It has taken 111 years for Dulwich Hamlet to gain promotion from the Isthmian League.
The Hamlet are more than familiar with play-off heartbreak, with their penalty shootout win against Hendon in May coming at the fourth consecutive attempt. When Dipo Akinyemi converted his penalty that day, he sent the largely partisan crowd into wild jubilation; a welcome relief from what has been a challenging few months.
Since March, Hamlet have been unable to fulfil fixtures at their home ground of Champion Hill after being locked out by property developers Meadow Residential. With the side taking up temporary residence at Tooting and Mitcham United’s ground, Champion Hill has been allowed to fall into disrepair – a shadow of its former self.
For Dulwich Hamlet fans, promotion was a sweet page in a difficult chapter.
August 4, 2018 – the date of their opening fixture against Welling United – was the start of a new chapter; the day they finally arrived in the National League South, though still no close to returning home.
The first game of a season represents something of a cruel enigma for all football supporters.
It could represent the beginning – or the continuation – of a team’s upward trajectory through the football league; or it could confirm a fan’s deepest and darkest fears. It could serve as proof that the season ahead will represent another missed opportunity, or worse, fail to meet the minimum of expectations.
Park View Road, the home to Erith & Belvedere, as well as Welling United, is a small ground comprised of different sized stands that run adjacent to each flank, with standing room behind each goal, where at points you are warned of the uneven surface.
What you have here is an experience where the team sheets are posted outside the manager’s office, where patches of sand are kicked up into the air when the play runs over it, where local kids can peer over walls or gates for a free spectacle, dogs are welcome, and a cold pint can quench the thirst on the terraces.
You can hear every plea for the ball, every tackle and every grunt of exasperation from the 22 players and their respective managers.
The game itself was an even, if slightly stop-start and niggly affair during the first half without either goalkeeper being really called into action. The referee certainly made himself heard on numerous occasions, a theme that ran throughout the whole 90 minutes.
Dulwich started the second half brighter, their attacking more fluid, the wing play and movement laced with intent and purpose.
Welling’s Dan Wilks was forced into a smart save from an Ashley Carew free kick. Another sharp save was required when Dipo Akinyemi drove a shot low and hard to the corner of his near post from the left-hand side.
Welling United however took control of the game after that, Thierry Audel tapped in a Jack Jebb free-kick in the 53rd minute that had evaded the Dulwich defence.
Carew was sent off for Dulwich, after picking up a second yellow for pushing an opponent. Welling United doubled their lead on the 67th minute with Jebb finishing a nice flowing move that he himself had started.
Dulwich’s manager Gavin Rose lamented his side’s failure to remain composed with the ball after the game.
“We switched off. In the other team’s half, we asked them to keep the ball a little bit better…we’ve got the ability to do that. I don’t know if it was the occasion or not wanting to take too many risks. But I felt the players didn’t back themselves enough,” he said afterwards.
And what of the Dulwich faithful, travelling in numbers from South London to get their first taste of the promised land, of the National League South. How did they respond after witnessing a 2-0 loss?
With raucous applause for the team that looked drained, from their debut appearance in a new league.
With a continued cry of ‘Gavin Rose’s Pink N’ Blue Army’ that carried way beyond the turnstiles.
With inflatable palm trees being held aloft, a quirk that hopefully will stay throughout the season, a reminder of the promotion party held in East Dulwich back in May.
This is a group of supporters who know that an opening game doesn’t make a season, there are 41 games left for Dulwich to make their mark.
And all at the club know that returning back to Champion Hill may eclipse all the challenges faced on the pitch.
But for now, The Rabble, ‘just can’t get enough’.