The Essex Senior League is eight divisions from the Premier League, but the world of its clubs is so far removed from the glamour and glitter of the elite that they may as well inhabit different universes. This is football as a hand to mouth existence, where players are seldom paid much more than expenses and clubs subsist on crowds that often fail to even reach three figures. It is also a level at which clubs that have fallen upon hard times find themselves in. One such club is Clapton FC. Twice winners of Isthmian League and five times winners of the FA Amateur Cup, Clapton have finished in the top half of any division of which they have been a member just twice since 1936.
So winning might not be everything for this East London club, but it ongoing existence is under threat as a result of the mismanagement of its owner and this threat is, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to the club’s home ground, the Old Spotted Dog Ground. The club signed a 100 year lease on the ground in 1992 through a company called Clapton Trust Limited, which was subsequently renamed as the Newham Community Leisure Trust Limited in order to emphasise the difference between it and the football club, and in the same year it acquired charitable status. Vincent McBean was co-opted onto the board of NCLT on 8th January 2000, and he later also became the Chief Executive of the football club itself. NCLT was struck off by the registrar of companies for a failure to file accounts in 2003, but the company continued to trade and 2005 McBean wrote to the owners of the freehold of the ground asking if he could buy it. His offer was rejected.
Two years later the Charity Commissioner, having noted that NCLT had been struck off by Companies House, removed it from their register because, in their view, it had ‘ceased to exist’. In 2008, however, McBean successfully applied to the High Court to get NCLT re-instated at Companies House, but this reinstatement woulc come at a cost. McBean was made to sign an undertaking not to trade and to dispose of the lease, in 2009, McBean filed ‘small business accounts’ for NCLT, which meant that the company was re-instated, while McBean released from his earlier undertakings, even though this was a breach of the court order, which required McBean to file audited accounts in order to get this reinstatement. Since the, however, the company has filed no accounts and on the 8th January 2013 Companies House wrote to NCLT giving them three months to show a reasonable cause as to why the company should not be struck off the register. McBean and the chairman of the football club, John Murray-Smith, are understood to have no even responded to offers of help from supporters.
Why, then, is all of this so important? The answer to this is that if NCLT is struck off, the lease on the Old Spotted Dog Ground will be forfeited and if this happens it reverts to the freeholders who have no obligation legal obligation to offer a new lease to the club. It is with this in mind that the Friends of Clapton FC has formed, and has been in contact with Supporters Direct with the aim of getting th leasehold over the ground put into safe hands. If those accounts, however, aren’t produced in the next three weeks the club’s future will be put into jeopardy, and Clapton wouldn’t be the only club affected by any uncertainty over the future of the Old Spotted Dog Ground, either – another Essex Senior League side, London Bari, also use call this ground home having moved there in order to join from the Essex Corinthian Sunday Football League. This club would be at serious risk of being unable to complete it ESL fixtures were it and Clapton to be evicted from the Old Spotted Dog Ground.
In the meantime, Clapton Football Club coninues to subsist on the most threadbare of recources. The team, effectively, has to fund itself, which includes buy and washing its own kit, paying for their own match balls and travel, and it has even been suggested that players should be held responsible for their own fines. Such circumstances hardly lend themselves to the signature of the best players, so it is hardly surprise to see the Tons at the foot of the Essex Senior League, having played more games than the clubs above them in the table. Vincent McBean has already overseen the club losing its Isthmian League status, which, having been one of the league’s six founding member clubs in 1901, it proudly hung onto for one hundred and one years before relegation in 2006. Its death would mean that only one of the original six clubs that founded the Isthmian League, Civil Service FC, would still exist in its original state. The Old Spotted Dog Ground, home to this club one one hundred and twenty-five years, would most likely be lost forever. And maybe it is true to say that Clapton FC doesn’t mean a whole lot to a whole of people, but this is a name which has been a part of the landscape of English football for more than a century. To lose it would be be another tiny tragedy for lower league football in this country.
Perhaps the majority of the people of that part of London don’t could about the football club that bears its name. A small number do, however, and they formed themselves into a group which is seeking to get answers from those running on the club with to regard to what on earth they think they’re doing to it. You can get further information on Friends Of Clapton FC here. It seems likely that if this football club is to be saved, the only people that can be entrusted to do it will be the supporters themselves.
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