Last weekend, Callum Towler went to watch Clapton FC play at home to FC Romania. Famous for their left-wing anti-fascist fanbase, he wanted to see if politics and football had collided again in spectacular fashion, to plug a wistful hole in his heart left empty when Joey Barton withdrew his services as a political firebrand and man of the people.
I thought Joey Barton reached the zenith. The very apex of credibility in the often messy evasion of footballer into political territory. Could Nick Clegg be a tough tackling box-to-box operator? I somehow doubt it (he’d induce a Crazy Gang hooliganism deep within even his most peaceful opponent). Yet Joey’s performance on Question Time last year went beyond the craft of placing one word carefully after another. He broke down the fourth wall with an everyday swagger; a searing voice of sense in a sea of wonkish cliches and workshopped vagueness. His own slogan, if he had beaten Jeremy to it, could have been ‘honest, straight-talking politics’. Ok, he was a bit sexist when comparing the main parties to choosing between four ugly girls, a creative metaphor sure – and insight into the tough decisions he has to make every Saturday night – but the sort of gag drunk men make down the pub for a cheap laugh, that their wives pull them up on later. What he did is speak to the electorate in the language they speak, that had been drubbed out of most politicians for chewing gum at prep school.
I mention Joey because it was a rare moment when two seemingly disparate worlds aligned quite cozily. Like a married couple ever so often making eye contact over their wetherspoons dinner, politics and football do on occasion come together. Though often with disastrous consequences, whether it be corruption within FIFA making the MP expense’s scandal tantamount to spilt milk, or Sol Campbell’s failed bid to be our Tory major (why does that surprise you when he’s a super-rich guy who’s headed a ball of rubber all his life?). Only a truly agile creature, like Joey, can successfully flit between two institutions that view themselves as the inverse of each other; tending to keep their distance, afraid of noticing a similarity in the tribal forces that define them both.
Joey never came back to Question Time and a vacuum of despair engulfed my heart. That was until last weekend however, when I arrived at The Old Spotted Dog; home to Clapton FC, and their devoted anti-fascist fanbase, ‘The Tons’ – and the two worlds collided and so seamlessly overlapped once again. Now I struggle with the term anti-fascist as a way of defining oneself. Isn’t everyone by virtue of not delighting in fascism therefore against it. It’s almost a boastful position; basically saying, ‘I’m more opposed to evil than you right, right?’. Potentially it’s a way of representing an antidote to the stigma attached to ‘the beautiful game’, and the undercurrent of xenophobia still coursing through some stadiums. But regardless, it’s a noble position. And I digress…
Walking though the turnstiles I was met not by the uproarious babble of pre-match anticipation, but rather the clink and clank of a collection bucket. ‘We’re raising money for the refugee crisis!’, flummoxed and flawed, I obliged at once, throwing a spare note in – like a single feather landing on a mountainous rubbish tip of a problem – in an unconscionable daze at the good heartedness of it all. Clapton FC had it right; choosing to involve fans personally at the source, unlike the monoliths of the Premier League, preferring instead to bury their charitable deeds in the back pages of a match programme.
Nature called so off I went to relieve myself. But my revelling in après-wee relief was cut short, however, when I gazed around the lavatory; confronted by a wall of Class War stickers. One said ‘NO HIPSTERS, NO YUPPIES, NO GENTRIFICATION, GET THE FUCK OUT’. An other, ‘HIPSTERS KILL ‘EM ALL’. I looked in the mirror and my blood turned icy cold. With a fierce beard and long dishevelled hair, I possessed two core stereotypes of what it is commonly considered to be effortfully counter-cultural. Will they tell me to get the fuck out?
Convinced this was just an anarchic streak among a fanbase largely made up of Andy Burnham centre-left types, I risked it, boldly striding over to the heart, the cynosure, the nucleus of left-wing footballing ideology; the Scaffold, a stand it will surprise you to hear literally made from scaffolding – where dreams come true and equality is treasured over and above quality. For the football was of a dreadful standard. Out there Robbie Savage would have made everyone else look like Robbie Savage. When the ball every so often felt the grass beneath it, an FC Romania foot would put it away. Clapton FC were quite rightly trounced.
But the Ultras didn’t care and neither did I. The final result, or watching the game, were really the least of their concerns. For them, Clapton FC isn’t about football, it’s about supporting food-banks and refugees. On a deeper level, it’s about a camaraderie and brotherhood rooted in social conscience. An Italian fan, sad at the deportation of his friend, held aloft a picture of him throughout. A massive banner, reading ‘We Welcome Romanian Migrants’, dressed the sidelines, sharply opposed to the sentiments behind our government’s policy. One little boy, there with his family, got caught in the middle of an impromptu mosh, and like the Lion King, was saved by his dad who bravely jumped into the pack: and sadly perished. All game songs never stopped being sung, like ”Oh East London is wonderful – it’s full of pie, mash and Clapton!”. Beer swilling, vocal cords straining, fighting fascism with every sinew of their being. Oh, Clapton FC.