The bold message displayed on the back of Clapton Community FC’s away shirt for the 2018/19 season is as poignant as it is timely. ‘No Parasan’ was the rallying cry used by anti-fascist fighters during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that saw 175,000 Republicans killed in action. Clapton’s kit, which garnered international press coverage after the club received over five thousand pre-orders from across Europe, was released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the end of the war, with the club pledging to donate a percentage of proceeds from shirt sales to the International Brigade Memorial Trust. Its striking red, purple and yellow colour scheme, inspired by the flag of the Second Spanish Republic, and the addition of three-pointed star of the International Brigades is a stark tribute to the sacrifices made by those who gave their lives to fight fascism and, given events across the world in the past few years, a pertinent reminder of the threat it still poses.
But if you think a football club from the seventh step of Non-League releasing a kit to commemorate the end of a war is curious, then it’s unlikely you’re aware of Clapton CFC’s extraordinary story. Formed in February of this year, The Tons are about to embark on their maiden season in the Middlesex Counties Football League having formed from the embers of Essex Senior League side Clapton FC, following a breakdown in relations between supporters and the club’s administration. Though playing under a different badge, the continuity between the two clubs is already clear, as Clapton CFC look to harness the integrity and spirit that characterised their forebears before the powers that be sucked the soul out of the club.
Established one hundred years before the height of punk, Clapton earned a reputation as a progressive football club during the early part of the twentieth century, with the legendary Walter Tull beginning his career at The Old Spotted Dog ground. Two-time winners of the Isthmian League, and five-time holders of the FA Amateur Cup, Clapton bobbed up and down in levels seven and eight in the football pyramid, before back-to-back finishes at the foot of the league in the mid-noughties saw them demoted to the Essex Senior League in level nine. Poor performances on the pitch soon translated to apathy in the stands, and by the end of the 2011/12 season, the Old Spotted Dog was seeing average attendances of just twenty. Then the cavalry arrived.
Formed by a small group of football fans disillusioned with the money-crazed Premier League and the ever increasing cost of attending matches in England’s top tiers, the Clapton Ultras found solace at their local club, and began to inject life back into the diminished support. Slowly but surely, attendances began to pick up at The Dog, and by 2016 the average gate had risen above three hundred. Taking inspiration from the fan movement made famous in Italy, the Clapton Ultras – a moniker adopted with a knowing wink – set about promoting the inclusiveness of their club, adopting ‘Football For All’ as their mission statement, and reaching out to local immigrants and supporters of anti-fascism to join their cause. Away from the Spotted Dog, the Ultras banded together to support social causes, including the Refugee & Migrant Project Food Bank, the anti-racist group Proudly East London, and Football Against Homophobia, all of which they continue to champion, encouraging fellow supporters to get involved. The activism by the group began to put Clapton FC on the map, and within two years of their formation the club had broken their attendance record and were receiving national media attention.
Not everyone was enthused by this band of raucous supporters, however, as Metropolitan Police FC and Southend Manor both moved to prevent Clapton supporters from travelling to their grounds. Conspiracy theories were sparked among members of the Ultras, with claims that Clapton Chief Executive Vince McBean had encouraged the opposing clubs to hand out the supporter ban, a theory that wasn’t quelled when McBean himself suggested that his comments on the Ultras use of ‘pyro’ at games may have played a part in the decision. With the relationship between McBean and the supporters already pocked with mistrust, his perceived involvement in prohibiting fan access only fanned the flames.
McBean’s association with Clapton FC began in 2000, when he purchased the club for just £4,800. Despite the upturn in attendances following the arrival of the Ultras, fans were soon asking questions about the lack of investment into the club’s facilities and personnel, which led to the club’s Life Members reviving the AGM in a bid to encourage fan involvement. Club membership, which provides supporters an opportunity to have their say on the way the club is run, had been part of Clapton FC’s constitution since their foundation; unfortunately, at the behest of McBean, membership was suspended for “restructuring”, and supporter concerns were never addressed. Having already made a string of unpopular decisions, including hiking admission prices, McBean then put Newham Community Leisure Trust, the charity that owns the leasehold to the Old Spotted Dog Ground, into liquidation, citing long-standing debts. A campaign group has since taken Clapton’s owner to court, and the case remains ongoing.
In the meantime, Clapton FC’s supporters announced a boycott of the club for the 2017/18 season, and attendances fell back to pre-Ultras numbers, with an average of 52 people turning up to watch the Tons last year. In June 2018, the entire Clapton youth set-up left the club for Hackney Wick FC, and days later Clapton Community Football Club announced their intention to field a team in the Middlesex Counties Football League.
Set-up as a 100% fan-owned co-operative, Clapton CFC aim to promote local community participation in grassroots football and, despite being a club in its infancy, they’ve already amassed a passionate following. The launch of their away kit triggered a throng of shirt pre-orders and membership applications from Spain, which in turn caught the eye of major British media outlets. Features on BBC Sport and The Guardian website and a ringing endorsement from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have thrust Clapton CFC into the limelight, but there’s no chance this newfound fame will dilute the club’s message. With their kits made by Rage Sports, a small, ethical manufacturer based in Italy who provide kits specifically for football clubs fighting fascism, and a post-season tour of Spain comprising fixtures against fellow anti-fascist clubs in the pipeline, the Tons’ stance is loud and clear.
During their pre-season fixtures at the fan-named Stray Dog, the club’s temporary home in Walthamstow pending the outcome of the High Court ruling on the Old Spotted Dog Ground, the carnival atmosphere on the sidelines was punctuated by messages of inclusivity, with flags declaring ‘No one is illegal’ amidst the ubiquitous Clapton Ultras paraphernalia. One of the club’s first acts of community outreach saw them set up a stall at Forest Gayte Pride, and in the past week the club has pledged allegiance to the On The Ball campaign, which provides free sanitary products for supporters and is raising awareness of Period Poverty, while the Ultras have thrown their support behind the fan.tastic females project, which aims to showcase the stories of female football fans across the world. It’s the championing of these causes that sets them apart from most other football clubs, and their anti-fascist, football for all philosophy has played a large part in attracting around five hundred members to the club before they’ve even kicked a ball in anger.
Nick Davidson, author of Pirates, Punks & Politics: FC St. Pauli : Falling in Love with a Radical Football Club, had been following the fortunes of The Tons since 2014 thanks to the political activism of the Clapton Ultras and the atmosphere at The Old Spotted Dog. While the importance of a football club to its local community cannot be understated, Davidson feels that Clapton CFC have a major part to play in the wider context of football and society. “People want to be a part of Clapton CFC because of the fan ownership and because they identify with the political message behind the club. We have a mainstream political culture that is drifting further and further to the right, and Clapton and others are increasingly becoming a counterpoint to this. The stadium becomes a place fans can come together and express their political opinions, somewhere they can protest against an increasingly racist and xenophobic government and media. Football becomes an important part of the resistance. Of course, right-wing groups are trying to get into football again now, the Football Lads Alliance is nothing more than a veiled attempt by fascist groups to infiltrate football. The good news is, I think this time, left-wing fan groups are more visible, more organised and ready to counter this hatred.”
A fanatical follower of German football and FC St Pauli, where majority fan ownership of clubs is mandatory, Davidson was quick to sign up to the Clapton CFC cause, taking out membership shortly after their foundation. “The very least I could do was to become a member and was fortunate enough to get down to their first home pre-season friendly against Wanderers FC in August. It’s early days, but the people at the centre of organizing this new club are doing an incredible job setting up a fan-owned club, assembling a team, getting them into a league and getting a temporary home ground up to scratch. We also need to appreciate and recognise the smaller, core group of people working on the day-to-day running of the club and putting in the hours and making it happen, 100% respect to them.”
The inclusive atmosphere at the club isn’t lost on those new members from further afield, either. Luis Portas, a sandblaster and painter from Oviedo in Northern Spain, became aware of Clapton CFC thanks to media attention generated by the club’s new kit and, after reading up on their rich history and commitment to the community, signed up to the cause. “Clapton CFC is a very valuable asset for any community. The fact that it is a team that is committed to justice, integration, etc. and that in addition, it has the detail of paying homage to some people who decided to carry out a task that, in defense of justice and freedom, cost them in many cases their own lives, makes it clear that it is not just any club. The fan ownership has its advantages too, helping to keep the spirit of the club above economic or strategic interests”
On the pitch, Clapton CFC’s recruitment drive over the summer has borne fruit, with former Clapton FC captain Geoff Ocran enlisted as player/manager, and a diverse range of talent joining the Tons’ cause, ranging from novice trialists to players who’ve tasted life at the top of the National League. Their 2018/19 campaign begins on Saturday (15th) at Ealing Town, while the visit of Hutton FC a week later marks the debut of competitive football at the Stray Dog in the BBC Essex Premier Cup. Keep an eye out for the meeting with Stonewall FC, the world’s most successful gay football club, later in the season, which will surely be christened ‘The Most Inclusive Game in Football’.
Whatever happens down at the Stray Dog this season, Clapton CFC are living proof of the potential in people power. A group of supporters that wanted their team to represent something real, honest and worthwhile, have created a football club to be proud of.