Small British soccer clubs fight to keep home turf

In Britain, small soccer clubs are facing eviction as developers vie to buy inner-city fields. Supporters say these clubs bring their communities together, with smaller ones in particular,doing so by providing an affordable experience for many.

John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters
Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c.) celebrates scoring the team's first goal in an April 1 Premier League match against Stoke City in London's Emirates Stadium. For smaller soccer clubs in England, including Dulwich Hamlet in south London, rising housing prices have led to battles with developers over inner-city fields.

Fans wrap their blue and pink scarves tightly against the chill of a south London evening as they cheer on Dulwich Hamlet, a local soccer club whose greatest obstacle in more than a century lies off the pitch.

Champion Hill, its home stadium, is the subject of a protracted battle between the local council and a private property developer, which has thrown the future of this small but fiercely supported soccer club's ground into doubt.

"It means a lot to us," says Rod Laird, nestled among "the rabble," Dulwich Hamlet's most dedicated and raucous fans. "Champion Hill is our home; it's what we sing about.... We want to be at home in our home games."

In early March, the club was kicked out of Champion Hill, the culmination of a dispute with property developer Meadow Residential, which owns the venue.

Although the developer subsequently said it had reversed that decision, and the team was welcome to play the season's remaining games at Champion Hill, a club official said no direct offer had been made and neither party had talked in some weeks, forcing Dulwich Hamlet to play elsewhere.

Britain is experiencing a housing crisis as homebuilding has not kept pace with demand, driving up property prices. With property prices rising faster than wages, affordable housing is lacking, while homelessness has risen in England for seven consecutive years, government data shows.

The soaring price of housing has pushed land prices much higher, too, creating developer demand for inner-city fields, leaving small soccer clubs particularly vulnerable to eviction and redevelopment plans, experts say.

"This is part of a long term trend for sites of community value – our cultural assets – to be judged as having no value, in the face of the juggernaut of global property speculation," said author and University of East London academic Anna Minton.

"Cultural assets like small soccer clubs create viable communities and these assets are being lost throughout London and in other British cities," said Ms. Minton, who lives in the area.

Other London clubs from second-tier Millwall to ninth-tier Clapton FC have faced threats to their grounds in recent years, and other examples can be found across the country.

Truro City FC in Cornwall in southwest England will be evicted to make way for a retail park, while Newbury FC in Berkshire, a county in southeast England, is fighting to maintain its venue, in use for over a century, which the local council wants to turn into an industrial estate.

"We're not the first club this has happened to and we certainly won't be the last," said Neil Cole, who runs the Twelfth Man, Dulwich Hamlet's fundraising campaign.

"Communities in London need things like Dulwich Hamlet; they need things to gather round and bring the community together."

Meadow Residential, an affiliate of US real estate firm Meadow Partners and owners of ground since 2016, has proposed a $112 million project to deliver 155 apartments, while building a new stadium on adjacent public land.

The club's fans voted for the original development, but the local council repeatedly refused planning permission, because it fell well short of its requirement for 35 percent affordable housing, and it required the rezoning of protected green space.

In October, with relations worsening, Meadow cut its financial support for the club, leaving it reliant on fan donations, raffles, and bucket collections at games.

Last month, it evicted Dulwich Hamlet from Champion Hill, and demanded $170,000 in backdated rent. Meadow also claimed ownership of the club's name and trademarks, but backtracked on that after widespread outrage.

Southwark Council, the local authority, took the unprecedented step of releasing funds to purchase Champion Hill at its current market value. It also discussed issuing a compulsory purchase order on the site if no deal is reached.

The council plans to build at least 60 units of social housing next to the stadium, while seeking external funding for renovations to the existing grounds.

"The concept of a new stadium is quite welcome," said Southwark Council leader Peter John. "The way in which it was being delivered is not."

Meadow Residential said it stood by its decision not to sell the ground and to continue its bid to develop the site for housing, a spokesperson said.

"Meadow have noted the council discussion and decision and won't be making any comment on discussions with the council going forwards," the company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At a time when British soccer has become a rich man's game, Dulwich Hamlet, playing in the seventh tier, is a notable exception.

One of the few non-league teams left in London, supporters can buy a match day ticket for only $14, a fraction of what Premier League clubs charge.

The club's attendance has risen dramatically over the last decade, and it is not unusual for a Saturday game to draw 2,500 people, numbers the envy of teams several leagues above it.

Dulwich Hamlet prides itself on its outsized character, and draws a vibrant mix of families, life-long season-ticketholders, and new supporters from nearby hipster-friendly London district Peckham.

The club has received public support from London mayor Sadiq Khan and other soccer clubs, including Millwall, which recently fended off a compulsory purchase order from another London council on its ground.

Back on unfamiliar terraces, as the team struggles to a late defeat against Metropolitan Police FC, fans chant and bang on the steel hoardings, remaining ever sanguine.

"The club has been around for 125 years, a lot longer than Meadow Partners," says supporter Mr. Laird, eyes fixated as Dulwich Hamlet break with the ball. "And we'll be around for another 125 years."

This article was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

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