Interview: Dulwich Hamlet’s Ryan Dempsey

Last season saw the emergence of Dulwich Hamlet in the London and South-East Premier (Tier Five) and, as well as pushing strongly at the top of the league before lockdown, they were creating headlines for their consistently high crowd figures. Impetus editor Ben Gilby spoke to Dulwich Hamlet’s first team manager Ryan aka Marvin (after his middle name) Dempsey and women’s press officer Hugo Greenhalgh to find out about how they achieved it all.

Our conversation began by discussing the club’s evolution last summer. Hugo Greenhalgh tells the story: “The genesis of Dulwich Hamlet Women’s was a combination of the club wanting its own women’s side, and existing side AFC Phoenix seeking a merger. Phoenix had become an established South London side over the past decade but having seen other clubs in their division merge with men’s clubs, were after a move that would help them continue their progression. They were playing at the Edward Alleyn Club, a playing field in Dulwich, so coming to Dulwich Hamlet was a logical fit. The two parties also felt there was a natural overlap of values, particularly around the club’s work with the LGBTQ community. The Women’s team has now been active at Dulwich for just over a year now and we’re really proud with how they’ve performed.”

Hamlet had an excellent first season competing in the London & South-East Premier and prior to lockdown were top of the table, two points clear of Queen’s Park Rangers who had two games in hand. Promotion to the FA Women’s National League in their first season was a real possibility before the pandemic intervened.

Photo: @JXMSZ
First team coach, Ryan Dempsey, explained how the squad overcame big barriers off the pitch to enjoy success on it. “I wasn’t part of the merger from AFC Phoenix to Dulwich as I started with the team in late September, early October. Farouk Menia, who was the manager, friend, father figure and an all-round gentleman, sadly lost his battle with cancer and passed away in November 2019. The players had played for, partied and laughed with Farouk for a number of years so his passing hit everyone every hard. All of the players are fantastic people, on the back of losing a dear friend they still welcomed me in and helped me join their family. They listened and responded well to my own coaching style and philosophy.”
 
“Training was difficult as we trained in White City (up to an hour away from Dulwich in busy London traffic) and finished at 10pm on the two nights we did train. Some players weren’t getting home until 11.30pm. But this shows the commitment to the club and to each other. In terms of performance the away fixture to QPR was a low as we conceded two goals in the 90th and 92nd minute to lose 2-1. But there was really good performances against QPR at home 2-0, away to Fulham winning 3-4 (it should have been more comfortable but we showed great resilience to recover being 2-0 up to losing 3-2, to then go on and win 3-4) and we beat Leyton Orient from the FA Women’s National League 1-0 to get to the Semi-Final of the Capital Cup (the Final was cancelled due to Covid-19).”
 
Pre-lockdown, Dulwich Hamlet were playing all home games at the men’s home ground, Champion Hill, recording some fantastic attendances that some clubs three or four leagues higher would be jealous of. I asked Hugo how this was achieved from a standing start.
 
“We already have a reputation in the local area as a family-friendly, community club. When the Women’s team launched, a core of our support quickly got on board and have been instrumental in welcoming them to Champion Hill. It helps that the team play really attractive football and are good at engaging with families and fans after every game, home and away. It’s great that we’re now getting crowds between 200 and 300 on Sundays. Like you say, there are clubs further up the pyramid who’d be delighted with those numbers. But I’d like to see us do better. Those numbers are only about 10% of what we get at a men’s game. I’d like to see more fans of the men’s team get behind the women’s team this season.”
 
We then turned our focus towards the new campaign. Dempsey assessed the London and South-East Premier for 2020/21 and highlighted the fact that: “The division has become stronger, most of the teams have made some really good signings. Players that have experience playing in higher divisions have dropped down. It will be a really competitive league.”
Photo: @DulwichHamFC_W

He also identified the more challenging aspects of the tier five division: “The distances of the teams is quite sparse with away games to Eastbourne and Saltdean. You can go a couple weeks without matches as some venues suffer during the winter months. Cups also take priority so fixtures can change at the last minute. Not all clubs can host midweek fixtures which would help during the more weather affected months of the year, so that you can play two games in a week.”

The squad are keen though to build on their hugely impressive first season by pushing on this time round: “Given where we finished last season, we know that promotion is a realistic target for this side,” said Hugo Greenhalgh.

“From our encounters with Leyton Orient in the Cup competitions, we know we’re not far off the standard required for the FA Women’s National League Division One South. That said, there are some decent sides up there – the likes of Ipswich Town and AFC Wimbledon – and it would be a big challenge.”

“Last season we had the best defence in the league, but we didn’t score enough goals. That’s a great base to build on this year and the signing of striker Sophie Manzi from AFC Wimbledon already looks like a great acquisition for us.”

Dempsey, also highlighted the pathway for players joining the club to make their way towards first team football at Champion Hill: “As well as the first team that plays in the London & South East Regional Women’s Premier League we have a reserve side that plays in the Greater London Women’s Football League Division One. There is a pathway between both squads, there are a couple of players that train with the firsts with the aim of trying to get them more experience playing at a higher level, with a couple of reserve players progressing to make their debuts last season.”

Dempsey also highlighted future plans that the club have to develop girl’s and women’s football further: “With Dulwich Hamlet winning planning permission to build a new ground, the hope is to build and develop the female section within the club. Having access to an astro pitch will help and offer opportunities for extra female provision but will also help the community as a whole. There were talks regarding creating a Development squad (u21s) before Covid-19 but I think that won’t be realistic until the 2021/22 season if there aren’t any more lockdowns.”

The mention of Covid 19 brought our discussion seamlessly towards the challenges that face the South London side both on and off the pitch at present. Dempsey identified the fact that: “The merger (with AFC Phoenix) was completed quite late last August so we still don’t have all the processes in place that I want and need to help us be successful on the pitch. Training in West London wasn’t ideal last season but that has now been sorted and we’re back in South East London. Little things like the kit – it’s a male kit so the socks are massive and can be pulled up to most player’s hips! The shorts are also massive and most players roll them up. It’s not just Dulwich but most clubs have this issue. Additionally, recruitment of players can be a challenge, getting into South East London for training and fixtures can put a lot of players off as it adds time to their already busy day.”

There is no doubt that the standing and reputation that the men’s side of Dulwich Hamlet have both on and off the pitch has assisted in the visibility of the women’s club – but I wondered what the extent of the off pitch relationship was like. Hugo Greenhalgh explained: “Reflecting on the first season with the women’s team, I think there’s so much scope to have a closer relationship between Dulwich’s men’s and women’s sides. Unfortunately, this summer would’ve been a great opportunity to trial something like a double header pre-season game, but for obvious reasons that’s not been possible. We’re also having conversations about some integrated training sessions and more sharing of knowledge.”

Finally, we looked slightly further into the future at where both Ryan and Hugo believe women’s football at Dulwich Hamlet and more generally could develop. For Dempsey, “Long term investment in the women’s game is going to be the only way that it will continue to develop and grow. If you look at the top of the WSL with Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal they have continually supported their women’s sides with finance but also the infrastructure around training (full-time), support staff, social media and advertisement. Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa have done the same and look how quickly they have progressed. The FA missed a massive chance to showcase the WSL and Championship during the lockdown. I don’t know the actual figures but if the FA had helped support the testing needed to ensure the safety of the players then the remaining fixtures could have been played and viewed by millions of people bored at home wanting to watch football!”

Photo: @DulwichHamFC_W

In terms of the growth of the game, Dulwich’s first-team manager believes: “I think there will need to be an investment in the Championship as it’s still majority part-time players and the gap in quality (mainly due to WSL being pro so training twice as much with better support staff) is already big and it’s only going to get bigger. Female participation is growing and growing as there are role models on the TV, via social media and is accessible. There still isn’t enough provision for females to play all ages and across a different variety of levels. Hopefully in five years Dulwich will have a Development Team (U21s), and plans are in place to offer provision to females from U7s above. The plan is to continue to try and get the first team into the National League and grow from there.”

s for Hugo Greenhalgh, the women’s press officer emphasises the importance of establishing themselves as a top side at their existing level before pushing forward and offering ambitious youngsters a place to play top quality football: “We want to remain competitive at our level and challenge for a place further up the pyramid. I’d also love to go on a bit of a run in the FA Cup and draw a professional club at home at Champion Hill. For me, the main thing is that a girl growing up in South London can now fulfil her dream of one day putting on a pink and blue Dulwich Hamlet shirt. It would be great to keep inspiring local girls and getting them more involved in the club.”

The club have also announced that season ticket holders for the men’s side will gain admission to all women’s matches at Champion Hill free of charge once the present restrictions can be lifted. This news, allied with a desire by everyone to get back watching football again can only see Dulwich Hamlet women’s already impressive crowds growing further. On top of this, a strong, ambitious group of players and staff mark this club out as one that are in a good place to climb further in their second season of existence.