Champion Hill could be target for developers
26 February ~ A 3-0 victory over East Thurrock United last Saturday ensured Isthmian Premier Division side Dulwich Hamlet three vital points in their pursuit of back-to-back promotions, but the club's short-term future remains far from certain. Dulwich, managed by Gavin Rose, were Isthmian Division One South champions last season and they have mounted another promotion challenge this year, currently sitting three points clear at the top. But events have taken a worrying turn behind the scenes.
Last month unpaid bills resulted in the gas being temporarily switched off at their Champion Hill ground. Faced with an estimated £100,000 of debt, the club has recently changed hands, with the Hadley Property Group assuming full control and paying off creditors. Given the new regime's obvious interest in housing, there is concern that Champion Hill is being viewed as a development opportunity. Like much of south-east London, Dulwich has become an increasingly sought-after area in recent years, and the club's current home is particularly well situated for residential properties.
A public meeting following Saturday's game did little to assuage fears; while there were verbal assurances that the team would play at Champion Hill next season, their future beyond that remains vague. Though Hadley may possess a genuine desire to help the club, the fact remains that the new owners are property developers who paid £5.75 million for the land; it would thus be strange business practice to simply leave the football club in situ.
A mooted move to the adjacent Greendale Playing Fields seems unlikely, as the site sits on protected Metropolitan Open Land. Redevelopment was rejected as recently as 2012, and with upcoming elections the council are unlikely to consider such a controversial move to be wise.
Moving home won't be a new experience for the club. The old Champion Hill – a 20,000-capacity stadium that hosted football at the 1948 London Olympics – was sold and demolished in 1991, with a vast supermarket taking its place. The current, much smaller ground was built on an adjacent plot of land and first used in 1993. The previous owners' attempts to sell this failed, contributing to the current financial strife.
Dulwich can claim the second-highest average attendance in their division, taking significant numbers to away matches and Saturday's post-match public meeting drew an attendance that some Isthmian Premier sides would consider a good matchday gate. The current trepidation at Champion Hill is understandable and the team's form amid these worries is testament to the work Rose and his staff have put in. Nonetheless, Dulwich's situation is a reminder that playing success provides no guarantee of stability in the lower reaches of English football. James Weeks