Happiness is a team called Hamlet
People - football people - who don't watch non-league football never understand people who do. They assume that it's the same but worse, an inferior product, just two teams of eleven but worse players than you'd see if you were watching professionals in the League (if that last term still means anything). The crowds seem inferior too. Smaller. More sparse. Less passionate. Listening to the radio as often as not. If they aren't taking as much interest in the game as the crowd would at a proper match, what am I doing taking an interest?
I can answer that those are the very reasons why I want to be at a non-league match in the first place. It's no good. It's like trying to explain cats to a dog-lover. Or explain cricket to the world in general. What they do not like is what I like about it: they more they describe its faults, the more I admire them as virtues. And vice versa, too: the things they want me to see are the things I do not want. I do not want to see superstars playing in front of enormous crowds: superstars are not what I am interested in and crowds are what I want to get away from.
I do not want to pay the ticket prices, sure. I would have gone to see West Ham on Boxing Day: I found out (not to my surprise) that it was thirty quid. I am not paying that. Rather than pay that I would rather give twenty pounds to the first stranger in the street I met and keep the tenner for myself. Today I thought about watching Fulham play Crystal Palace. The cheapest ticket I could have hoped to get cost twenty-eight. I'd rather pay seven and go to Dulwich Hamlet.
So Dulwich Hamlet is where I went. I went there twice over the holiday: I expect to go maybe four times a season, nothing excessive. Nothing excessive is the reason that I go. No excessive numbers. No excessive passion. Nothing to excess. I want to be unhurried, left alone, not bothered, able to walk into the ground unnoticed, able to get a drink at the bar before the game and after it and during the half-time break. I want to be able to walk all around the ground if it should be my fancy. I do not want the passion of the crowd. I do not want the passion and I do not want the crowd.
What I want is the kids playing on the terraces and the bloke walking his dog around the ground. We had both today. A man brought his dog into the bar before the game and they went and watched the match together. A boy and his mates brought a ball into the ground and when they started getting bored, they started kicking the ball around instead. They had to be warned twice by the announcer to desist, the second time with the threat that the ball would be taken away if they continued. We were all rather disappointed when they stopped, as we were looking forward to the anticipated chase. You will not get that at the Boleyn Ground for all your thirty quid.
This is what I want. I want it because it's human. It isn't a watered-down version of a real thing, an inferior copy that I take because it's cheap. Non-league has a humanity that professional football lacks. It has an awareness of its own humanity. It understands that it is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be. It is not all that dramatic or all that important or all that skilful or all that overwhelming. It takes itself seriously but it does not pretend. It is not the greatest team the world has ever seen. It is only human. Humanity is not the overcoming of other people. It is the understanding of your own weakness and the understanding that you share that weakness with everybody else. Non-league is human. I like non-league for that.
I bought a Golden Goal ticket in the clubhouse before the game. For a quid you get a ticket with a time written on it. Mine said:
If the first goal of the game is scored at the time which, according to the announcer, matches that on your ticket, you win £25. The first goal of the game was scored by Dulwich off a goalkeeping error very early on. No need to throw away the ticket like a betting slip, because you can also win a fiver if the last goal of the game is scored at your time instead.
So I was still in the hunt when Dulwich led 2-1 with ten minutes remaining and Horsham were on the attack. My stopwatch was showing a little over thirty-six minutes of the half gone when a gap – one of several thousand to appear during the game – opened up in front of goal and a Horsham player stepped into the gap with the ball at his feet. Disloyally, I mentally cheered him on, and as he deposited the ball in the net I looked forward to the five pounds being similarly deposited in my wallet.
I was not counting chickens. I was not sure I had ever won a raffle and I was not sure I had ever seen Dulwich hold out under pressure. I wouldn’t, I said at the time, mind so much if Dulwich were to take my fiver off me, but I would not be at all happy if Horsham were to walk off with both my fiver and the points.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, but it is so often disappointed. And yet I was not entirely disappointed when, two minutes into injury time, a Dulwich player in line with me on the opposite side of the pitch – allowing me to see that he was at least a yard and a half offside – was permitted by the linesman and referee to play on when put clear down the right, cut in to the area and, with a degree of aplomb entirely absent from anything else I had seen Dulwich do all day, buried the ball in the far corner and won the match for Hamlet. I have to admit I laughed. I have never before seen Dulwich Hamlet score an inevitable goal. I got up and went up the stairs to the clubhouse to buy a couple of pints with the beer money I had no longer won.