By Ian Ridley
THERE is a moment in the film Field of Dreams where the ghost of the legendary baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson says in exasperation to the main character, Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner: “Owners, huh?”
The comment is supposed to convey in two short words how little sport’s power brokers feel for the true soul of the game, as embodied by the players, or understand the depth of feeling for it of fans.
The line went through my mind this week when reading about the plight of Dulwich Hamlet, whose owners Meadow Residential have ceased to finance the club, which is currently top of Bostik Premier, at least until Billericay Town’s cup runs are over and they ease their fixture backlog.
Meadow blame Southwark Council for thwarting their redevelopment plans at Champion Hill; Southwark are at loggerheads with Meadow over various issues, notably the number of affordable homes in the scheme.
Now the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has become involved, urging Meadow to rethink. In the meantime, Dulwich officials have been seeking donations to avert an immediate crisis by paying running costs and players’ wages.
I suspect they are about to find out how tough it is, especially at this time of year when cup runs for the majority of Non-League clubs are coming to an end, and cash flow becomes an issue. People owed money are forever coming out of the woodwork, especially when there is the scent of cash being collected.
Dulwich’s remarkable average home attendance of 1,500 for Step 3 – they have even attracted 2,417 for one league game this season – will certainly help by pitching in but although the reported wage bill of £5,000 a week is ‘only’ around 50 per cent of income, it is surprising how quickly costs can eat up the other 50 per cent.
The issue of owners in Non-League is a knotty one. Some clubs get lucky. Take Eastleigh, where Stewart Donald is reported to have pumped in £10 million over five years, some of it wasted, by his own admission, on overpaid players. Expensive lessons learned, though, he sticks at it and though people will be concerned for the club should he bale out, at least he will have left a stadium and an infrastructure for a club now at the heart of its community.
Elsewhere, too many potential owners are lured in by the sniff of a property deal and many Non-League clubs are ripe for development and removal, with predators knowing there is less scrutiny, publicity and outcry to contend with, particularly – sadly – with the demise of the local press in many areas.
If that has happened with Dulwich, then somebody may well have messed with the wrong marine. Hamlet may be sandwiched between Charlton Athletic and Crystal Palace but they have found their niche in their nook of South East London, with those huge crowds voting with their feet and now their voices.
You hope for their sakes that the stances of Meadow and Southwark are just posturing by two sides in negotiations, both wanting their way, both not wishing to lose face. Sound familiar? Well, football has always reflected the society in which it operates in.
Dulwich officials say there are new investors in the wings if Meadow would just sell up. That may seem unlikely anytime soon with the company having spent so much time and money on the case, but these current owners should not underestimate the raucous mobilisation of Non-League fans when their club’s survival is at stake, especially now this is a story that has gone national.
And anyway, any club that plays in pink and navy blue has got to be worth saving.
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.