If you live in south London, or if you follow any football fans on Twitter, you’ll have likely heard a lot about Dulwich Hamlet in the last few weeks.
You might have already known them as ‘that left-wing football club’, or seen their ground cleaned up (badly) on a 2015 episode of The Apprentice.
Maybe you followed as they raised money for refugee groups, or perhaps you’ve just heard your mates from Peckham go on about being able to drink by the side of the pitch at their home games.
Whatever your association with the non-league London club, you’re likely scratching your head at the news that they’ve allegedly been issued with a legal notice forbidding them from using their own name on official materials.
Yes, according to the club’s Twitter account, a subsidiary of their landlords Meadow Partners have issued a notice, through lawyers, claiming the club can no longer use the trademarks ‘Dulwich Hamlet Football Club’, ‘The Hamlet’ or ‘DHFC’.
The club have been operating under the name Dulwich Hamlet Football Club since 1893, and claim Meadow’s move is “pure pettiness, and trying to kill us because we would not be bullied”.
Meadow have responded, seemingly putting the onus on Southwark Council to meet their demands, which include the return of an astroturf pitch which they deem crucial to the future of the club.
While Meadow have been involved for several years, and have stated a desire to find a new home for the club, the latest events appear to have led Dulwich to put their faith in the council and local MPs rather than trusting their landlords’ intentions are in their best interests too.
Dulwich Hamlet FC director Tom Cullen notes that the aforementioned trademark notice appears to have come from a property law firm, rather than a trademark law firm, and told ShortList the club had instructed a third party in relation to intellectual property law.
“I didn’t really think we’d have to [trademark the name] seeing as we’re 125 years old, and technically we should be the only ones that can TM it”, he explains.
Bullied? Over what?
Meadow - Dulwich’s landlords since 2014 - want to turn the club’s current Champion Hill ground into flats and houses, and have previously stated they’re prepared to provide the club with a new home.
However, this was before Southwark Council threw a spanner in the works, with The Independent reporting that the council is not satisfied with Meadow’s plans for a number of reasons, chief among them an apparent failure to fulfil rules on affordable housing.
Meadow had been financially supporting the club, in the knowledge that it was sitting on valuable land which could be repurposed, but the situation with Southwark has led the company to consider this arrangement “no longer financially viable”.
Dulwich have since issued a statement, confirming that on 5 March, “the club were served notice that our license to play at Champion Hill would be terminated immediately”.
So, what do they call themselves if not ‘Dulwich Hamlet’?
“We’re still calling ourselves Dulwich Hamlet, though I think a few of our fans were calling us ‘Trademark Embargo’ [at the last game],” Cullen told talkSPORT earlier in the week.
“We’ve probably had about 30 IP and trademark firms come forward and say they haven’t got a leg to stand on. We’re pretty sure that letter actually came from a property law firm, so not an IP law firm, so I’m not sure how well that will stand up.
“But also the people who live on the Hamlet Road can no longer live on the Hamlet Road. Dulwich Hamlet Fish Bar can no longer be called the Dulwich Hamlet Fish Bar, the junior school round the corner can’t have it on their shirts any more… it’s absolute madness.”
Dulwich Hamlet’s near-neighbours, Millwall FC, have lent their support, with a spokesperson for the EFL club telling iNews the club “deserve the support of clubs across the country as they defend themselves against land grabs by private property developers”.
What’s the beef, exactly?
What may have begun with a football club being caught in the middle of two warring factions has morphed into a battle between the club and its landlords, who have threatened to evict them from Champion Hill and recently issued them with a ‘back rent’ bill of £121,000.
“This is all a reaction to them not getting their way – they’re trying to squeeze us as leverage, is essentially how we feel,” Cullen said.
In a response seen by ShortList, Meadow claims to have made contact with the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust “to facilitate the immediate transfer, at no cost, of the trademarks to preserve the name and identity of the club itself, irrespective of the continued insolvency of DHFC Ltd”.
“On March 6th 2018, we wrote to Dulwich Hamlet Football Club limited (DHFC Ltd) confirming that following repeated breaches of their licence agreement we were taking action to withdraw permission for them to use the Champion Hill Stadium,” the release reads.
“We also wrote to the DHFC Ltd confirming that Meadow owns the name and trademarks associated with Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. The application for the trademarks was undertaken in early October 2017 as part of discussions over a memorandum of understanding and ultimate handover to the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust (DHST) namely the fans of the club.”
The Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust has since issued a statement, saying: “Whilst transferring fundamental assets of this club, such as its name, back to its supporters is welcome, it’s disappointing that action is even necessary.”
Could Meadow be bought out?
There has been talk of such a thing, with former England international Rio Ferdinand’s Legacy Foundation reportedly offering £10 million for the site, more than the £5.7 million Meadow paid, but less than the £13 million they allegedly want.
Ferdinand, who grew up in nearby Peckham, is understood to be prepared to meet Southwark’s affordable housing requirements, and has worked through Legacy – along with partners Bobby Zamora and Mark Noble – to tackle London’s social housing problem in the past.
The initial offer, made in December, is understood to have been rejected out of hand. However, the former Manchester United player remains abreast of the situation.
A spokesperson for Meadow told ShortList the Champion Hill site is ‘not on the market’, but confirmed there had been an approach from Legacy, and Cullen reiterated that “[Legacy] are still very much interested as far as their statements keep telling us, so we still live in hope.”
Did I hear something about Southwark Council looking to buy the site?
Yes. Southwark Council issued a report which it says “sets out the council’s intention to acquire the freehold of the Champion Hill stadium site to enable the delivery of new council homes”.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has written directly to Meadow on this matter, in which he says: “It is apparent that the football club’s future at the stadium is in danger and it has become clear that there is virtually no prospect of an acceptable scheme coming forward while Meadow remain in control of the site.”
Nonetheless, Meadow have reiterated they remain committed to redeveloping the site rather than selling up, so we will have to wait to see whether Southwark are able to put the wheels in motion.
So, can Dulwich play any games at the moment?
Yes. They played this week, in fact, beating league leaders Billericay Town away from home to go top by one point, before winning a cup tie at Brentwood via a bizarre late goal from goalkeeper Corey Addai.
The situation regarding home matches had looked more complicated, however – at least before the latest communication from Meadow. Dulwich were thought to have begun exploring ground-share options for the remainder of the season, with six home fixtures remaining.
Cullen told us the club is “exploring various options in the short and medium term”.
In the meantime the club is raising money through a fan-led ‘12th Man’ scheme and a crowdfunding campaign, with Cullen confirming: “Funds go directly to paying the players and our greatly reduced costs around running the club.”
What happens next?
Cullen joined Duncan Chapman of the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust and Southwark councillor Catherine Rose in Parliament on Tuesday to meet with Shadow Secretary for Sport Rosena Allin-Khan MP, Lord Kennedy, Harriet Harman’s office and Dulwich & West Norwood MP Helen Hayes.
“Southwark Council have backed us enormously and are fighting every hurdle placed by Meadow to support us,” Cullen explained, adding that “[Hayes] has called a debate on the current situation with the club on Friday 12 March in Parliament”.
For now, we wait.