Clapton: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

by | Jun 24, 2017

Sometimes irony can strike in the cruellest of ways. Clapton FC is one of the oldest surviving names on the London non-league circuit, but after years of slow decline the club’s recent improvement on the pitch in the Essex Senior League is being rapidly unwound by the inexplicable behaviour of its owner, and matters reached a point last week at which push came to shove over whether the Tons would even be able to start the new season, even though the club finished the season as the league’s runners-up last time around.

To scratch at the surface of Clapton’s history is to immerse oneself deeply into the history of the non-league game in the capital. Clapton were founder members of the Southern League in 1894 and of the Isthmian League eleven years later. The club were five times winners of the FA Amateur Cup in the years between 1907 and 1925 and have three times been winners of the Isthmian League. In other words, this is a club with a history, one that, we might have assumed, should be fiercely guarded whomever is granted with its custodianship. But events at The Old Spotted Dog over the course of last season and this summer have hinted at the possibility that no such care whatsoever has been taken with this legacy.

Whilst Clapton were successful on the pitch last season, relations between supporters and the club itself could not have reached a lower ebb than they have over the last couple of seasons. There is a rich irony to this. For many decades, Clapton’s decline was perhaps best evinced by the paltry attendances that it was able to attract. The Tons for many years felt like London’s forgotten football club. However, in recent seasons supporters have started to flock to the club after the growth of the Clapton Ultras, a grouping founded in 2012 that channelled disaffection at the condition of modern football into a large and boisterous support for a club at a level of the game at which persuading anybody whatsoever to pass through the turnstiles of a Saturday afternoon has become increasingly challenging with the passing of time.

The Ultras have certainly earned themselves a reputation. Taking their cue from European ultra movements, they have been vocal as a politically left-wing grouping, taking stances against far-right politics that are only occasionally glimpsed anywhere elsewhere within English football. Crowds have swelled from dozens to hundreds over this time, but last season the introduction of heavy-handed security at home matches – the type more commonly associated with top level football than the nether regions of the non-league game – led to a supporter-led boycott of the club.

In March, however, the club’s future was suddenly thrown into jeopardy when Newham Community Leisure Ltd (NCL), the charitable company which holds the lease over The Old Spotted Dog, applied to enter into voluntary liquidation. NCL leases the ground from the Scottish & Newcastle Brewery with the lease still having seventy-five years left to run, and rents it both to Clapton and another Essex Senior League club, London Bari, who themselves will be going by the going by the name of Hackney Wick FC following a merger. Documents made public as part of the liquidation process showed the company to have debts of a little over £200,000, but the declaration of solvency issued at the time showed that there would be an estimated of surplus of almost £230,000 once the company’s assets and liabilities were taken into account.

In April, however, there was good news for the club’s supporters when it was confirmed that, following a request to halt the dispersal of assets from the liquidation because of what they considered to be administrative irregularities which was refused by the liquidator, the supporters group Real Clapton obtained an Injunction at the High Court preventing the Liquidator from dispersing or dealing with the assets of the liquidation. This injunction was not contested by the liquidator, Stewart Bennett of Buckhurst Hill, but it was obvious that this should have thrown serious doubt over the club’s ongoing viability despite pronouncements from both Clapton FC and the Essex Senior League that everything on the pitch would be continuing as normal despite this liquidation, especially when we consider that any transfer of the lease would have to be approved by the Charity Commission whilst both NCL and its directors are currently under investigation by that very organisation.

This seemed to bring about something of a change in tune on the part of the Essex Senior League, who began to seek assurances from the club’s Chief Executive (and, of course, a director of NCL) Vincent McBean that the club would be able to continue. The Essex Senior League’s AGM ended up not quite being what many would have expected it to be, though. There was one curious incident, where one club, Ilford FC, may have been expelled from the league over what’s believed to be a matter of unpaid subscriptions – that club is seeking legal advice having stated quite clearly that said have subscriptions have been paid, and there was something unusual over the vote in that a show of hands was declined but the league allowed a secret ballot instead, according to our sources – but the position regarding Clapton remains unclear.

Real Clapton have written to the league’s clubs requesting fourteen days grace for them try to negotiate McBean’s exit from the club. McBean, meanwhile, reportedly told the AGM that the issue with regard to The Old Spotted Dog has been resolved. Both Clapton and Hackney Wick have been given an extension, in order to confirm where they will be playing next season. It is understood that both Clapton and Hackney Wick have paid their fees for the forthcoming season and have been included in the fixtures, but when asked about where they would be playing their matches at the start of the new season, Hackney Wick replied, “Will see when the season starts.”

But how impartial a party can the Essex Senior League be considered with regard to this difficult and complicated matter? Well, this letter on headed Essex Senior League paper from April holds strong opinions on Real Clapton and also mentions Andy Walsh, formerly the General Manager of FC United of Manchester, who now works for the Football Supporters Federation and has been assisting Real Clapton in their attempts to get this matter resolved once and for all. With our understanding being that the Football Association is now starting to take interest in whatever on earth is going on with regard to the Essex Senior League, perhaps now is the time to be asking the question of when, exactly, some clarity is to be provided on this on this matter. Twohundredpercent have already been in contact with Real Clapton, who obtained the High Court injunction, and they have confirmed that the injunction has not been lifted.

In the meantime – and, it might be considered, just in the nick of time – there was good news for Clapton supporters when it was confirmed that Newham Council have accepted a supporters’ bid to add The Old Spotted Dog as an Asset of Community Value. Under the Localism Act, the ACV gives thr groundan additional layer of protection in law and also means that the community would get first rights to buy, it ever come up for sale. This doesn’t guarantee that Clapton FC will get future use of the land, but it is an added layer of protection at a time when the club’s future seems very much up in the air. It also shines a slightly different light upon the attempts to liquidate the assets of Newham Community Leisure Ltd.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Why were Ilford summarily disimissed from the league when they stated quite plainly that the issue relating to payments must have been a mistake? Why is Newham Community Leisure Ltd being put into liquidation at this time? What will be the result of the Charity Commission’s investigation into Newham Community Leisure Ltd? What, exactly, will be the constitution of the Essex Senior League for next season when it’s all supposed to start in just a few weeks time? What will become of the High Court Injunction which prevents disposal of the assets of NCL? And what will ultimately become of one of London’s most historic football venues and football clubs? All this and more may or may not be answered over the course of the next few weeks or so. We await the next instalment with considerable interest.

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