An Old Spotted Dog Story
It’ll be a while before any football is played there, but Clapton are coming home. The news broke last week that the breakaway club Clapton CFC have been granted the lease to The Old Spotted Dog ground in Forest Gate is welcome for two primary reasons. Firstly, it takes the club home, though what constitutes “the club” is slightly complicated. Secondly, it goes a long way towards the long-term preservation of London’s oldest football ground, a valuable asset to the history of the non-league game in a city that has seen its historic architecture decimated over the last four decades, but an asset that has fallen into substantial disrepair.
Clapton Football Club were formed as Downs Football Club in 1877, changing their name a year later. They originally played their matches on Hackney Downs, but in 1888 a sports ground which had previously been used by St Barts Hospital became available. The site was originally a hunting lodge, but in the middle of the 19th century it became a pub, with the sports pitch behind it being used for cricket, and later football. The name of both the hunting lodge and the pub were The Old Spotted Dog, and the football ground adopted the same name.
Clapton became one of the most important clubs in the early development of the non-league game. They were founder members of both the Southern League in 1894 and the Isthmian League in 1905. Strictly an amateur club, they were at a disadvantage against the semi-professionals and professionals of the Southern League, so the strictly amateur Isthmian League was a better fit for the club, and it didn’t take them long to blossom. They won their first FA Amateur Cup 1907 and would go on to win it five times by the middle of the 1920s, while they also won the Isthmian League in 1911 and 1923 and the London Senior Cup in 1909 and 1911.
The decline was inexorably slow. With no relegation from the Isthmian League and no motivation from a strictly amateur league to demote or replace one of its founder clubs, Clapton drifted slowly down the league table year-on-year as the 1930s progressed, and when football resumed after the war things, if anything, got worse. Between 1946 and 1973 the Isthmian League expanded from fourteen to twenty-two clubs, but Clapton remained defiantly near the bottom of the table every season. The decline accelerated throughout the 1960s. Between 1960 and 1973, Clapton only finished above the bottom three four times, successive seasons between 1967 and 1970. When the Isthmian League introduced a second division for the 1972/73 season, they inevitably became one of the first two clubs to be relegated.
Throughout this period, the statistics are extraordinary. Clapton failed to finished any season between 1946 and 1982 above tenth place in the Isthmian League. From 1971 to 1976 they conceded more than 100 goals in every season bar one, and they conceded 96 in that. When the Isthmian League added two third tier divisions, they were relegated again, though on this occasion there was one blip. In 1983 they were promoted back as champions of Division Two North of the Isthmian League. They lasted two seasons before being relegated again and the torpor continued, until eventually it caught up with them once and for all. In 2006, 101 years after becoming one of its founding members, Clapton FC were relegated into the Essex Senior League. They’ve been there ever since.
By this time, The Old Spotted Dog pub had closed down – it shut up shop in 2004 – while Clapton FC was effectively the fiefdom of Vincent McBean, chairman of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel and a man with fingers in many pies, including charity. His registered charity, Newham Community Leisure Trust (NCLT), had held the lease over the Old Spotted Dog since 1995, and McBean became the Chief Executive of the club in 2000.
In December 1999, NCLT announced plans to move Clapton FC to the Terence McMillan Stadium in Plaistow, so that it could undertake significant upgrades, including a synthetic pitch. These plans never came to fruition and the Isthmian League and the FA closed the Old Spotted Dog before the start of the 2001/2 season, with officials stating that required ground improvements had not been made. Clapton were unable to play any games there throughout that season, playing ‘home’ games at Aveley, as well as Purfleet, Barking & East Ham United, Wembley FC, and Hertford Town.
By the time of relegation into the Essex Senior League five years later the club made for a sorry sight. The Old Spotted Dog Ground had long since fallen into disrepair, whilst crowds had dropped as low as twenty or thirty people. Even at this lower level, the club couldn’t get its house in order on the pitch. In their first seven seasons in the Essex Senior League they finished above the bottom three just once, even as the league expanded from sixteen to nineteen clubs.
McBean, however, was about to get what he likely considered at the time to be a huge stroke of luck. A small group of supporters of other London clubs who were politically of the left had become completely disillusioned with going to their regular clubs and started watching Clapton instead, from the start of the 2012/13 season. As their numbers grew they became known as the “Ultras”, creating beer and pyro-fuelled afternoons at The Old Spotted Dog as the team continued to labour on the pitch.
McBean was, of course, happy to make money from this sudden influx of new support, but it wasn’t too long before cracks in the relationship began to show. The new supporters were all political leftists with strong pro-immgration, anti-fascist credentials, and it was always unlikely that they were going to be the sort of passive consumers that McBean would have wanted. Tensions grew amid rumours of money going missing. The Charity Commission had first investigated NCLT in 2002 and concluded that “little or no charitable activity was undertaken at the Old Spotted Dog Ground”, and the following year it was struck off by Companies House for failing to file its accounts and deregistered by the Charity Commission due to concerns over the way it was being managed.
Charity status was eventually restored by the High Court in 2009, but complaints started again in 2013 about the way in which it was being run. The charity’s bank account was frozen, and in December 2016 and January 2017 NCLT trustees failed to attend interviews that had finally been scheduled by the Charity Commission in order to investigate what, exactly was going on at NCLT. Before a new meeting rearranged for March 2017 could take place, however, the charity was placed into voluntary liquidation by its controlling trustees. A month later, an injunction was obtained at High Court by an NCLT trustee and Clapton FC life member, seeking to prevent the appointed liquidator from disposing of assets to pay off creditors. Documents showed that the charity had assets of £350,000 in freehold property, £101,000 in leasehold property and £2,700 in cash. It had debts of over £200,000 and estimated that the surplus after paying its debts would be £229,000.
Meanwhile, supporters first boycotted the club over a sudden and unexplained hike in ticket prices in 2016, leading them to being reduced again and an end to the boycott in February of the following year, after seven games. The shenanigans surrounding the liquidation, however, pushed tempers back to breaking point, and in March 2018, following a second boycott which had lasted for the whole of the season, the fans broke away altogether to form Clapton Community FC, playing their home maches in the Middlesex County League at Wadham Lodge in Walthamstow, which soon earned itself the nickname of “The Stray Dog.”
Back at The Old Spotted Dog, though, the edifice was crumbling. With crowds having fallen from an average of more than 300 people back to the twenty or thirty from the pre-Ultras era and NCLT having been in liquidation for some time, rent stopped to the landlords, and in August 2019 Clapton FC were evicted from The Old Spotted Dog by Star Pubs & Bars, part of Heineken, for non-payment of rent. At the end of October, Vince McBean was banned from all football activity by the FA for non-compliance into their investigation into misconduct at the club in previous years.
By this time, Clapton were playing their home matches at Southend Manor, 45 miles from home. Somewhat ironically, Southend Manor had been one of two clubs – alongside Metropolitan Police – to ban Clapton supporters from their ground, after a right-wing group attacked them at a previous match there. The problems being faced by Clapton supporters were highlighted further when match against Thamesmead Town had to be cancelled after twenty minutes after supporters were attacked there, as well. These incidents, though well-publicised, did remain rare.
A month after Clapton FC’s eviction from The Old Spotted Dog, Clapton Community were awarded the lease by Star Pubs & Bars, despite counterbids by McBean, who was looking to get the lease back, and Hackney Wick FC, who had previously been tenants there. At the start of this year, planning permission was granted to turn the former Old Spotted Dog pub into a hotel. Meanwhile, McBean’s Clapton – he’s still listed as Chief Executive on the club’s website and is still registered with Companies House as a director of Clapton FC, who have confirmed that they are moving a little closer to home, to play at Plaistow next season. Its last filed accounts (PDF) showed no financial transactions throughout the whole of 2018 and it is now listed with Companies House as a dormant company.
But much of this feels like a bit of a sideshow now, especially since it was confirmed last weekend that Clapton Community have gone a step further than merely securing a return to The Old Spotted Dog. Following a change of policy by the freeholders, they have now purchased the freehold to the ground as well, making the trust the owners of the ground. It is a tremendous achievement for a club that was playing last season at the eleventh tier of English football, alongsides the likes of Panshanger Dynamo, London Samurai United, and Kensington Dragons. Despite finishing as champions of Division One East & Central of the Middlesex County League in 2019, they two divisions below the shell of Clapton FC, who remain in the Essex Senior League.
They will remain away from home for a further year. The Old Spotted Dog Ground was hardly a sophisticated football venues even before Clapton FC were evicted, and it’s run to the point of deriliction, now. It will take a lot of time and a lot of effort to get the ground in shape for football to be played there again, but dedication will not be in short supply and it will be interesting to see how – or even whether – the ground is reinvented or redeveloped for this new era. It’s certainly a unique opportunity for a football club of any hue, and into the bargain London’s oldest football stadium, which was first used in the 19th century, will continue into the 21st century with its future secured.