A break from ‘Look At These Scenes’ tradition here as an English club is featured on the site for the first time. Tim Hartley shares a refreshing footballing experience from London’s east end…
Clapton 1 v 3 Eton Manor (29.04.2014)
There’s a revolution going on in east London. It’s loud, colourful and slightly edgy, but I doubt you’ll have heard about it. Because gritty Forest Gate in the London Borough of Newham is hardly the first place you would look for it. Hidden behind a rather run down tyre fitters, the only sign of the uprising is a crumbling wooden sign which reads ‘Clapton Football Club.’
Inside the Old Spotted Dog ground the battlefield is a threadbare football pitch. Clouds of dust were blowing up as I watched the players warm up. The nets were ancient and the linesman wore a cardigan, long trousers and trainers. The proper official had apparently been caught in that day’s tube strike.
But as soon as the game kicked off, so did the Clapton ‘Ultras’, who model themselves on Europe’s most passionate and colourful fans. Red smoke bombs blotted out the pitch and a surreal version of ‘When the saints go marching in’ rattled off the roof of the tiny terrace: ‘Oh east London is wonderful. Oh east London is wonderful. It’s full of pies, mash and Clapton. Oh east London is wonderful.’ A hundred or so supporters had squeezed under a dodgy roof or corrugated sheets held up by a pile of rusting scaffold poles. The self-proclaimed ‘Scaffold Brigada’ have turned Clapton games into a riot of colour, noise, lager and general good times.
My 20 year old son Chester had been following Clapton all season. His contempt for professional football and the modern game had led him to this, allegedly, more authentic sporting experience. “This is what it’s all about,” he’d enthused. “Not big stars on ridiculous money, all seater stadiums and police restrictions. Forget all that branding and replica shirt stuff. The real thing is down there in Clapton. Football’s not dead. Honest. You’ve got to see it for yourself dad.” And so I did.
Today’s opponents were Eton Manor and they had not seen anything like this in the Essex Senior League. Neither had I for that matter. As their keeper stepped gingerly through the thick grass and nettles behind the goal to retrieve the ball another chant swept across the ground. ‘RMT, RMT, RMT,’ to the tune of ‘Here we go’ rang out in praise of the transport union which had crippled the London Underground that day. This was closely followed by a full rendition of Billy Bragg’s anthem ‘Power in a Union.’ Because these ultras are not of the skinhead fascist variety. Quite the opposite in fact.
JW, dressed in a duffle coat with a rolly cigarette hanging from his lip waved a flag with ‘Anti-Fascist Alliance’ handwritten in red and white on a black background. Another home-made banner read ‘Sometimes anti-social. Always anti-fascist.’ For this is a very leftist and ‘right on’ kind of a crowd and they don’t care who knows it. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and those hearts are firmly on the Left. Rumour had it that the local EDL thugs would come down to ‘sort out the Commies,’ but nothing happened.
JW had tried to hand me a flag to wave but as this was my first time I didn’t want to appear to be jumping on the bandwagon. In my 70’s heyday we had General Pinochet, gay rights, apartheid and the ‘occupation’ of Ireland to fight about. Blair Peach had been beaten to death by the Met, Maggie was in power and the Welsh language was dying on its feet. This generation was supporting Clapton, erm… and the transport workers union of course. How times change.
There was a whiff of Spittalfields chic about the grungy beards, duffle coats and combat trousers on parade. This was designer red before the labels moved in. Lapels bore anti-fascist and FC St Pauli insignia. (The German club is renowned for its anti-Nazi stance.) Bohemian, maybe. Trendy, certainly. It all had a distinct ‘hipster’ element to it. My journalist friend Ade had also had a taste of the Clapton experience but he was a little sceptical about it all. “Hmm,” he said. “All seems a bit post student to me. Let’s see how many of them are down there supporting the team in three years’ time.” But take away the politics and it’s football as entertainment Ade. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be all about?
Clapton were two nil down within twenty minutes but the fans didn’t seem to care. Up went a chorus reviling Maggie Thatcher and praising Tony Benn. At last, something I could relate to! Someone used the ‘C’ word in a chant. “Didn’t we agree not to use that word?” shouted a bald headed young man from the back, firmly but politely. “Yeah, right,” came a voice of support from behind the scaffold. And the chant stopped dead.
This level of support is pretty remarkable given that Clapton are in the ninth tier of English football and the players are not paid. The ‘Tons’ ended the season in the middle of the table. But how to explain the fanatical support from the makeshift terrace? Are the ultras a grassroots movement revolting against modern football? Its obsession with money and the marginalisation of the real fan. Or is it just a fad? The latest trendy way of raising two fingers to the world while wearing your heart on your sleeve?
Oddly, the owner is not too pleased with this level of attention. The fans have started asking questions about how the club is structured and financed. I was warned, in the nicest possible way, not to buy my beer in the clubhouse. “Don’t give him anything. He won’t put it back into this club,” I was told. I didn’t dare ask who ‘he’ was. The assistant coach was recently sacked for apparently being ‘too close’ to the club’s supporters. At the very next match the Ultras unveiled a banner supporting him. Chester pointed him out to me. He came across, smiled warmly and shook my hand. Despite his demotion he’s still a big fan of the club and is happy to continue to cheer his lads on from under the Scaffold.
On the way to the ground Chester had introduced me to Tom. He works in the Oxfam shop in Victoria. “But I did go to university,” he added quickly. Tom’s from Lancaster and started following the Tons a year ago. “I don’t know why,” he said. “Maybe it’s the history of the ground. Did you know it’s the longest continually used senior football ground in Britain? I have tried ‘proper’ football but I’m hooked on this now. You really feel a part of it.”
There’s no doubting the closeness of the players and the fans. They designated one recent game at Tower Hamlets as a fundraiser for homeless charities. The Tons’ right winger Billy Wise was on the streets at 16 but found a way out with the help of football. He played for and now coaches the England homeless World Cup side. Players and fans as one. That day in Tower Hamlets was International Women’s Day and they unveiled a giant ‘Real Ultras are Feminists’ banner. It also inspired perhaps the most bizarre chant of all time. To the tune of Yellow Submarine they sang, “We all live in a patriarch regime, a patriarch regime, a patriarch regime.”
My game ended in a 3 – 1 defeat but the result counted for nothing. The crowd went beserk anyway. The Tons’ captain was carried precariously shoulder high from the pitch towards, where else, the sacred Scaffold. He was beaming. Cue more flares, the throwing of beer and chanting. All the players stayed on the pitch for an impromptu end of season party. The manager made an impassioned speech. “We can’t pay these lads money,” he said. “You know that. But you guys…” “And girls,” came a shout from the back. “Er, and girls,” he continued. “Your support is brilliant. You’re renowned all the way up to the Ryman League. Teams hate coming here and the celebration you give my players when they score – that is what I can offer them. Please, please keep it up next season.”
The next challenge for the Clapton Ultras is to try to take ownership of their club. Never mind the RMT and Tony Benn. Forget the imminent victory of international socialism for a minute. If the Ultras can take control, then this ragbag revolution in east London could really be going somewhere.
By Tim Hartley
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Pyrotechnics have become a regular sight at the Old Spotted Dog!…