By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The Old Spotted Dog Ground in Forest Gate – home to Clapton FC since 1888. This dilapidated ground is real grassroots football with only the most basic facilities. You won’t find any prawn sandwiches or executive boxes here. This is a football experience for the purist. Despite being only a mile away from West Ham’s Boleyn Ground the two clubs couldn’t be further apart. In recent seasons, Clapton, who play in the Essex Senior League, the 9th tier of English football, have been garnering a fair amount of interest, largely for their fans (the Clapton Ultras) and their left-leaning politics. So for Non-League day on Saturday I went to see what all the fuss was about.
The fixture in question was a derby against local rivals Ilford, a match which has been played since the 19th Century according to one friendly fan I spoke to. Clapton were offering initiatives such as free entry for under 18s and senior citizens and the Ultras were offering ‘solidarity tickets’ for those on benefits, the unemployed, asylum-seekers and refugees. This was just one of a number of demonstrations of community spirit from Clapton FC and its supporters. Their remit seemed to be that no-one should be excluded from watching football because of race, religion, sexual preference or their financial situation. Forest Gate is a multi-cultural area and Clapton FC have embraced this with open arms and are rightly proud of all facets of their community.
However, the ‘Tons’ and the Clapton Ultras are far more than just a political movement. They may pride themselves on being anti-fascist but they are also passionate football supporters. From kick-off until full-time, the Scaffold Brigada never stopped cheering and singing, providing a thrilling atmosphere of which some Premier League stadia would be jealous. Accompanied by a very enthusiastic drummer, chants ranged from “Oh East London is wonderful – we’re full of pies, mash and Clapton” to a call and response version of ‘Yankee Doodle’ and even included a humorous rendition of “The referee’s a Tory” when Ilford were awarded a contentious penalty.
Clapton’s die-hard fans might call themselves ‘Ultras’ (a tongue-in-cheek tag) but they are far-removed from the notoriously violent and often fascist Ultra groups found in European Football. I saw people from all walks of life at the Old Spotted Dog Ground, from young families to OAPs. Women make up a significant proportion of the Clapton Ultras and I also spoke with two disabled fans (one thing the club needs to do is improved disabled access and facilities). Everyone was mixing happily, including the away supporters who, after wildly celebrating Ilford’s third goal, were not met with threats or verbal abuse as one might expect at the majority of football grounds, but with chants of “We’re gonna win 4-3.” It was very refreshing.
Whilst Clapton FC’s rise has garnered much attention, some of it has not always been welcome. At a pre-season friendly against Thamesmead in early August, Clapton fans were attacked by alleged members of a far-right group, unhappy at the club’s anti-fascist stance. Missiles were thrown, including a fire extinguisher and many of the assailants sang racist chants. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt.
But what of the football? Well, befitting a lower-league fixture, the quality wasn’t great. This wasn’t helped by the state of the pitch which was frankly awful and prevented either team stringing more than about three passes together. Clapton were the beneficiaries for the opening goal as their number 11 (I think his name was Miles Hunter but due to the absence of a programme I couldn’t be sure) shot from the edge of the area and the ball bobbled up and over the Ilford goalkeeper into the net. After an early spell of Clapton pressure, Ilford dominated the rest of the 1st half, scoring two close-range goals and a rather soft penalty. Clapton made it 3-2 with the last move of the half through a Freddie Morris (I think) header from a long throw. For £6 I couldn’t have asked for more entertainment.
The 2nd half was a slightly cagier affair. Ilford defended their lead manfully as Clapton got stuck in and grew in confidence as the half wore on. In fact they ended up playing some attractive football with the right-back Quentin Monvihe particularly impressive bombing forward. Clapton’s unceasing pressure eventually paid off as they equalised with time running out. Both sides had chances to win it but a 3-3 draw was a fair result and it was fitting that such an enjoyable match fell on Non-League day. The crowd officially numbered 761, more than double Clapton’s average attendance. The afternoon was certainly a rousing success.
There then followed post-match ritual during which both sets of players went over to the Scaffold Brigada and partook in a singalong with the fans in scenes reminiscent of the Bundesliga (the only other place where I’ve witnessed such an occurrence). In an age where footballers are wildly out of touch with the modern fan, the seemingly egalitarian bond between supporter and player was not only nice to see but also symptomatic of the ethos of equality at the heart of the club.
Speaking to fans at the match, a number told me that they had previously been supporters of, or even season-ticket holders at, Premier League clubs, but had grown disillusioned with life as followers of top-flight teams. The expensive match day package at a Premier League ground (ticket, refreshment, travel) is becoming something that the average earner struggles to afford. Even with the enormous commercial and broadcast revenues these clubs now generate, they still see fit to ignore the common fan and instead run themselves as businesses instead of the pillars of the community they should be (and were originally intended to be).
Clapton FC’s philosophy of being inclusive rather than exclusive is bucking this trend by putting fans first and it is reaping the rewards. Far from the whingeing and moaning fans in the upper echelons of English football, the all-singing all-dancing Clapton Ultras were having a whale of time on Saturday. After all, supporting your football club is meant to fun, right?
However all is not well off the field for Clapton FC. I heard murmurings of discontent amongst supporters against current Chief Executive Vince McBean. They are concerned that McBean does not have the club’s best interests at heart and that attempts by supporters to join the Clapton Members Club so as to object to his decisions have been rebuffed. This has led to fans forming a splinter members group. The lack of unity between supporters and the powers that be threatens to derail what has been, and could continue to be, a very successful cult football movement.
Whilst Clapton FC should be rightly lauded for their anti-fascist, anti-homophobia, anti-racist and anti-sexist views, why should it be that a small club that plays in the Essex Senior League becomes noteworthy because it is against discrimination? Clapton’s views are not necessarily ‘left-wing’, as many media publications have decreed. They are merely championing the values of common decency. It is indeed a sad indictment of football in this country and society as a whole that simply not being racist, homophobic or sexist is deemed newsworthy. I look forward to the day when the values of respect and tolerance in football grounds are the norm, not the exception.
Who says sport and politics don’t mix? Forza Clapton.