The Clapton revolution – the future of non-league football?

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THE CLAPTON ULTRAS sing about East London and the fact they are anti-fascist, while celebrating their involvement in the resurgence of a once proud, but more recently dilapidated, amateur football institution.

There’s been something rumbling in Forest Gate (Clapton don’t play in Clapton – never have) for some time. It’s a challenging area, the very epitomy of multi-cultural, but the Clapton fans revel in its earthiness.

Twenty, indeed four years ago, nobody watched Clapton play. A lot of non-league followers assumed the club had died, fading away like many other London clubs that have struggled to make a bean out of a football-congested capital city. Their ground, the Old Spotted Dog, was an ancient and much-loved venue for away fans, especially as there was a pub next door – which has also gone the way of so many boozers in London.

The traditional non-league crowd is aged between 50 and 60 with the odd little lad accompanying his Grandad. It’s a generalism, but most clubs are experiencing ageing audiences that will evaporate unless more effort is made to attract the next generation. Clapton, if they look after it, have that next generation. “We have to build on what you see here,” said Chairman Vince McBean, a tall, imposing West Bromwich Albion fan who has bold plans for his club.

McBean wants to take Clapton to the Conference. You look around the Old Spotted Dog and you see it is a considerable challenge. But he truly believes he can take Clapton to unprecedented heights. “Five years,” he added. I winced a little and wondered where all the money would come from.

In order to do climb the non-league pyramid, Clapton will need more than a couple of hundred people through the gate to sustain a level of football that is becoming more closely aligned to the Football League than ever before. Will the crowd stay with it?

There’s a [sceptical] school of thought that most of the flag-waving, articulately-scripted chanters that call themselves the Scaffold Brigada will be a passing phase – a kind of football flash mob. Such a suggestion doesn’t go down well with the Ultras. They’re clearly passionate about what they have created just a long ball down the middle from West Ham’s Upton Park.

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On my journey to East London, a Clapton-scarved supporter boarded my train at Welwyn Garden City. At Liverpool Street, half a dozen people were in my carriage making the short journey to Forest Gate. While I spoke to two  students – the kind of bearded fellows that prop-up bars in Shoreditch and Hoxton – who had latched onto the club because “we can watch football at a reasonable price, meet up with like-minded people and have a beer”, two natives of Warsaw or Wroclaw sat talking loudly with plastic bags full of Tyskie lager. They all had Clapton badges on their jackets. I was subsequently informed that the two Poles were far more representative of Clapton than the student types that visit the club because it’s the thing to do – that Welwyn fan may have been a student from University of Herts for all I know.

What about politics, apparently one of the driving forces? “We are supposed to be left of centre,” said McBean with a grin. “But we have all sorts here, from all walks of life.” The students added: “There are some good things going on, like food bank collections and the refugee thing,” said one of the students. “You cannot knock that.” Others will tell you that politics are an important factor in this all-singing, all-dancing movement.

The Clapton Ultras play the anti-fascist card very heavily, and nobody should have too much of a problem with that – apart from right-wing groups, that is. The banners and the iconography may appear a little out-of-place at a non-league ground – goodness knows what the Essex Senior League  thinks about it. But the left-wing, cause-driven element of the club is something that demands attention – and praise. The club’s “Ultras” speak out about homophobia, sexism, racism and countless other issues. “There are a lot of good people here,” said McBean, pointing to the packed area behind the dugouts. “We have social workers, care workers…people doing great things for the community that see something in the club they can identify with.”

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But is it really just about football, I ask? I assumed the “Ultras” tag was ironic, but try suggesting that and see what the response is. The Clapton crowd clearly enjoy their own role in the club and actually, from my vantage point, I watched the crowd more than the football. When the winning goal was scored, the noise seemed more muted than when the Scaffold Brigada was in full flow. “I am not sure people go to the game because of the football,” one of the students remarked on the journey out of Liverpool Street. “It’s a social thing.”

One of the duo was from Stourbridge, the other from Chertsey. Neither had any link with Clapton other than “picking up a leaflet and being given a sticker”.  Ah…those stickers. Only three weeks ago I came across one of those plastered on the urinal in the Ten Bells, Spitalfields, perched alongside a similar item from Dulwich Hamlet. And earlier this year, I spied a Clapton Ultras sticker at, of all places, Eindhoven station!

To use a football cliché, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter where your fan base comes from, but Clapton seem to be tapping into something that is really quite compelling.  Anyone with an interest in how non-league football could develop should visit the Old Spotted Dog as soon as possible. It is a very positive experience to see the fusion of football and “the cause” in action. It deserves to be infectious, although personally, I am uncomfortable with politics and football, on either side of the extremist scale. But what do I know? According to one supporter, my views were those of a “comfortable middle class twat living in the suburbs”.  I enjoyed visiting the Old Spotted Dog, it was an experience…perhaps never to be repeated.

Footnote
Regular readers of GOTP will be aware that this article has been revised since first published on January 3. There’s a reason. My original piece made some comments about the sustainability of Clapton’s new found support, the suggestion that the Ultras tag was ironic and that many of the fans did not seem to be from the area. I played down the politics – deliberately –  and spoke to the chairman and two fans on the train. There were suggestions that the fans were not genuine Clapton supporters and that I should not have spoken to the chairman. That said, there were many positives from the story, but these were overlooked. Game of the People did not set out to annoy Clapton fans and therefore, a few amendments have been made to the original story. This is unprecedented for GOTP – almost 800 articles and millions of reader clicks over three years and this is the first story to be revised – to avoid a backlash and to avoid being part of an ongoing internal dispute. I wish Clapton well – I stand by my original conclusion that this could be the future of non-league, but I doubt I shall return. 

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