Clapton FC: East London is red & white (interview with Clapton Ultras)

  • Considering the club’s legacy, how is that Clapton is a non-league football club and teams of the same zone are today giants of international level? Do you aspire to compete in professional categories or is not a goal at all?

Clapton has always been fiercely proud of its amateur status.  All the other traditional clubs in our local area have either gone professional and become established clubs, or gone professional and folded/merged.  Clubs like Leyton, Leytonstone, Ilford, Barking, Walthamstow Avenue all had as rich histories as ours, but all no longer exist in their original forms.  Yet we’re still here.

As for us our “Chief Executive” has promised that we’ll be in the (mostly professional) Conference league (the fifth tier of English football)  in five years – however, that strikes me as fantasy.  The way most fans see it, the extra ticket/travel costs and restrictions associated with professional football would be unwelcome.  We think we should wear our amateur status as something of a source of pride – be proud that our players are turning out because they love football, not just for a pay-cheque.

  • Which are the club’s historical milestones you could highlight?

1878 – the club was founded as Downs FC

1887 – the club moved to its present ground – the Old Spotted Dog in Forest Gate

1890 – Clapton FC became the first English team to play in mainland Europe beating a Belgium XI 8 – 1

1905 –  Founder members of the Isthmian League

1907 – won our first of five FA Amateur Cups

1925 – Reached the third round of the FA Cup for the only time, beating Norwich City before losing to Swindon

1957 – Drew with Queen’s Park Rangers in the FA Cup second round before losing the replay in front of 14,000 fans at Loftus Road

  • Being so popular throughout your neighborhood, we can imagine an important supporting base. What’s the average attendance? Is it over other clubs in the same category? If so, why do you think it’s so successful?

This season, we are averaging 300 fans.  In our league no club other than us averages more than 100 fans.  Elsewhere in the country, there are other clubs at the same level as us – Hereford FC, North Shields – that are much bigger

We offer a new model of football both inside and outside the ground. Inclusivity, engagement with the community and loyal, colorful and loud support for the team are the keys which made us popular. People who generally feel unwelcome or alienated by modern football see in Clapton Ultras a place to enjoy football with like-minded people.

More and more supporters hear about us and want to get in touch or try to understand what is going on. The only reason we’ve seen high numbers at gates is that we don’t do anything to turn people away as it happens generally in football.

  • Do the club or / and the ultras take part in any activity off the pitch?

The club, not at all.

As for the ultras, we’ve done immigration-rights  outreach work alongside organisations such as the Anti-Raids Network; organised collections for distribution of aid to migrants in Calais and Dunkirk.  We also support local foodbanks and organisations such as Newham Action Against Domestic Violence; a Newham-based LGBTQ+ support group called Ashton-Mansfield and Football Beyond Borders – a youth organisation using football to engage with young people in London.  Our aim is to build stronger links with these groups so that our support extends to more than simply shaking buckets at games.

We also support local antifascist organisations – providing both financial support and also supporting their mobilisations.

We also run an annual anti-discrimination five-a-side football tournament for local teams/football fans.

As individuals, we’re involved in various radical, left-wing initiatives involving housing, racism, sexism, homophobia etc

  • Not only in the UK but also in Europe constantly, fans owned clubs are growing everywhere. Considering Clapton’s style and differences aside, some names as FCUM, Stockport or Wimbledon come to our minds. Can we find any similarities? Do you want to follow a similar path?

Clapton was historically, in the amateur tradition, owned by both its supporters and its players.  We aim to go back to that.  There is a group The Real Clapton FC who are actively trying to challenge the legality of the current ownership with a view to reinstating this model.

  • Let’s talk about Clapton Ultras. Where and when comes up the idea of bringing such a numerous fan group to amateur matches? Were you already Clapton fans?

No – the pioneers of the Ultras were a group of friends who couldn’t afford to watch their professional football and wanted to find a club they could watch together.  Clapton at the time had very few regular supporters – attendances were 15-20.

  • Your ideas leave no room for doubt: antifascism and antiracism. Within your material, the Andalucian arbonaida and the International Brigades’ flag draw our attention. Is it a line followed by the group only or even at a club level? What’s the weight of the group within the club’s structure?

It is the stance of the group only.  The club has sought to present itself as politically neutral and in the past put out statements asking us to not to display political flags. There has been no practical moves to stop fans from flying antifascist flags, though.

That said, the club’s owner is broadly sympathetic to our stance (and fought the neo-Nazi National Front in the Battle of Lewisham

In terms of weight, the group has very little official say with the club owners, but a good deal of unofficial powers – we are essentially the only fans’ group at Clapton.

  • With this ideology and the fascist reputation of a lot of English firms, problems have arisen and you’ve suffered some attacks that, for example, have been usual in other similar clubs such as Ceares and Ciudad de Murcia in the Spanish State or Ardita in Rome. Has it been something isolated or is there a real harassing campaign against popular teams and groups?

It’s mostly an isolated thing for us.  As a visible left-wing group we have to be concerned, but mostly about opportunistic attacks from fascist groups rather than any sustained campaign against us.

  • The ultra style is a bit different to what it’s seen in your isles, maybe being Crystal Palace from London one of the exceptions. What’s the reason? Do you think it’s becoming a general style all over English terraces?

Fan movements generally have a lot less power in England than in mainland Europe.  As such, policing, ticketing restrictions and stadium regulations largely kill groups before they can really get started.  Several small groups at bigger clubs – such as the antifascist Brigada 1874 of Aston Villa – have had teething troubles and run into problems with stewarding and policing.

Having said that, the ‘European style’ is something many British supporters would like to embrace.

In our case the ultra style is probably embraced for several reasons: less restrictions, a diverse audience which wants sometimes to step aside from the classic “hooligan” idea and the influence of supporters from other countries (Spain, Poland, Italy)

  • From the distance, it seems that hooliganism is nowadays closely linked to the casual scene. We would like to know your opinion about this. Do you feel identified with any of these movements?

None of us identify with any hooligan movements though some of our fans identify with the fashion etc of the casual movement.  We try to make it clear we to our fans, and anyone else, that we’re not a hooligan group.

  • Do you have any relationship with other English or foreign fans? Do you feel welcome in the grounds you visit?

For the most part, yes, we are made welcome in the grounds we visit (the other London clubs much more so than the rural Essex teams).  Some places we’ve visited have been suspicious towards us at first, though we inevitably end up winning them around.

In England, many of our fans support other teams as well, so we tend to have wide networks of sympathetic fans across the country.  We also have good relationships with other non-league teams with anti-fascist fans such as Whitehawk FC.

In terms of friendships, we try to build links with small antifascist clubs around Europe.  Many of these are currently nascent, though some of our fans recently visited MFC 1871 in Paris, and we have good links among our fans to Roter Stern Leipzig.

We will soon meet with BK Frem supporters from Copenhagen and we got recently invited to the Sankt Pauli Antira Tournament in Hamburg.

We got contacts with Rayo Vallecano Ultras too with reciprocal visits to each other grounds.

We’re also holding our second annual Proudly East London tournament – aimed at promoting diversity in East London, a traditionally multicultural area. We want to build on this, make new networks and grow to continue our community work

  • What do you expect for Clapton FC in the future? Is there any special goal like playing a match abroad?

Promotion to the Isthmian league – where we spent over a hundred years of our history has got to be one of our goals

We want to continue to build up links to other anti-fascist teams around Europe – hopefully we will be able to play a friendly match somewhere soon (possibly Leipzig).

We would like a run in the FA Cup or FA Vase (the national cup competition for teams at our level – with a final at Wembley Stadium), and possibly to win the London Senior Cup.