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Clapton CFC Ultras
For some, football will always be defined by its uglinesses: the impossible sums of money, the empty transfer speculation, the gormless post-match interviews, the casual sexism, the homophobia, the bigotry, the violence — a bleak circus of male camaraderie at its most primal and inane. But one team in Forest Gate, London, stands alone in its commitment to an ethos, which sees football as a force for good.
Clapton FC moved to their current home The Old Spotted Dog Stadium in 1887, taking on Bartholomew's Hospital tenancy on the Upper Lane grounds at the centre of a traditional working class East End community. Their first ever match was a major event attended by over 4,000 spectators, and the club went on to co-found the London League in 1896, which featured Thames Ironworks (that would later become West Ham United). They also featured in the London Charity Cup final six years in a row.
These days the quality of their football isn’t exactly Premier League, adhering to the homely ‘hit and hope’ / ‘in-the-mixer!’/ ‘big man up top!’ approach you’d expect from an English non-league side. But in truth, where the Ultras are concerned, tikki-takka, and tactical systems are largely irrelevant.
As Forest Gate became more diverse, so the club increasingly mirrored the immigrant community that surrounded it. What survives is a club with the passion of the Italian Ultras tradition; but one which despises Fascism, celebrating ‘foreignness’ and difference as a virtue.
Outside of matches and between their day jobs, members of Clapton’s Scaffold Brigada are to be found raising funds for likes of Newham Action on Domestic Violence; Newham’s only LGBTQ youth group ‘Paris’; and organising and collecting regular food donations for the Refugee & Migrant Project (RAMP).
This uplifting story of Clapton FC’s noble efforts to change the face of football even has its own copybook villain — in the form of Vincent McBean (yes really), a local businessman who bought the club in 2000. Accusations of his illegal purchasing of the club and plans to sell the ground, his Capone suit, and Chelsea tractor style have made for a difficult relationship with the Ultras. Tensions between them came to a head last season when ticket prices were raised without warning ― and without an explanation of how the extra funds would be spent.
A boycott was organised and throughout last season a distant din accompanied home games as the Ultras stood singing outside the stadium in protest, refusing to pay the increased admission. The familiar rite of players approaching the scaffold to lead the anti-Fascisti chants disappeared, and eventually so did the Ultras themselves. And so began the odd parallel lives of Clapton FC, and Clapton CFC.
‘100% fan-owned and members-run’ Clapton Community FC are a new team formed by the Ultras, and this season, the reincarnated club will play home games in their temporary home in Walthamstow. This is a new start for Clapton, with open-mindedness, inclusion, and community service back to the fore.
¶ Secrecy and anonymity is clearly important to Ultras, are the reasons for this practical or ideological?
T: ‘I think it’s a bit of both. There is a practical reason: I discovered in this country a website called Redwatch. On it, people from the left-wing who have been protesting have been photographed, with names, addresses, and everything recorded. We’re quite exposed as a group and have received some threats, so it’s always better to keep an air of anonymity. We’re not doing anything illegal, but it’s always better to be careful. The other reason is that, in general, we try to do everything as a group, so there’s no need for names, they’re irrelevant ― you’re part of a group. If you’re coming to the stadium, you should be part of it, sing, enjoy it and be part of the Ultras’.
¶ The Ultras appear to be highly organized, with literature circulated at games, scarves sold, meetings and venues booked and well-promoted. You all clearly have roles and responsibilities, so is it hard in a left-wing co-operative to stop leaders and hierarchies within the club emerging?
T: ‘No, everybody can help in any way they want. The more, the merrier. Some people can reply to emails, some people might design flyers, paint the banners or book the coaches — there are so many little jobs that aren’t seen or noticed; people don’t understand how many things there are to be done’.
¶ Generally speaking, what do you think the demographic of the fans is? Has it changed in recent years?
T: ‘It’s always been different. I’ve seen a lot of women, a lot of women involved in our groups, a lot of young people in the stands, and a lot of foreigners, like me ― all of us together’.
W, an Ultra who has been going around the pub collecting for soup kitchens joins us.
W: ‘It’s always been really diverse, and the boycott hasn’t really affected that. In terms of the profile of people who turn up, it’s remained the same, and that’s taking into account the extreme shrinkage of numbers for home games, and the big growth in away attendances. We’ve had record away game numbers this year’.
¶ The club proudly proclaims to be anti-fascist, a stance that would have had special resonance in the 1980s heyday of hooliganism and the rise of the National Front, but why does being anti-fascist remain so important now? Doesn’t it go without saying?
T: ‘Fascism is not just having skinheads beating you up in the streets ― it comes in many forms. Fascism is the name we give to all discriminations, no matter who it’s against. I’m lucky because I’m a western man, white, and I live in London, so I’m an elite in a way. But after Brexit even Europeans like me are subject to it. It’s about trying to stop any form of discrimination, it’s the: “I’m not racist but…”’.
¶ The ‘but’ is the important word…
W: ‘For me, it’s about having a space that organizes; a lot of we do is difficult, clandestine. It’s a variety of thankless jobs, none of which is particularly glamorous. People romanticize about the ‘Nazi-punching’ element of the movement, and really that accounts for about 1% of what anti-fascism is all about’.
¶ You can’t have enough Nazi-punching though, can you?
W: ‘It’s about organizing communities really — creating a social support structure that might not be there otherwise. We work with food banks, help out in homeless soup kitchens and collect money for charity. I think fascism is all-pervasive; there is a temptation for people to say, “it doesn’t have to be said”, but, it does. Talking about it draws the spotlight to the work people do around anti-fascism across all areas of the community’.
¶ Vincent McBean has been the CEO of the club for over ten years now, what’s the club’s current financial situation and what do you think his plans are for the club?
W: ‘The situation at the moment is that he’s declaring that the charity who own the ground has debts of over £200,000, but we know that the club is lucrative even based on attendance alone, you can see it in the number of people that we brought in the season before and the season before that’.
T: ‘But we know that he doesn’t invest anything’…
W: ‘There’s no expenditure. The away team have had cold showers for ages, the last manager had to buy his own footballs to train with, nobody gets petrol money for away games, even basic stuff like that. There was one infamous episode, I can’t remember who we were playing, but we provided refreshments for the away team afterward and he served them… bread sandwiches. Just white bread… mayonnaise. Stacks of white bread and mayonnaise. This is a cheap-skate we’re talking about’.
¶ So is the club profitable? Is McBean earning money from the club?
W: ‘I think based on the numbers we’re bringing in, it’s definitely a very profitable set-up he’s got going on, let’s put it that way. The club itself of course is profitable, but you’ve got to think about how he uses these different organisations to take on different aspects of the business’.
T: ‘Plus, he’s also the chairman of the charity controlling the ground! There’s a mobile phone mast in the ground, which can be monetized by renting it to mobile phone companies for coverage, there’s one next to the scaffold. That’s a source of income we should be seeing. He’s been renting out the club-house to various groups, so even without the fans there’s money coming in. The issue is that the charity and the club are two separate legal entities, but the same person is in charge of both of them’.
W: ‘He rents out the clubhouse for parties, we’ve seen bouncy castles and barbecues on the pitch; he’s rented it out for prayer during Ramadan and remember: this is not a charitable man. He wouldn’t have done these things for free; he wouldn’t open the gates for nothing’.
¶ Does he have any interest in the future of the team or do you think his plan is to sell off the land to developers?
W: ‘He’s done it at other clubs. He asset-stripped Woodford Town. But honestly I don’t know what his end goal is for Clapton FC. Personally, and this may not be the group view, I can’t decide whether he’s just pig-stubborn and not that bright, or whether he’s an incredibly smart Bond villain-like genius. I don’t know what he’s playing for, but what I do know is that he’s quite clever with the way he sets up new businesses and gets out of them at the right moment. He got out of the charity commission investigation by liquidating the charity, therefore there was nothing left for them to investigate.
He set up a new company that was going to take over the new lease for the ground with him as the sole director, with no board and no other members. These aren’t accidental business decisions made through incompetence. But I don’t know. He could be trying to sell the ground, or create a modern elite football ground like Billericay, with massive attendances and a corporate experience, but I have no idea.
One of the frustrating things about this situation for us is that the system is so complex because [Vincent] has set up all these structures and gotten all these agencies involved. It’s now really hard for us to sum it up in one line, we can’t just say “developers are bad!”, or “the board is trying to kill our club!”, we don’t have any sound bites like that’.
¶ When you look at examples of bigger teams with a left-wing sensibility like Werder Bremen and St. Pauli, strong branding and messaging is a huge part of their popularity and their ability to draw a broad fan-base. Clapton has a similar cult status, and it’s easy to imagine Clapton FC merchandise being embraced by hipsterdom, and the unique stance of the club having resonance and commercial value. With that in mind, do you think there’s a tension between wanting the club to grow and be successful (and fund your initiatives), and not wanting to lose the charm of Clapton’s DIY attitude?
W: ‘There’s no posturing, it’s not an attitude, we just want a club that's open to the community, that’s owned by the community, that’s accountable to the community, and that offers a place for local kids coming up to play football, to give them a chance. It’s a place where the local community have something to do together on a Saturday, cheaply. We want it to be run as a co-operative, and fan-owned. For me, there was never a point where I thought “Oooh, what’s our brand?” because it’s not like that, we’re fans’.
T: ‘In terms of the Ultras, there are two honest truths: one is nice; one is not. The nice one is: I believe that if you do something good, it’s like a seed. If casual fans see what we’re doing here, maybe they’ll want to get involved, or do similar work in their community. At the same time, I would never say to anyone, “you’re too cool and trendy to come to scaffold”. I don’t care what you look like or what you do. You’re here to see the team, you’re here to sing, (and maybe buy some merchandise at the end!) ― that’s the end of it. We’re not going to Lanzarote for the Ultras Christmas party or anything like that! That’s not what we do. We reinvest everything in charity work. So, if people come and they’re in ‘cool’ clothes, but they give us money for a scarf, then that’s fine, I don’t care what you’re wearing!’
W: ‘I think people think this is a cultivated thing ―that we had a grand plan about how we were going to be. People think we had a meeting to decide our aesthetics and our ethos or something, but we didn’t. It all evolved organically. Even amongst quite a lot of the English teams that are a little bit Left, a bit Punk, we’re kind of known for our ‘European Ultras’ thing. And we do that simply because we’re made up of a shit-load of European Ultras. We didn’t all decide on a whim one day to put on balaclavas’.
¶ And why are they all singing in Italian?!
W: ‘You learn it on day one!’
¶ This is perhaps a bit of a mischievous question, but there’s a kind of romance in continually fighting against ‘the man’, and the destruction of a good thing, it brings people together in a strange way. Do you think you’d almost miss Vincent and what he represents, if this situation goes away?
T: ‘No! Believe me, no’.
W: ‘Hell no’.
T. ‘No, seriously not. It’s been a fucking nightmare. A real nightmare. I remember I was close to crying in the final home game of last season, when I found out the liquidation process was going on. I was like: “this... this isn’t going to exist anymore…” We’re like family, we were all celebrating together on the pitch, with a great connection to the team ― not the club. It was so nice’.
W: ‘It’s killed the connection with the team as well, you’ve got to bear in mind, the team is local. You see these kids around all the time, you bump into them…’
¶ Long-time Clapton captain Jerry Jairette left the club to join Tower Hamlets FC last year, and it’s rumoured that he left after Vincent demanded that he refrain from singing with the fans and leading the chants at the end of the game. Was that a turning point in your relationship with the owners?
W: ‘We actually didn’t know about that initially, we found out after. He was actually kicked out of the club because after we received bans from Southend and the Metropolitan Police, he spoke up against it. Not very directly either, he sent one Tweet saying, “Oh, some bastards are always going to kick people out”― or words to that effect’.
¶ What will you do if the worst-case scenario happens and the club in its original form simply disappears?
T: ‘He can’t do that, it’s an asset of community value, and there is a charity commission. It’s not his choice. There are a lot of legal ways to stop that from happening, and we’re just waiting for the legal bodies and authorities to sort it out, it’s their job. There are plenty of reasons why they should step in, so I’m confident that the issues will be resolved, and the club will remain… but it will take time’.
W: ‘One of the crucial things we’re waiting on now is the charity commission report. Not a lot can happen until that report is released. From what we know the report has been completed, and they’re just waiting for someone to sign it off. It’s frustrating: we’ve been waiting for the report to be released for six months, maybe longer. But, ultimately, we’ve still got cards in our pocket, we’ve still got initiatives and ideas going forward, we’re very much in the middle of things and nowhere near the end. We know this situation might drag out for years’.
¶ Your new club Clapton CFC is now up and running, congratulations! What are your plans for the team, is this a fresh start?
T: ‘So basically the club plan happened and it's going great. We got already 311 members and Vince Clapton (I really like to call it like this) is functioning. What we are working on—parallel to a members fans owned Clapton (as it should have always been from the statutes) —is to get back the Old Spotted Dog and return it to the community for the good of the community (as it should be given it should be managed by a charity). We're supported by the Newham Mayor (Rokhsana Fiaz), several Councilors, the local MP (Lyn Brown) and it seems the Charity Commission meanwhile is moving forward with the report.
Clapton CFC is not a fresh start, but it's the real club as recognised by the life members. What we're looking for is to get the OSD back, play there, organise activities for and involve the community’.
Clapton CFC’s first game of the season is against Sporting Hackney FC today at 1pm, Mabley Green, Hackney, London. Tickets are £2, and all proceeds will go to Sporting Hackey’s MIND project, promoting positive mental health through football.
iiii Magazine stands with Clapton CFC.