Football Shorts: Clapton & The Cost of a Pound

by | Dec 7, 2016

The Essex Senior League, situated towards the bottom English football’s non-league pyramid, can be an unforgiving sporting environment. Most clubs eke out a hand to mouth existence, with players’ wages either excruciatingly low or completely non-existent, whilst the casualties who find themselves unable to continue altogether often find themselves sliding from this earthly existence with little to mark their departure from this mortal coil. These clubs are, with the best will in the world, the relative footnotes of the game, in this country.

The desire to earn a few more coins is, therefore, an understandable one, but there are ways and means of going about this, especially when your fan base is large, politically active, and tetchy. In many respects, Clapton FC has landed on its feet, in recent years. For many years, the east London club had been in a state of slow and apparently inexorable decay, but over the last two or three years or so it has found a new lease of life, with a large new following, mostly of the political left, who have embraced the team and its dilapidated Spotted Dog home. In a league in which reaching three figure attendances on a regular basis might be considered a significant achievement, the club’s average attendance this season of 366 compares favourably with those of several clubs playing several divisions higher than the Tons.

It was a cause of considerable surprise to those turning up at the ground for a recent league match against Sporting Bengal to find that new security measures had been put in place might have been considered more appropriate for the Premier League and a price increase of £1 to gain admission to the ground. The supporters, therefore, opted for a boycott, and last night’s Essex Senior League Challenge Cup match against Hullbridge Sports saw the effects of this. A crowd of twenty-one people turned out for the match – those protesting outside the ground confirmed that those who did attend were families and friends of those playing – and Hullbridge ended Clapton’s involvement in the competition, winning the match by a goal to nil.

Now, it’s fair to say that, just as at the top end of the game, midweek cup competitions don’t often stir the loins of non-league football supporters, but what’s striking about this attendance figure is just how low it is. This is EFL Trophy low. This is the reaction of a fanbase that will take a matter of principle seriously. The Clapton Ultras have already stated that, when they spoke to the club’s owner Vince McBean, about the increase, they were assured that the extra money was to be given to the players. This story however, was changed not long afterwards to it being necessary to pay off fines. Given the sketchiness of all of this, it seems unlikely that the boycott will end until admission fees are back to where they were and this needless “security” has been eliminated from the ground on match days. And whilst McBean may well feel intransigent himself over this dispute, perhaps reality will come to bite sooner rather than later, should gate receipts continue to flatline at a couple of hundred pounds per match rather than a couple of thousand. 

The ultras, meanwhile, saw around seventy of their number meet at the ground to make their voices heard. Before kick off, they marked a minute’s silence for a recently deceased league official, while those present raised £173 that would have been spent at the turnstiles for the Newham Recorder’s Christmas Toys appeal. But the boycott, say the fans, will remain, and should it last and have an effect on the team, McBean will only have to look in a mirror to see who’s to blame. This club fell on hard times many years ago. Founder members of both the Southern League and the Isthmian League, the Tons lost their Isthmian League status after one hundred and one years in 2006 and have been labouring in the Essex Senior League ever since. 

For much of the last decade, the club hasn’t shown many signs of returning from whence it came, but league positions have improved over the last three seasons and at the time of writing the team is in fourth place in the table. Six points behind league leaders Barking and having played three games more than them, lifting the title this season would appear to be a tall order, but the last few seasons represent progress after literally decades of decay. It would be a shame to throw that away. But if Vincent McBean chooses to do so, then that’s his prerogative, as the chief executive of the club. It does, however, make one wonder why he’s involved in the club in the first place, though, if this is a chance he’s willing to take, over a couple of hundred extra pounds per match. 

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