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Forget the Prem, eighth division is where it’s at

Welcome to Champion Hill, London SE22 - home to Dulwich Hamlet Football Club.

"Toes, Daz, toes!" the burly centre back with blond highlights and semi-mullet barks at his wayward full-back, whose dedication to the art of defending is not, at that moment, what it might be. Daz (Darryl to his mum and dad) does what he's told - he's now on his toes, goal side and just about willing to get his shorts dirty if forced.

Another player, another barked order: "Take a touch, son. Take a touch." Sure enough, "son" takes a touch - a heavy one - and loses possession.
Despite the highlights and the semi-mullet (because of it?), the Bognor Regis number six is a man of authority, his instructions obeyed however misguided. In a game played by alpha males, he is Alpha Plus.

At the other end, on the shallow western terrace, there is a knot of five or six dozen Bognor fans in green-and-white scarves. Behind them is clear, blue sky and a large, if ineffectual, orange sun reaching the end of its short, January shift. In front of them, a portly goalie wears an XL jersey and a rictus grin. The Bognor fans chant: "You're just a fat Ian Walker." The reference is to the former Tottenham and Leicester keeper. It's a decent, if cruel, taunt - the likeness is difficult to dispute. Hence the frozen, false smile. You can't fight the mob with banter. Or grumpiness.

The quality of the football is indifferent, the afternoon is getting ever colder and the match ends goalless, but these fans appear to be having a great time.

Innit to win it

Welcome to Champion Hill, London SE22 - home to Dulwich Hamlet Football Club (founded: 1893; colours: pink and blue). Hamlet and Bognor play in the Ryman League Division One South, aka the Isthmian League, aka the eighth tier of English football. Premier League football this isn't - and hallelujah to that.

There are many joys of watching non-league football, in contrast to its bloated, corporate cousin, and near the top of the list is the ability to eavesdrop the on-field cajoling and screaming that's inaudible in a crowd of thousands. The players are noisy but so, too, are those in the dugouts - throughout the match, one or other manager can be heard bellowing his discontent, pleas (unheeded) increasingly desperate. Every now and then, you even catch snatches of the ref, a rare thing. At one point, the middle-aged man in black feels moved to explain his reasons for giving a contentious free kick. "Little bit late, innit," he reasons. Presumably, he's referring to the poor timing of a tackle but I'm not sure the age-inappropriate "innit" does much to enhance his standing. Perhaps a mullet would have helped.

Another pleasure is knowing that you can arrive a few minutes before 3pm and still make kick-off. Even when top (Bognor) plays second (Hamlet) and a season-high 717 have turned up, we are still inside in time to hear the parp of the referee's whistle. And the queue for a half-time cupper or pint (which, under one of the more bizarre Premier League rules, you wouldn't be able to drink while facing the pitch) is bearable.

Oh, and it's much, much cheaper. At Champion Hill, it costs £8 for adults, free for under-12s. I'm not sure how many under-12s you can sneak in but I found two in my house and a neighbour found another. I suspect I could have rounded up a parkful and the friendly chap on the turnstile wouldn't have objected.

Because of the larger than average attendance, the seats were already taken in the Tommy Jover stand (named, trivia fans, after the club's former winger who scored 236 first team goals either side of the Second World War). So, in another nod to the past (at least for fans of top-tier clubs), we stood. And here's something else you can't do at the Etihad, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge: change ends at half-time. The Bognor fans duly moved from west terrace to east so they could have another crack at the Hamlet goalie and watch their own team's strikers routinely miss the target.

According to a match report on the Hamlet website that followed the game: "Champion Hill rocked to its biggest crowd in many a year." I can't remember the rocking but I'll certainly be back.


Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?