What it was like to be at one of the final football matches in the country this weekend
“I think it’s probably the second tier of English football this weekend,” says David, Dulwich Hamlet’s programme seller and a regular at the London club’s Champion Hill ground.
The London club sit towards the bottom of the National League South and – like many National League fixtures this weekend – their home game against Hemel Hempstead Town survived the mass postponements which swept the country in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Faced with unclear advice, and not expressly forbidden from attending live events, supporters have been coming through the gates at a steady pace, even if a few have opted to play it safe and keep their distance.
“It was a league decision, backed up by government advice,” Dulwich Hamlet comms and media director Tom Cullen tells me.
“We knew that quite a few regulars would not attend, but that would be replaced with newcomers and day-trippers. [The game] was above average by around 100 people.”
In the end, attendance reaches 2,376. It’s lower than at a number of other Dulwich games this season, but the highest at this step on Saturday.
Saturday 14th March Top #Nonleague Crowds by Step:
— Non League Crowds (@NonLeagueCrowd) March 15, 2020
One fan who I speak to, Alastair, points out that it’s higher than at some games in the Scottish Premiership, which had been set for a full programme of fixtures until a decision was made on Friday to suspend all play – just as happened with Premier League and EFL games.
That left English non-league.
“As soon as they announced the game was on, I bought my ticket,” he says. “I’ve been coming for years. I’m not just here because there’s no other sport on, let’s put it that way.”
Still, while some regulars opted against making the trip, there were a fair few football lovers at a loose end in London after travelling down for games which ended up being called off.
Programme seller David mentions speaking to fans from Northampton and Manchester, while another supporter, Jack, has run into a group who had planned to spend the afternoon at Luton Town vs Preston North End in the Championship.
Jack has been coming to Champion Hill since around 2015, but his usual group of six has been reduced to two – well, three if you include his dog, Bella, who’s at her first Dulwich match.
“One isn’t well so he’s stayed at home, another has asthma so doesn’t want to risk it, and the other two aren’t coming because they’re not that happy about the game going ahead,” he explains.
Proximity to the ground played a part in some supporters’ decisions to attend – Jack lives a short walk away, while Alastair is also local – but others have travelled a little further.
Ryan and Amelia, a couple from North London who follow Dulwich Hamlet home and away, took public transport down to make sure they were able to catch their first home game in about a month.
“The club has really made an effort to think about what they’re doing, switching to cashless,” says Amelia, who also references signs in the toilets instructing fans to inform staff as soon as soap supplies are low.
Ryan tells me he wouldn’t have added his name to those going in search of any live sport had this game been postponed (“I probably would have just worked”) but the two of them are trying to cling to whatever semblance of normality remains until routines are forced to change.
Just hours after full-time at Champion Hill, where the home side have survived a late onslaught from the visitors to cling on to a vital 2-1 win, it’s announced that the women team’s match against Crystal Palace Development has been postponed. The fixture, a cup semi-final, had been due to take place at Champion Hill on Sunday afternoon, and it’s unclear when either team will return to competitive action.
“We’re waiting for the league to clarify their position further on Monday – we don’t anticipate there to be any more games for the next three weeks at a minimum,” Cullen explains.
“The WFC players and officials decided we didn’t want to play, and we obviously backed them wholeheartedly.
“We’d have had 300-400 at the ground today so certainly the best call from the WFC point of view. We’ll catch up with them in the week and see how they feel, but we’d suggest again not playing until we can guarantee both their and our fans’ safety.”
As more and more institutions go into lockdown, and individual fans opt to self-isolate, the more it seems increasingly likely that the weekend’s games will end up being the last in England for quite some time.
There are more important things to be concerned about in the immediate future, but at least Dulwich Hamlet and their fans have been able to go away with a win.
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