club garnered just one win from their opening seven games, slumping into the lower reaches of the table, and bowing out of the FA Cup at home to a rugged Tunbridge Wells side after a replay. Things picked up through September with four straight league wins steadying the ship before a glorious week saw Dulwich take out Ilford in the League Cup before upsetting the odds to put Premier Division Hastings United out of the FA Trophy on their own turf, a result that hastened the departure of the Sussex club's manager and sent Dulwich on the long trek to Devon. Unfortunately it was not to a fruitful one as Bideford emerged victors by a single goal to progress.
With the big freeze setting in, Dulwich were frustrated by long bouts of inactivity but as the year turned so did the season. A shocking 2-4 home reverse at home to Ramsgate coming on the back of Rob Gradwell's stoppage time winner at Whitstable proved to be the precursor for a charge back into contention as Dulwich unearthed a pearl in greenhorn striker Paul McCallum. A hat trick against Sittingbourne along with further goals against Worthing and at home to Romford in a delayed League Cup tie saw the youngster catch the eye of several clubs. Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Manchester United were all in the frame but after much consideration Paul chose to sign on the dotted line with West Ham United.
After McCallum's departure the steam seemed to go out of Hamlet's challenge with an inconsistent run of results through February, though they did still have an eye of the League cup after a fine 2-0 win at Heybridge Swifts. On the scoresheet that day was Ray Powell and the veteran defender, now turned striker was to play a key role in Hamlet's late canter into the play-offs all kick-started by a remarkable night at Leatherhead. The Tanners, in free scoring form and already almost assured of at least a playoff spot, were stunned by a rampant Dulwich that ran amok at Fetcham Grove in the League Cup semi-final to book their final place with a 5-1 victory. Another three league wins followed including victory over Leatherhead back at Champion Hill thanks to a Kevin Francis corker, though the Tanners prevented a three-peat a week later with a 2-0 victory back in Surrey. Fleet were sunk without trace, routed 6-0 at Campion Hill to send Dulwich into the League Cup in high spirits. However it was not to be as Wingate & Finchley snuffed out the early Hamlet threat before taking command and the trophy with a 2-0 victory. Hamlet rallied once more, newcomer Gary Drewett bagging a hat trick on his debut as Dulwich won 3-0 in Eastbourne. Defeat at home to Worthing was followed by a 5-2 demolition of relegation-haunted Chatham Town. Next up a trip to Burges Hill where defeat surely thrust the final nail in Hamlets hopes of the playoffs but a second half Kalvin Morath-Gibbs goal that secured share of the points kept dreams alive. Nervous single goal victory at home to perennial bogey team, Whyteleafe put Dulwich in the driving seat meant victory on the final day at Walton & Hersham would guarantee the last playoff place. That said victory for Walton would mean the same for the Swans. Strange then that this was such a stroll in the park for the Hamlet, 3-0 victors against a side that seemed to have already packed for the summer holidays.
So to the playoffs with Dulwich travelling to second placed Bognor Regis, whose failure to beat Chatham on the final day of the season had condemned them to the second chance saloon. Three headed goals, from Lewis Gonsalves, Gary Drewett and Ray Powell, saw Dulwich to a memorable victory against a classy Rocks side who had finished the season 31 points ahead of the Hamlet. So to Leatherhead once more and on a remarkable afternoon in front of a crowd in excess of a thousand Dulwich came within a whisker of a place back in the Premier Division. Leading 3-1 with just two minutes left, they were undone by Kev Terry's late hat trick. The Tanners' forward, who had previously scored just 6 times in 48 appearances in the season, first hauled the home side back in the game in the 88th minute, before equalising in the seventh minute of stoppage time and then grabbing the winner in extra-time.
Dulwich reserve and youth teams have both enjoyed considerable success in recent years. In season 2005-2006 the reserves were runners-up in their division in the Capital League, whilst the under 18s won two trophies, were finalists in another and finished third in their league. The youngsters defeated Worthing 1-0 to lift the Westview (Isthmian League) Youth Cup and hammered Tonbridge Angels 6-2 to take the John Ullmann Cup. In 2006/2007 the Reserves built on that with a notable double, finishing as Champions of the Capital League's South Western Division and lifting the President's Cup as well.
In 2008-2009 the Under 18's, under manager Ian Neal, collected the London Youth Cup with a 5-2 victory in the final against Thamesmead. The following year Ian's team lifted the John Ullman Cup once more with a 2-0 victory over Chatham Town.
That season Dulwich Hamlet fielded two teams at Under 18 level, the other under the stewardship of Rose and Kadi which reached the final of The Kent Youth League League Cup, only to lose 6-5 after extra time to Chatham having led 4-1 at one point. They also progressed to the first round proper of the FA Youth Cup before bowing out on penalties to Norwich City. This season, 2010-2011, they did even better, wining through six rounds of the FA Youth Cup including an exciting victory over Yeovil Town, before losing to Newcastle United 6-2 on an electric night at Champion Hill.