It was in February 1990 that I made my first trip to Champion Hill for a Vauxhall-Opal (Isthmian) League Premier Division match between Dulwich Hamlet and St Albans City. As a youth, I was singular in my interests and the opportunity to visit the home of one of the former giants of amateur football, a stadium that had played host to Olympic football in 1948, before its demolition and conversion into something a little more user-friendly was too good to pass up, even for a sixteen year old boy who should have had more pressing things on his mind, like girls and booze. A couple of decades worth of neglect had certainly taken their toll on the old place, though. By 1990, only the cavernous main stand, smelling slightly of dry rot, pock-marked with elderly men with greased back hair and more than a hint of the greyhound track about them, remained safe to use – the rest of the ground was closed off, though the weeds growing up through the crumbling concrete terracing were clearly visible, even from my vantage point, more than a hundred yards away.
This was non-league football in London during the 1980s. Around the periphery of the capital city, at Walthamstow, Leytonstone, Ilford and beyond, the former homes of amateur football were crumbling. The reasons for the decline and fall of amateur football and its struggle to find an identity in a world that no longer distinguished between amateurs and professionals are many and varied, but may be summed up by the phrase “changing times.” The amateur football clubs of London saw the distinction between themselves and professional clubs formally ended in 1974, but with crowds on the non-league game already starting to have dropped more than a decade earlier, maintaining the interest of local people and in turn the cost of maintaining these big amateur grounds of the past became an increasingly uphill battle.
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