“The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” – Bill Shankly
A visit to London’s fourth-oldest football ground involves walking past a rundown pub, a large pile of tyres and a barely legible sign before eventually reaching the entrance.
As unlikely as it sounds, this humble arena in east London, home to Clapton FC, has become a hotbed for political activism. As Robin Cowan, one of the founding members of the Clapton Ultras, explains: “It all started off as a bit of a joke.”
Football’s terraces have traditionally been no stranger to the political affiliations of their occupants.
In Rome, for example, the rivalry between the eternal city’s two most famous clubs is made all the more fierce by their supporters’ political leanings. Lazio’s hardcore are ultra right-wing and often wave fascist banners inside the stadium, clashing with AS Roma’s left-leaning fan base.
As well as the flag waving and chanting that often occurs, there have been occasions when incidents inside football stadia have transcended sport and had a huge social and political impact.
Perhaps the most famous incident in recent times is the 2012 ‘Port Said massacre’ in Egypt, where 72 supporters of El Ahly Sporting Club were killed by a combination of opposition fans and state police.
El Ahly is famous both for being Africa’s most successful football club, and for the political activism of its supporters. They played an integral role in the Egyptian revolution which led to the Arab Spring, both inside and outside of the stadia where they had staged protests and fought for change.
[pullquote align=”right”]’Everyone is welcome. Unless, of course, you happen to support fascism, which wouldn’t go down too well’
– Robin Cowan[/pullquote]
Far from the civil unrest in Egypt, Clapton FC has become a grassroots home to an ultra-political fan base.
Located only a mile from their glamorous Premier League neighbours West Ham, every week between 100- 200 fans can be spotted coming to see ‘The Tons’ play their home games at the Old Spotted Dog in Forest Gate. The Essex Senior League, in which they play, has an average attendance that peaks at a far more humble 80-90.
Clapton FC’s weekly numerical anomaly started two years ago when a decision was made in a local pub, by a small group, disillusioned with the Premier League’s ruinously expensive ‘matchday experience’.
They decided instead to spend their Saturday afternoon at the Spotted Dog, as Robin Cowan explained to Artefact. “To be honest, it’s scandalous it took so long to go and see Clapton FC as we grew up near the ground, but we all supported different teams, as people in London tend to do.”
Clapton’s discreet entrance falls in line with most people’s expectations of a non-league football ground and holds no clue as to the huge fanatical support that pours through there every Saturday.
As we creaked through the turnstile, there were less than 10 minutes to go until kick-off, yet the surroundings were as unassuming as any of the 20,000 non-league grounds with games kicking off at 3pm that Saturday.
A daubing of ‘CLAPTON’ on a fence on the opposite side of the pitch and piles of bags by the entrance for ‘The local community food drive’ were the only faint signs of Clapton Ultras presence at that moment.
As I sought to use the ground’s modest public toilet facilities before kick-off, I realised that the toilet door was right opposite the entrance to the team changing rooms.
A couple of players from the home side then emerged and crossed my path, and as I bid them good luck awkwardly it cemented my thinking that it would be hard to imagine a more unlikely stage for political activism than Clapton FC’s Old Spotted Dog ground.
On my return to the touchline, the crowds had descended. In they came in their droves, clad in Clapton’s customary red and white, freely clutching shopping bags filled with favourite Polish beer Tyskie, and already in full song about their cult hero, goalkeeper ‘Senegal’s number one’ Pepe Diagne.
The ultras slowly began to occupy a dilapidated scaffold, masquerading as a football stand, explaining their other nickname, ‘Scaffold Brigada’, and proceeded to sing, shout, dance and shoot flares relentlessly throughout the game. Alongside a plethora of banners and flags it is quite a spectacle to behold, far more so than the actual game, which ended 1-1.
Cowan continued by emphasising that ‘inclusion’ is their message, ‘everyone is welcome’ which is what seems to appeal to those that stand with them en masse every Saturday.
“While having an anti-fascist banner might be seen as tokenistic, the point is to be inclusive rather than exclusive – to say that everyone is welcome. Unless, of course, you happen to support fascism, which wouldn’t go down too well.”
Kevin Blowe is a local anti-racism campaigner and self-confessed left wing anarchist. He is a major cog in the Clapton Ultras core group and he explained the beginning of his affiliation, which is similar to many others.
“Pretty much the same reason as a lot of us which was word of mouth. A mate of mine said look you have to come down, it’s fucking amazing. I live in Forest Gate, so it was partly to do with it being a local club and partly to with the fact that it’s anti-fascist and anti-racist, so the politics really appealed to me.”
[pullquote align=”right”]This new wave of far left-leaning, all-singing, all-dancing, anti-discriminatory ‘ultras’ at the very bottom of the football pyramid are on a crusade to win hearts and minds[/pullquote]
The atmosphere was electric. Being in and amongst the ‘Claptonites’ as an almost honorary member for the afternoon allowed me to see how this movement has gathered so much pace.
It also allowed scope for understanding why they’ve gained so much press – both good and bad. As cries of ‘Anti-Fascista’ ring out at half time, through the smoke of their flares that engulf the whole stand, various left wing propaganda is thrust in my hand.
Whilst reading the innumerable flyers and stickers promoting various Anti Fascista events and rallies, Stan Lowry, another prominent Ultra, revealed his view on some of the negative attention they have received recently.
“We’ve been getting some attention from far-right splinter groups, there’s (now) regularly between 100-200 fans turning up and people are not prepared to back away from the anti-fascist movement they’ve set up here.”
A trip to Southend in early December proved that when clashes occurred outside the ground that required a police presence to disperse.
Blowe said: “Nothing’s ever happened here [at home games], but we need to know that we’re protected, being such a multicultural area”.
The fascist splinter groups are now regularly posing for photographs with a flag outside the ground, putting up racist stickers, “…an hour before kick off! How very brave,” Lowry interjected sarcastically.
Although the Clapton Ultras refuse to be intimidated, it’s clear that 2015 will be an interesting year for London’s non-league anti-fascist movement.
This new wave of far left-leaning, all-singing, all-dancing, anti-discriminatory ‘ultras’ at the very bottom of the football pyramid are on a crusade to win hearts and minds.