Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Unsaintlike Behaviour

Unsaintlike Behaviour

So the reader can get his bearings, the Champion Hill stadium that we have today was built directly on the previous ground that stood here from 1931 to 1991. The Hamlet’s ground before that, the one in this feature, was the neighbouring site, now the Astroturf pitch behind the goal at the Greendales end of the present ground.

We often hear about the famous cup tie that took place at Champion Hill in November 1922 between Dulwich Hamlet and St Albans City. The match, an FA Cup replay after a 1-1 draw, went to extra time and finished 8-7 to the home team, but Wilfred Minter gained the distinction of scoring all seven goals yet finishing on the losing side! The result put Dulwich into the first round proper to meet Clapton, and surely paved the way for St Albans to be elected into the Isthmian League six months later. The latter proved to be an inspired move, and they won the competition at the first attempt in 1923/24. Thus began regular league encounters between two giants of the amateur game that continued for decades.

Minter’s fĂȘted match, was in fact the fourth time the two teams had met in ten months. The earlier contests took place in February of the previous season when they were drawn together in the FA Amateur Cup. And the astonishing thing is that the replay of the 3rd Round fixture at Champion Hill was not without incident either – off the pitch as much as on it.

The first match at Clarence Park was drawn 2-2. Butcher scored both goals for City, and Bill Davis and Sid Nicol for the Hamlet. No further scoring took place in an additional thirty minutes, and so the Athenian League champions had to do it all again a week later at fortress Champion Hill, where Dulwich were unbeaten all season. St Albans could go one better; they had not lost a single match against an Amateur club in over a year – since January 1921.

Both the Hertfordshire side and the south Londoners were each placed in second spot in their respective leagues. Notwithstanding, no one could have predicted the enormity of the crowd that was going to turn up for the replay. Some time before kick off it became increasingly apparent that the facilities would not be able to contain such a huge amount of people. Every seat in the stand was taken and the terraces were quickly filling up to overflowing. So much so, that within a quarter of an hour of the start of the match a decision was taken to close the entrance gates leaving multitudes locked outside.

And then just a few hundred yards away, now arriving at East Dulwich Station were the ‘Football Specials’ cram-full of St Albans supporters. Thousands of them, some bedecked in their yellow and blue scarves and hats, come to cheer their all-conquering Saints, unbeaten for so long. They were totally unaware that over ten thousand souls were already in the stadium, and there was no room for this new influx.

One can easily understand the frustration there must have been. All the hopes and anticipation leading up to the match; the journey into London; the thrills and spills of the first game pondered over on the train; all blotted out in a moment on reaching the Dulwich Hamlet ground.

With the hindsight of the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters, today’s supporter is likely to be a bit more patient and hope that a happy conclusion is swiftly reached. But this was February 1922, and health and safety had not yet been invented. Crowd control was personified a year later at Wembley Stadium by a lone policeman on a white horse.

Desperate to see the match, the masses rushed the gates and forced their way in through the turnstiles. Sections of the timber fencing surrounding the Champion Hill ground were then shaken and pulled and pushed, until after much force entry was gained through the gaps. About three thousand entered the enclosure illegally, and unwittingly made the conditions inside more perilous. It was later reckoned that about a thousand spectators, using broken fencing, clambered onto the roof of the ‘long’ stand to watch the game from there. That seems to be a bit of an over estimate, but whatever the real figure, it certainly went into hundreds. What the people below must have been thinking while all the clatter was going on above their heads is anyone’s guess. Others lodged in trees and on the roof of a pavilion in an adjacent field.

To avoid the crush elsewhere in the ground, many standing repositioned themselves onto the grass along the touchline in front of the railings until every available space surrounding the pitch was filled. And still they came. In one surge the vast numbers filling the terracing behind one of the goals were suddenly swept downwards and many found themselves tangled up in the goal net. In another incident while the match was in progress, a section of the perimeter timber fence collapsed under the pressure of the crowd. According to the press no injuries were reported, but again that might be too difficult to believe.

I would doubt if there were many policemen at the ground, if any at all. There was a faithful team of stewards at Dulwich, but they would have been completely overwhelmed with this record gate. However, the referee, we are told, controlled the affair quite admirably, especially in such unusual circumstances. At one point he was even seen massaging an injured player in a break in the play! Before long the huge crowd gradually settled down, and the compact mass of bodies enjoyed the game.

Edgar Kail slots past the advancing St Albans keeper, W. Tennant.

What took place in the match itself is almost secondary. St Albans began with a ferocious pace and took the lead, Pierce heading in a corner. The legendary Edgar Kail then leveled before the break. In the second half the away side looked drained and Dulwich, now kicking down the slope, took advantage. Davis and Nicol completed the scoring – making it a goal apiece for, the preeminent inside forward trio in the amateur game.

Tennant in goal for the Saints was daring throughout the encounter, and far busier than Coleman, the Hamlet’s international keeper. In the end ‘home’ pressure was too much for the visitors. Centre half Dick Jonas, the captain and one of the most important and influential figures in the history of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club, had an outstanding game – described in one report as “a prince of halves.” Even at one nil down Captain Jonas rallied his troops to reverse the slide and inflict upon St Albans a first defeat in thirteen months.
    Edgar Kail rises above the St Albans defence 

Under the heading: ‘Gallant Losers – St Albans’ flag lowered by Dulwich Hamlet’ one newspaper wrote, “A big slice of the Dulwich Hamlet share of their £354 gate on Saturday will have to go in paying for the breakages caused by some 3,000 spectators rushing the gates and turnstiles just before the start. Saturday’s receipts, plus £222 taken at St Albans, constitutes a record amount for a match in the competition prior to the semi finals.”    

Although the official attendance was a staggering 10,800, it was estimated that over 14,000 actually witnessed the match – more than double the usual gate. The amount of people that gained entry free of charge meant a great loss of revenue to the two clubs. In today’s money we are probably talking in the region of fifteen thousand pounds. Unless, of course the gatecrashers were asked to cough up at the next match and some of the vast sum was later retrieved.

More importantly, it was incredibly fortunate that a major catastrophe did not occur that day. In the years that followed, a scheme was drawn up by the club to improve the match day experience at Champion Hill. Within ten years Dulwich Hamlet had built an immense new stadium with far superior facilities than many clubs in the Football League. A towering edifice, with a capacity of more than 20,000, and still fondly remembered by older Hamlet supporters,

Dulwich went on to reach the semi-final of the Amateur Cup, losing 3-0 to holders Bishop Auckland, at Darlington after a 1-1 draw at Craven Cottage. It was payback time: Dulwich had destroyed the Bishops 5-1 on their way to winning the cup for the first time in 1920. This time the northerners retained the trophy after beating South Bank in the final.

Teams for 18 February 1922
Dulwich Hamlet: E. H. Coleman. A. T. Brooker. G. F. Goodliffe. J. A. Guillard, R. H. Jonas. A. F. Evans. E. J. Gooch. E. Kail, W. J. Davis. S. Nicol. A. E. Hunt.
St. Albans City: W. J. Tennent. F. Holland. T. W. Field, H. Figg. P. Bird. Meagher. P. Pierce,  B. Butcher, W. Minter, H.E. Miller, R. Miller

Original article from HH 26 Winter 2014. Copyright © Jack McInroy    

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