When I left the pub trade just over 20 years ago, I rekindled my interest in (then) Football League club, Darlington, a connection which had started on a ground hopping trip which took me to Feethams several years previously. One of the first people I spoke to – outside Doncaster’s old Belle Vue stadium as I recall – was a guy called Steve Harland who was part of the team which published ‘Mission Impossible’, the main Darlo fanzine, which was a fierce critic of the regime in charge of the club at that time.
I remember one night game where Steve stood up in the old wooden main stand and publicly harangued the Darlington directors who many felt were not in it for the good of the club. The exact ownership of the business was also less than transparent….
Curiously enough a hopping colleague recently gave me a couple of old copies of M.I. which reminded me of those events more than two decades ago, recording the animosity of that period. Little we realised then how things might subsequently turn out!
Ironically my visit today is to Clapton of the Essex Premier League where a similar situation appears to be unfolding, judging by social media posts prior to the local ‘derby’ with Tower Hamlets, but more of that later….
My Megabus into London is on time and courtesy of my recently-acquired Oyster Card I can now laugh at the queues at the Victoria Station ticket booths and head straight off on the District Line to Plaistow. Even though I don’t think I’ve ever been to this bit of London before, I feel I know it well courtesy of my dog-eared copy of ‘Skinhead Escapes’, a novel set in this ‘manor’ and pretty much essential reading in my formulative years as a ‘Smoothie’ back in the day! It’s probably a bit non-PC today, though….
A 20-minute walk up the Stopford Road takes me to the Old Spotted Dog ground of Clapton FC, adjacent to the – sadly now boarded-up – historic pub of that name. A steward outside the turnstiles says he thinks the former hostelry is to be turned into flats but you’d have thought some enterprising new pubco would have taken a punt on it. The OSD ground itself might also benefit from a bit of TLC, which the current ownership of the club could possibly give it. However, the suspicion of much of the Clapton fan base – the Ultras – is that the regime’s intentions might not be as honourable as would be hoped. Hence a boycott which has been in place for much of the season.
Inside the ground there is a seated main stand astride the halfway line on one side, with two adjacent areas of covered standing – the Scaffold as it’s known to the Ultras – on the other. An area of vintage uncovered step terracing is the feature behind the goal to the opposite end of the pitch to the clubhouse, which itself is spacious and comfortable, though probably showing its age. I’m delighted to see bottles of Dragon Stout in the fridge, and pay my £3 for the privilege of consuming one. For those that haven’t come across this little ‘beaut’, it originates from Jamaica, weighs in at 7.5%abv, and can often be found in the Caribbean foods section at Asda for around £1.50 or so. Treat your tastes buds!
There doesn’t appear to be any catering facilities here (unless I’m less than observant) but luckily I stocked up with a sandwich from the Costcutter across the road prior to entering.
Kick-off time for the game arrives with barely 25 people in attendance, although the anticipated racket from stay-away Ultras in the alley outside the ground fails to materialise, so an eerie silence prevails over proceedings. There’s plenty of grass – probably too much – on the pitch but a billiard table it’s not, and the game is littered with bobbles, miss-kicks and profligate finishing which turns out to be moderately entertaining, despite an inability for any real quality to shine through.
There’s many more people in the ground for the start of the second half, doubtless due to the opening of the turnstiles, and the atmosphere warms up as the comedy-of-errors continues out on the pitch. I recently saw Tower Hamlets put ten past hapless opponents in the FA Vase but they never really look like scoring even one today, and the home side are little better, wasting their few chances. In fact it gets to the point where I’m feeling that a goal might even spoil the game, but then a home winner duly arrives, deep into injury time, and a it’s reward for persistence more than anything else.
There’s just time for the traditional bout of argy-bargy which you’d expect of a closely-fought local derby, resulting in both teams seeing the game out with ten men, but it’s a home win, much to the delight of the (presumably) Ultras that have snook into the ground during the course of the second half proceedings.
No doubt their fight will go on, and good luck to whoever is in the right, although sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, Darlo being a classic case, ending up being demoted 4 levels after appearing to find a ‘saviour’. For now the Clapton boycott is effective in giving media exposure to the cause, but is it ‘Mission Impossible’? Only time will tell….
Programme: From the turnstile, black & white photocopy, 8 pages. At £1.50 probably about £1 too much.
Birdlife: Parakeet territory!
Toilets: In the clubhouse and an outside block (which I didn’t investigate!)
Club shop: Not in evidence
Music the players emerge to: Deathly silence