Football revolution as disillusioned fans head for the non-league

Fans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship of the Premier League

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The Independent Football

Far, far away from the £2,000 season tickets, the officious stewarding, and the airline-stadium sponsorship of the Premier League, a football revolution is underway.

In this otherworld, supporters can buy a craft ale and drink it standing behind the goal. Here is a place where crowd segregation is unnecessary and where fans, quite of their own volition, take up banners calling for an end to racism and homophobia in football and display them from the stadium walls.

At the vanguard of this movement is The Rabble. By strict definition they should be a disorderly crowd, a mob. But their ethos is altogether different.

They announce their arrival in a cacophony of drumming, trumpeting and ukulele playing, as they wend their way through the streets of south London towards Champion Hill, home of Dulwich Hamlet FC. It is a protest march of sorts. The Rabble has come from the twee Peckham Fête, where they were denied a stall, possibly because of the enduring reputation of football fans as aggressive and intimidating. Oh, the irony.

With their hand-knitted scarves in club colours of pink and navy, and their fuchsia sunglasses (feather boas and Stetsons of the same hue are also part of the dressing-up box), there's not a hint of menace to The Rabble.

But it would be wrong to characterise this as simply the whimsy of a few middle-class trendies, newly-arrived in a part of the capital that is undergoing gentrification, using a 121-year-old football club for their amusement. Among The Rabble are Dulwich diehards who have followed the team since childhood and remember the neighbourhood in tougher times. The club itself has embraced the new atmosphere these arrivistes have generated at Champion Hill and the 250 per cent uplift in attendances the ground has seen over the past five years.

Many of those who are new to Dulwich are already football obsessives: supporters of Manchester City, Shrewsbury Town, Cardiff City, Arsenal, Darlington and Portsmouth, stand shoulder-to-shoulder cheering on the Hamlet. The new mood at Dulwich and similar stirrings at a number of other amateur clubs around the country is a reflection of disaffection with developments in the upper echelons of the game.

The growing appeal of non-league football is complicated. On the one hand there's a clear sense of nostalgia, getting back to a time when football fans were not regarded as droplets in a corporate revenue stream and had the right to stand where they wanted – rather than be confined to a numbered seat. On the other, there's a palpable sense of building something new and better: 'For Future Football', as it says on one of the banners hung above the few steps of open terrace that The Rabble calls home.

"A lot of people have fallen out of love with going to Premier League football but are still looking for that kick," says Bill Bliss, editor of football fanzine Stand. "I don't think it is [Premier League] football that's the problem, it's the experience on the day; not being able to go with your mates or with your kids. The price issue is the big one."


Walking to Champion Hill down Edgar Kail Way (named after a legendary pre-war striker who scored 53 for the Hamlet in one season and was capped by England), Hugo Greenhalgh, a 22-year-old concert promoter from Stockwell, south London, says he has "made more friends in a year watching Dulwich than I did in a decade supporting Arsenal". So committed has he become that he produces a podcast, Forward the Hamlet, featuring interviews with players and fans.

The social element is a recurring theme among the Dulwich faithful.

"I spend most of my time with Dulwich friends," says Jack Bagnall, aged 28, a social worker who moved to London four years ago from Shropshire. "This has brought together a lot of ex-Premiership fans with a similar mind-set who have become good mates."

Bagnall, who has a Dulwich season ticket (price £170), compares the experience at Champion Hill ("it's about people having fun") to that at his childhood team Shrewsbury Town, where "there's an out-of-town stadium and the atmosphere was completely ruined". He still looks out for the Shrewsbury score but "the Dulwich result is almost becoming more important".

Inside the ground, there is pink-and-blue face painting and a steady flow of fans returning from the bar in the Tommy Jover stand to watch the game with beer in hand.

A smart marketing campaign – 'Dulwich Hamlet will not be televised' – on football's annual Non-League Day in September drew a record 2,856 crowd to Champion Hill, with fans paying what they wanted at the turnstile. The gate, for a club that a few years ago had attendances of around 200, would not have looked out of place in League Division Two.

Before the Ryman League contest with Hampton & Richmond Borough, the stadium announcer asked for a minute's applause to mark the fourth anniversary of the murder in a shooting of Rio McFarlane, a former youth player. It is a reminder that there are serious social problems in Dulwich's catchment area and the club is anxious to attract support from all sections of the community.

The new mood at Dulwich is a reflection of disaffection with developments in the upper echelons of the game (Frantzesco Kangaris)

The surrounding council estates did not prevent snooty attempts to stop the Hamlet building a new stadium when the old one (which hosted the football in the 1948 Olympics) became too dilapidated. The Rabble devised a terrace ditty in honour of one planning protester who theatrically claimed the new stadium would disfigure a patch of south London that resembled central Italy:

"We're the famous Dulwich Hamlet and we look like Tuscany, Tuscany!"

Other chants have been logged by the Brixton Buzz website, which meticulously records the Hamlet's fortunes, and those of The Rabble that follow them. It lists adaptations of songs by Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, The Specials and The Stranglers. The latter, based on the 1979 record "Duchess", is an ode to playmaker Xavier Vidal.

"Vidal of Dulwich/ He's going up/ They said he never will/ Sits in the midfield/ Sprays around passes" etc.

There's even a nod to the infamous anthem at nearby Millwall.

"No one knows us/ We don't care/ We are Dulwich..."

David Brown, aged 55, is one of a number of Dulwich fans who also frequents the Championship club. "It's more aggressive at Millwall – it's us against the world," he says.

The openness at the Hamlet couldn't be any different. Brown has been following the team since 1965 and bears no resentment to the new arrivals. "It's a younger sort of audience who have moved into the area, young professionals. They were having a cheese and wine day at one game behind the goal, and carafes of wine. I'd never seen that before."

Max Magloire, aged 38, dressed in shirt and cargo shorts, is an office co-ordinator originally from Burundi, who has been going to Dulwich for three seasons. "The welcoming was just tremendous, it's like a festival and it's local," he says. "You feel like you are part of the club." Ben Sibley, a 26-year-old website manager, heard about The Rabble online and has shifted his allegiance from Fulham.

Ten-year-old Dulwich Hamlet FC fan Tom Corcoran (Frantzesco Kangaris)

"I came with two workmates and instantly people were talking to us, everyone is very welcoming," he says. Sibley is dressed in a 'Comfast Chapter' T-shirt, an obscure Rabble reference to Communism and tonic wine. Josie Bowler, a 29-year-old support worker, writes The Moral Victory Dulwich fanzine with her 27-year-old boyfriend Louis Daly. Both are relatively new converts. "I have been taken into the fold by The Rabble," she says. "There are a few women who are regulars. There's still this masculine shouting and drinking but it's not threatening at all."

Ten-year-old Tom Corcoran, one of a healthy turn-out of children in the stadium, is wearing a Dulwich shirt and a Rasputin-length false beard. This is another Rabble in-joke, something to do with visiting goalkeepers. In these Premier League-obsessed times, he is "the only one in my class" who goes to Champion Hill. But that could change. His dad Terry, a driver for Royal Mail, takes him to games home and away. "It's very affordable," he explains.

Elsewhere in non-league football, there is a similar sense of shifting sands. The players at North Shields are urged on from a grassy bank dubbed the 'Curva Nord' by staunch fans of the Northern League Division One club. "Some have relatives in the first team, others are former schoolmates or work colleagues [of players]," says North Shields supporter John Conway, a sales director. "Maybe this makes supporting a non-league team all the more inclusive, all the more inspirational."

Dulwich Hamlet FC fans during a match (Frantzesco Kangaris)

'Seguire I Pettirossi' reads one of the Curva Nord banners – more evocative than 'Follow the Robins'. The Daren Persson stadium is a long way from Milan's San Siro but this is more than irony, it's a statement of local pride.

Italian-style 'Ultras' fanaticism has emerged at several British league clubs, most obviously at Crystal Palace. But at non-league level, long regarded by middle-aged men as an alternative to the garden shed, or taking the dog for a proper walk, the sight of pyrotechnic displays are surreal.

These are no more obvious than at the Old Spotted Dog Ground, the east London home of Clapton FC. Robin Cowan, aged 30, is a member of the 'Scaffold Brigada', Ultras who for the past two years have been following a team in the Essex Senior League, the ninth tier of English football. Before the Brigada turned up, Clapton were down to around 20 regulars – now attendances are five times that. "The regulars are great and if it wasn't for them we wouldn't have felt so legitimised, turning up and being so ridiculous," says Cowan, an office admin worker. Like their counterparts at Dulwich, Clapton's new supporters have been characterised by critics on online forums as shallow "hipsters". Cowan says: "You don't get that criticism from people who actually come to games".

As a Londoner and a Celtic fan, he felt excluded by ticket prices at local clubs and was attracted to Clapton by its history (in their pre-war heyday, the Tons played games against Ajax Amsterdam and Slavia Prague).

Controversially, the Brigada is political. Its overt anti-Fascist agenda was reflected in a pro-migration flag, 'Welcome Romania and Bulgaria', displayed when Clapton played FC Romania, a Hertfordshire side made up mostly of immigrants from the eastern European country.

Dulwich Hamlet FC fanzine writer Josie Bowler (Frantzesco Kangaris)

Not all clubs are comfortable with this sort of thing. Gloucestershire side Mangotsfield United briefly attracted a small Ultras group which called itself the Inter Village Firm (a humorous reference to the Inter City Firm, West Ham United's infamous hooligan gang) and gave out 'calling cards' saying "You've just received the IVF treatment".

The joke didn't go down well in Southern League Division One South & West – nor did the IVF's use of flares and an anti-Fascist flag. Earlier this year the club issued a statement banning "flares or smoke bombs" and "the displaying of banners, posters or stickers that are of a political nature" from the Glass Consultants UK Stadium.

The humour at Dorchester Town is less contentious. Fans of the Southern League Premier side gather under a flag that declares: 'Born to Moan'. Cameron Marett, aged 27, lives in London but continues to follow his hometown team home and away in the league's seventh tier. "Just because you move away from the area doesn't mean you stop supporting them." He is part of a group of around 10 London-based Magpies fans.

For Marett, a recruitment specialist, the non-league football fan has a relationship with the club which would be unimaginable higher up the game's pyramid. "After every game you have a pint or two with the players and hear about the tactics and where they think they came up short."

And for the ultimate in the non-league fan experience, look no further than fan-owned Lewes of the Ryman Premier League, who have devised their own form of corporate hospitality in the shape of pitch-side beach huts for hire.

"It's the ultimate shed," says Kevin Miller, commercial manager. "A shed in a football ground, you can't get better than that".

Ultra noisy: The politicised fans inspiring the 'scaffold brigada' & others

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

PAOK, Greece

PAOK, from Thessaloniki, are followed by the 'Gate Four' ultras, whose coordinated firework displays before last year's cup game with hated rivals Olympiakos looked as spectacular as it was dangerous. More left-wing than some Greek fans, they recently carried a banner to games: 'Steal from the rich and give to the poor'.

St Pauli, Germany

They are the most famous ultras in football and have inspired a global culture. Hamburg's second team have famous left-wing activist fans, associated with the city's trade union and punk scenes. Their noise and displays attract crowds of 20,000 to this otherwise small club, whose meaning is measured in far more than medals.

Lech Poznan, Poland

The fans are bouncing in unison, chanting and lighting red flares, risking setting their flags on fire. The camera then pans away to reveal that the Lech Poznan fans are roaring on their under-12s team. It is a YouTube classic, as is the famous 'Poznan' goal celebration – arms linked, facing away from goal, jumping up and down – they invented.

Besiktas, Turkey

Besiktas are the third-biggest team in Turkey, and their 'carsi' ultras are anarchist in their politics rather than sectarian. They were influential in the Gezi resistance against Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government last year, assuming a new national importance in Turkey as a voice of left-wing resistance.