The Magic of Non-League

At Deserter one of our exhortations is to seek pleasures that may lurk nearby, in the neighbourhood, unseen or forgotten and right under our noses. Another is to embrace the inexpensive. Yet another, you may have noticed, is to enjoy a bit of booze. 

Furthermore, in the pursuit of pure fun and self-kindness, we argue for combining such pleasures where at all possible. 

Thus, you may find us sitting on a tree stump in the park with a tinnie, or kicking a tennis ball down the road to a tap room for fresh, local ale direct from the brewer. Or at the football.

In our forthcoming book, Shirk, Rest and Play (And Live Happily Ever After), we extol the virtues of the non-league game versus the big-time Billies of the Premier League and their ilk. 


I have written on these pages before about the joys of following Dulwich Hamlet FC. Since then, crowds have increased dramatically, as word of mouth supplemented the club and Supporters Trust’s efforts to spread the word in the community that the beautiful game was alive and well in Zone 2. And it remains a wonderful day (or evening) out, involving pitchside pints, singsongs, dodgy bants and evolving friendships. 

Plus you get in for a 11 quid. Honestly, I don’t even know what a ticket costs at the Emirates any more; partly because I can no longer get one, and partly because I no longer wish to. Here, at Champion Hill, you can walk up, pay on the door, grab a pint and away you go. Or at least you could, pre-COVID, and we surely will again. 

Socially distant tinnies

Recent highlights include a 2019 FA Cup run that culminated in a FA Cup First Round Proper tie against Carlisle Utd, a day on which Deserter colleague, Dirty South, and I began a pub crawl at 1.45pm – for a 7.45pm kick off. We knew we’d had a good time when we saw ourselves later on Match of the Day. 

‘Do you remember us being filmed by the BBC having plastic pints off a wheelie bin on Grove Vale?’ I texted him. 

‘When, oh when, will they leave us alone?’ he replied.   

At the game with Santa


In 2019, Dulwich Hamlet FC merged with A.F.C. Phoenix, a Clapham-based women’s team, which was renamed Dulwich Hamlet FC Women and has added non-league lustre to Sundays ever since.

Home games at Champion Hill are punctuated by cries of ‘It’s like the old days!’ and ‘What do you mean, there’s no queue at the bar?’ as crowds for these games are measured in the hundreds rather than thousands, which feels about right for a Sunday, especially if you’re carrying a hangover from the men’s game the day before. Nevertheless, these numbers are amazing for the level and can be quite intimidating for the oppo, who in some cases are more used to playing on park pitches. 

Sunday best

One current player in the women’s team, Ella Wales-Bonner, attended the same local school as my daughters, which accentuates the community feel. My own girls are wonderful in so many ways but as I am fond of reminding them, they don’t play football for Dulwich Hamlet. I wouldn’t say they have let me down, but they will, therefore, forever remain a source of disappointment to me. 

The Menace

This season, I have also enjoyed watching Peckham Town FC, known as The Menace, who play in the Kent County League Premier Division, five steps below Dulwich Hamlet, in Step 7 of the National League System 

The Menace Arena

At Peckham Town, on a green patch in Dulwich next to where the South Circular pleasingly reduces to a single carriageway country lane, the record attendance is 279. Last season’s was 71. Three quid gets you in. A fiver gets you admission, a programme and a raffle ticket. You buy a Brick Brewery beer, choose your lean and cheer on our brave boys as they try to play around an assortment of Kentish thugs, some of whom have quite clearly never read a book in their lives. 

The team, unusually in the men’s game, is managed by a woman, ex-Millwall, Fulham and Arsenal defender and England captain, Mary Phillip. Which causes consternation in some quarters.

Arriving at an away ground last season she was told: ‘Excuse me, you have to go round the back way to watch your boyfriend play.’ 

‘I’m the manager,’ she replied, before going on to beat them 11-0. (I may have made that scoreline up, but that’s how it plays out in my head.)

It’s a lovely set up at The Menace and very welcoming, still at the stage where the volunteer staff seem a little surprised to see actual fans. Add in the presence of architectural wonder, The Smallest Stand in Football (see main pic) and you have yourself a must-do afternoon.

Magnifique, Hooky Street

When we’re back to normal, we’d love you to join us for a game at one of the above. (I was going to write ‘for VIP day out’, but non-league doesn’t really work like that.) One of the rewards for pledging for our new book is just that: An invitation for you to join me and Dirty South for a Dulwich or Peckham game of your choice, meet some of the heroes behind the scenes that make the magic happen, and, if you’re lucky, be filmed drinking a pint off a bin lid. The sort of thing money can’t buy. Except, in this case, it can.


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Image credits:  Main image, Jenty; At the game by Sam Mellish; Sunday best by Ollie Jarman; Peckham Town pics by Duncan Hart