Collective action, serendipity and a whole load of shirt sales. Clapton Community FC is a shining example of inclusivity and fighting spirit in grassroots football.
INCLUSIVE AND INSPIRATIONAL with FotMob
In each issue, FotMob – the livescore app – are sponsoring a feature on inclusive and inspirational grassroots stories and assisting in their development by providing equipment vouchers to these special football clubs.
The club belongs to you and me
As the crow flies, just two miles separate the Old Spotted Dog Ground in Forest Gate and the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. The difference in scale and spend is stark, but the OSD is also the home of Clapton Community FC. It’s a non-league club known for its anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and pro-feminist values. Clapton CFC is owned and run by its members who, through their own guile and skill, have managed to acquire their spiritual home, the Old Spotted Dog Ground – the oldest senior football ground in London. It’s an amazing story of how a community came together, built a club and bought the ground freehold all within two years. As one supporter, Sukhdev, declares: “it’s a story that, if you invented it, would be unbelievable”.
This extraordinary story starts way back in 1877 when Clapton Football Club was formed. You may not know it, but it has a major footprint in English football. It is one of the oldest clubs in England and the first English club to play in Europe, beating a Belgian X1 7-0 in Antwerp in 1890. Walter Tull became one of the first outfield black players and went on to play for Northampton, Tottenham and Rangers. A permanent feature of Clapton has been its amateur status and its early history as one of the giants of non-league football, attracting crowds as high as 20,000. The honours included winning the FA Amateur Cup five times and was a founder member of the Isthmian League which cemented its amateur status.
In 2012, Clapton FC were playing in the ninth tier of English football when they began to attract football fans disillusioned by the commercialism of Premiership football and the gouging of fans. As Sukhdev recounts, these fans “announced, tongue-in-cheek, that they were the Clapton Ultras and started to make up their own songs, have a beer in the stands, meet up with and make new friends while watching football in a welcoming and inclusive environment”. What started out as a modest rejection steadily started to attract others and attendances at home and away games grew from the tens to hundreds. Sukhdev explains: “it was a time when we started to dream of the possibilities of rejuvenating a members-owned club. There was a real buzz around Clapton.”
But at this point the story sours. The “buzz” and on-field success did not translate into a new beginning. The popularity of the team led to rising entry costs, a lack of financial transparency and blocking of club membership. These eventually galvanised the members and supporters to make a stand and boycott the home games at the Old Spotted Dog Ground. After a season-long boycott, the supporters held a meeting and decided to form a new football club called Clapton Community Football Club. This club was to be inclusive, member-owned, and run as a collective, where power resided within the committees rather than the board. Right from the start it was established on inclusive grounds, financially transparent and sought to create a welcoming environment for its members, players and supporters.
“And wow, how the community responded,” Sukhdev recalls. Clapton Community FC now has over 1,700 members and an active core of around 130 people who help to run the club on a day-to-day basis. As Sukhdev explains: “the power is devolved down through the committees and anybody can become a member of a committee. And every voice is equal, so listening is a required skill, not an optional extra.”
With a new club formed, but with no players, no ground and yet lots of energy and commitment, the club rallied to appoint a men’s first team manager, finding players and – more dauntingly – finding somewhere to play in East London. Clapton CFC began the 2018-19 season at Wadham Lodge Matchday Centres at Walthamstow which had an auxiliary but overgrown pitch which the Clapton Community members and players transformed into a usable facility, all through voluntary action. The club has grown rapidly and now eight teams play under the banner of Clapton CFC: the men and women’s first teams, their development teams, a series of women’s beginner teams and also the Young Tons team for kids aged between five and twelve years of age. All done with no outside funding and based on the energy and creativity of the members.
Amazing as this story is so far, this is not the end of Clapton CFC’s remarkable story. Last year, the original Clapton FC ground, the Old Spotted Dog, was repossessed by its landlords, giving Clapton Community FC the rare opportunity to bid to secure the freehold of a ground in London. Sukhdev explains: “Our members voted to initially bid for the lease, which we won and then took the bold decision to bid for the freehold. We reckoned that around £100,000 would secure it. And here’s the thing – we actually had £100,000 in the bank.”
How this group of volunteers just so happened to have £100,000 in reserve is quite extraordinary. “We’re a members club and we had to decide what kit we’d wear,” says Sukhdev. “We held a competition to design our away kit, open to every member. Our members submitted about twenty-five design entries. And the winner, overwhelmingly, was the kit that honoured the International Brigades who went to fight against the fascists in the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.” Reflecting the club’s collective spirit, this kit has “No Pasarán” on the back – the anti-fascist rallying call – along with the colours of the Second Spanish Republic in honour of the International Brigades.
But what happened next is a mix of good fortune and the power of collective action. “We had a kit launch at The Deviant & Dandy bar in Hackney on a balmy August evening in 2018. We had optimistically brought thirty of each of the home and away shirts to the launch. The shirts sold out immediately so we decided to put the shirts online in case more people wanted them. We expected to sell more than 100 and if we were lucky maybe 200. But then serendipity shined,” Sukhdev recounts.
It turns out that a tweet of the players wearing their new away kit was picked up by an Irish journalist living and working in Spain, who then re-tweeted it to his many followers. By the next morning, they had sold 100 shirts. And by the end of the day, they’d reached 200 or 300 sales. “We actually thought it was a mistake on the website. The shirt had gone viral and we got to about £60,000 worth of sales in a couple of weeks. And they kept selling,” recalls Sukhdev.
“So we paused sales from September to January, but then in January we reopened the online store and on that first day we sold £148,000 of the away shirt. In one day! That was how much pent-up demand there was and it was from around the world. In total, the away shirt has sold about 16,000. We’re still selling over 100 a month now. We also sold about 1,000 home shirts. We don’t have a megastore or even a store, you can just buy them online or pick them up at a home match. The whole operation is run by volunteers and we don’t subcontract the packing either. Plus we aimed to make the shirts affordable and we stuck to that principle so the margin is fairly tight. We don’t want to gouge our supporters.”
And so Clapton Community Football Club had the cash to acquire the freehold for the Old Spotted ground, which by then had become overgrown and required another major landscaping effort. But the members rose to the challenge and have transformed it. When football resumes next season, Clapton CFC will make their glorious return to their spiritual home of the Old Spotted Dog Ground.
Sukhdev’s excitement is palpable: “The first game when we return to the Old Spotted Dog is going to be emotional and something very, very special. Initially I wasn’t enthusiastic about a new club but I’ve come to realise that it was a great idea. It has galvanised people. It has given people agency, skills and confidence. It has built the basis for self-help and mutual aid. Many talk about setting up their own club but very few get the opportunity to realise the dream. We did it together. It is just an amazing experience and I simply cannot convey in words what it means.”
This is a feeling shared by all of Clapton CFC’s members, many of whom are volunteering their time and skills to restore the Old Spotted Dog to its former glory. “If you look at the members who have put the hours in to get the Old Spotted Dog up to shape, how they have reached out to the community and together helped turn the ground into a community space, not just a football club but a space that will be there for the community seven days a week – this is what we want from our club.”
Sukhdev continues: “When I talk about Clapton Community FC, I’m a co-owner among members. I feel pride. If I go into the clubhouse and it’s untidy, I tidy it up. It’s mine. It’s ours. It’s a responsibility, our responsibility. It’s very difficult to explain what it means to have that sense of responsibility if you’ve never experienced it. It’s an amazing journey.”
The opportunity to be an owner and member of the club has energised the fans in other ways, too. During lockdown, supporters raised over £12,000+ for a Hardship Fund that was distributed on a first-come-first-served basis. That sum doesn’t include the donations from ticket sales for matches postponed, either. During that period they also raised £20,000 for the roof fund to restore the leaky clubhouse roof. That’s the power of community action, all under the umbrella of Clapton Community FC.
“One of the great joys is that I may not be wearing sheepskin, a fedora and have a cigar, but I am a football club owner. There are 1,700-plus other owners. It’s allowed us to translate possibilities into reality; in London we bought a ground for £100,000. Sometimes it’s designed, sometimes it’s serendipity, sometimes there are many things that come together to make magic happen,” says Sukhdev.
“Within a support base, there are a lot of skills. There are members with ideas, beliefs and energy. You don’t know what the limits are of your capacity to make a difference until you try. We had a cause, it galvanised us and we found the energy too. It’s strangely, hugely energising. It’s amazing the amount of energy and enthusiasm and goodwill and bonhomie that’s generated when something that seems impossible becomes possible. We’ve picked up a huge amount of friends along the way, learnt from each other and supported each other.”
As for the next chapter of Clapton CFC, Sukhdev and the other members don’t show any signs of slowing down. “Ownership also brings with it responsibilities and raises the next set of questions and decisions. What are we going to do with it? How will we meet the challenge? How is the community going to benefit? How are we going to work it into the fabric of the community?”
While the future of the club looks bright, the ground is in one of the most deprived communities in London, devastated by Covid. It also has huge levels of overcrowding and has lost social space. So along with the responsibilities of running the football club, this special group of people have another opportunity – to do something good and make a positive and lasting effect on their community.
This is the magic of Clapton Community Football Club. It is owned and run by the people who truly care – the supporters who, day by day, rally together to make collective decisions for their club and community. It just goes to show that a lot of hard work, skill, a huge deal of passion coupled with a tiny bit of luck can transform the world of grassroots football. We can’t wait to see what the new season brings for Clapton CFC on their return to the Old Spotted Dog. One thing’s for sure – we’ll be proudly sporting that beautiful away kit.
FotMob is the essential football app. Scores, stats, news and more. Get the app on iOS and Android.