Forest Gate in East London is an unlikely setting for a football revolution, but the last twelve months have proved a life-affirming period for one of English football’s most historic clubs. Formed in 1878, Clapton FC forged a reputation as one the country’s leading amateur sides, winning the FA Amateur Cup five times and twice claiming the Isthmian League title. The Old Spotted Dog, their home since 1888, is the oldest senior football ground in London, nestled innocuously on a quiet residential road next to a tyre-fitter’s yard.
The modern history of Clapton FC bears a stark and barren contrast to its glorious past life. Crowds in recent seasons have slumped below twenty, with single figure attendances not uncommon. This decline in interest may be partially attributed to the club’s poor showing in the Essex Senior League (a status they have retained, owing to the effective absence of relegation places) and the general disrepair of the ground. The long standing sight of an old sofa discarded behind one of the goals has symbolised a club whose illustrious past has been all but consumed by the ravages of time.
It was against this ignominious backdrop that the 2012-13 season saw a marked change of off-field fortunes for the Tons. Last year, the Friends Of Clapton (FOC) initiative was set up by a former committee member, ostensibly as a response to concerns surrounding the long term future of the club. The FOC’s primary aim is to “help those who run, administer and play for the Tons” with specific focus on the security of tenure at the Old Spotted Dog ground. The FOC now boasts more than fifty members, many of which are simply well-wishers, keen to preserve a piece of the nation’s sporting heritage. The collapse of early Football League pioneers, Darwen FC, in 2009 provided a timely reminder that no club, irrespective of legacy, is safe from the vagaries of mismanagement.
Running in parallel to the FOC has been the emergence of an embryonic set of supporters, labelled the ‘Clapton ultras’. Although a largely ironic and self-deferential tag, the group have embraced traditional ultras’ iconography, as depicted on their blog site. Their provenance on the other hand, can be seen as a response to the wider malaise engulfing the national game. “We are a group of friends from East and South East London who felt alienated or priced out from modern football,” advises ultras member James. “We decided to turn our back on something we no longer enjoyed and focus on something more community centric. There are heterogeneous reasons why people continue to get involved with us, but there is something about Clapton that makes you fall in love with the place the minute you enter the ground.”
Whatever the rationale, the movement is having an effect. Clapton’s last home game of the season against Hullbridge Sports attracted eighty-one supporters, of which, around forty were from the ultras. In isolation, the figure doesn’t seem that impressive, but it’s a quantum leap from gates recorded over the last few seasons. The impressive support also extends to away fixtures, culminating in the faintly surreal sight (captured, almost inevitably, on YouTube) of a pitch invasion at London APSA’s usually deserted Terence McMillan Stadium, following Clapton’s 4-2 win in May of this year.
Despite these positive strides, the group aren’t immune from criticism. Given their documented anti-fascist stance, the Clapton ultras stand accused of being “lefty hipsters” and “the St. Pauli of East London”. James is keen to stress the ultras are not simply a political movement; many of the group have grown up as season ticket holders of other clubs as part of a generational legacy. He does concede an ethos underpins their support, though: “Newham and Hackney are culturally diverse areas with a long standing anti-fascist heritage. We want to ensure Clapton Football Club is not perceived as a white football club just for white fans, particularly as far right groups nationally are making coordinated efforts to politicise football fan culture as only being for the white working class – at the exclusion of others”
Like the FOC, the ultras want to create something viable and long term. Plans are in place to contact local schools, disability organisations and refugee groups in an effort to embody a true sense of community. Moreover, the ultras hope it will give other fans in the area the chance to embrace a historic club with a passionate following at a fraction of the cost. “It really depends on what you want from football,” stresses James. “The more commercialised it becomes, the more supporters are treated like a commodity; you start to question the ethics of the game, particularly the moral and financial cost.”
For now, the future of Clapton FC looks considerably brighter. There are still ongoing concerns around the long term use and upkeep of the ground, but facilities are slowly being replaced and developed. It is hoped this overhaul will lead to a long overdue spring clean of a venue whose comically dilapidated state has taken on mythical proportions in local non-League circles. To borrow from the popular idiom, there’s life in the Old Spotted Dog yet.
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