Tons happening in Upton Lane

Friday 24 July 2015

One of the great (and loudly sung) successes of Forest Gate over recent months lurks behind the boarded up decay that was once the proud Old Spotted Dog pub, on Upton Lane.

Tucked to one side of the pub is the almost equally decrepit exterior of Clapton FC.  We have written about the club's history (here), its most iconic player (here) and the on-going power struggle between the club's apparent "owner" and its supporters (here) before.

There is much more to tell, however; hence this blog.

Formed in Hackney in 1878, Clapton FC moved to the Old Spotted Dog ground on Upton Lane in 1888 and two years later became the first British club to play in Continental Europe. Its proud history also features the facts that it has:
Won the FA Amateur Cup five times; and
  Won the Isthmian  - now Rymans - League (of which it was a member for 100 years) twice.
Amateur Cup winners in 1909 -
Walter Tull second from right, front row
Now playing in the Essex Senior League (eight divisions below the English Premier League), Clapton's attendances have grown rapidly since 2012, from an average of 20 to over 500 at the end of the 2014/15 season.

This article attempts to explain this remarkable turnaround in the club's fortune and provide an update on some of the more deep-seated problems it and its supporters face.

The main stand, on the half way point.
The Ultras are to be found directly opposite,
 on match days, in an enclosure made from
scaffolding poles - hence the various
Scaffold references in communications

On the pitch

Last season was one of the club's most successful in living memory. For the record:
After having not appeared in a cup final for thirty years, Clapton FC last season appeared in two (both of which were lost)!
  The club finished in eighth spot in the Essex Senior League, its highest position in the last decade. Apparently this was only the third time since the 1930's that it has finished in the top half of the division it has played in!
Part of a near 500 attendance, under
"The Scaffold", at a match, in April 2015

On the terraces

More and more football fans have started to attend because of the unique atmosphere created by the Clapton Ultras, the club's noisy and passionate supporters. They are part political and campaigning, and wholly football fans.

This is an engaging combination of characteristics and makes a refreshing change to the same old tedium experienced in so many higher league (including the Premier) grounds. 

This, as their attendees will know, usually features boorish, "laddish", often intimidating, offensive right-wing and personally abusive chanting and threatening behaviour towards away supporters and players. Not to mention increasingly exorbitant entrance prices.

A spotted dog wearing the
 club's strip - Up The Tons!
According to a leaflet the Ultras distributed at last week's highly successful Forest Gate Festival, they are very different and proud to proclaim themselves as:
Strongly anti-fascist and anti-discrimination, the Ultras are trying to build a club that is affordable, welcoming and family friendly, but also one that completely rejects racism, homophobia and sexism - a different experience to a lot of modern football and a chance to watch a game in a space that is safe and inclusive.
 The Clapton Ultras want more local people to come along and join again, to become a genuine centre of the local neighbourhood. Over the last season we have made many new friends through our local activities, which have included:
organising regular food bank collections for the Refugee Migrant Project (RAMP), supporting asylum seeker and refugee families with no income.
clearing fly-tipping from the grounds of the Old Spotted Dog public house.
  raised funds for Newham Action on Domestic Violence.
distributing information locally on people's immigration rights.
  launching and supporting a successful appeal for funds for Paris - Newham's only LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual, Queer) youth group.
  •  organised a Fans for Diversity football tournament in Mile End.
Players raise the Rainbow flag, in solidarity
 with the Ultras anti-homophobic campaigning
If you love watching football, but think you have no alternative but to pay a huge amount of money for a ticket and then to have to put up with nasty, racist, sexist, homophobic "banter", go and experience a Clapton game. The Ultras promise you, you won't regret it!

You'll even get to shake hands with the players - usually of both teams - after the game.

Behind the scenes

Despite success on the pitch, controversy and in-fighting predominate behind the scenes. As we have reported before (here) there is a severe clash of ambition and desire between the club's apparent owners and its fan-base. 

This often happens in football, when there is a gap between the unrealistic expectations of fans and the capacity of owners to subside the route to achieving them.

The story is very different in Clapton's case. At the centre of the concerns is the very valuable piece of real estate that the club occupies.

It is perhaps no co-incidence that the ground and its buildings have been allowed to decay at almost the same rate as the historic Old Spotted Dog pub next door. The pub is the oldest secular building in Newham, but is rotting away, boarded up.

Planning permission will never be given for this local, and nationally listed, treasure to be destroyed, replaced or significantly altered. But, in its current state, it is unusable and it is difficult to see how it could again become a going concern, without a major source of external funding.

It is, however, only one careless match away from destruction. The prospect that its land foot print, extensive car park and that of the Clapton FC ground would then have for housing redevelopment, in this increasingly desirable and expensive part of East London, would make a property developer salivate. A £5m profit would not seem excessive for those in control of the land.

Enough of the speculation and fantasy.  Back to the here and now.

The freehold of the Clapton FC ground rests with a property company. A 100-year lease on the ground was granted by them to the Clapton Trust Ltd in 1992.

The Trust, however, remains a separate entity to the football club, and, in any case, has subsequently changed its name to Newham Community Leisure Trust Ltd.

The public face of the Trust is its chairman, Vincent McBean, who lives in Lambeth. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase the ground from the freeholders, in a personal capacity.

Trust chairman, the
controversial Vincent McBean
A former trustee was Dwayne Brooks, friend of murdered Black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. He and Stephen's mother, Doreen, have feuded for years. Brooks is currently a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lewisham, with no known connections to Newham.

Another Lewisham resident, Rashford Angus, is also a trustee, as is Newham-living Esmond Syfox.

Quite why two Lewisham and one Lambeth residents should end up running the Newham Community Leisure Trust is not clear - particularly since they have resisted all attempts by a well-organised club supporters group to become involved with it.

According to a recent Google search, the Trust is now more than nine months behind in fulfilling its obligation to file its accounts with the Charity Commission.  This kind of non-compliance is not unusual for Mr McBean, who has a long history of failing to fulfil statutory obligations. He has had companies struck off for either not filing accounts or returns and being in receipt of warning letters about his financial conduct. See here, for the full details.

Worryingly, for the fans of the club, if this negligent behaviour continues the Trust will be struck off by the Registrar of Companies and the charity by the Charity Commissioners, at which point the lease could revert to the freeholders.
Players, Ultras, Diversity and pyro -
part of the Clapton experience!

This was the situation in 2003, when Mr McBean failed to similarly comply with company regulations. It was not until 2008 having opened negotiations for a sale of the lease, that Mr McBean applied to the High Court to have the company re-instated. Even then, the charity was not re-instated until the Charity Commission were alerted by the supporters with regard to their concern over the club's security of tenure on the ground.

Another bout of non-compliance with charity and company filing obligations by Mr McBean and chums could see both being formally wound up.

Cue: end of club (or at least its 127 year association with the ground) as speculators squabble over the valuable real estate spoils.

A well organised group of supporters is determined to prevent this undignified ending of the relationship between the club and its historic ground. They have tried, in vain, to engage and negotiate with Mr McBean.
They have communicated with both the Charity Commission and football authorities to try to ensure that the Trust is properly managed and accountable and that the rights of spectators and supporters are recognised and upheld

It is proving an uphill struggle.

A combination of the old adage about possession being nine tenths of the law and football authorities showing the same disregard at a local level for the rights of spectators that the Premier league quite disgracefully do at a national level for their supporters, means that voices which are loud on the terraces are not being listened to by the relevant authorities.

Legal action is afoot to preserve the heritage of this proud football club, and place its future in the hands of the one big consistent about football at all levels - the supporters. We would urge all those with an interest in grass roots football, local history and community action to engage with this important local campaign (see below for details and contacts).

Spreading the word

Fortunately, the vociferous supporters are well organised and are very effective communicators, via social and other media.  They even have their own podcast - The Old Spotted Dogcast! You can find details via the many channels listed below:

For full details of supporter activities try:

Engage with the Friends of Clapton FC - see below
Twitter: @Real_ClaptonFC

For Clapton Ultras, try:

One of the many stickers the
Ultras use to announce their presence.
  Some very far distant sightings
 have been spotted!
Twitter: @ClaptonUltras

As the Ultras say: "Another kind of football is possible, and it's happening right now in Forest Gate."

Go along, join in, be entertained, have fun, become a member of Friends of Clapton FC (details through links, above) and help save a great local institution!

You will find details of Clapton's home fixtures for the remainder of the year in the Events panel, to the right of this article.

1 comment:

  1. I have known Vincent Mcbean for sometime now and he is not what guys are describing him. He is a good man who helped with a whole lot of issues I was facing. Shameful beings.


We welcome comments to all the items featured on this site. However, we reserve the right to omit offensive comments, and edit the length of comments, for reasons of space.