In the depths of yet another insufferable international break and with Orient being away, Mrs Football Nerd and I found ourselves at a bit of a loose end last week; at least until our friend Johnny, Chelsea season ticketholder and general football obsessive in much the same way that we are, shared with us the fascinating story of the Clapton Ultras, or to give them their official title, the Scaffold Brigada.
Apparently their story started back in Autumn 2012 when, in their own words: ‘a small group of East London football nomads, priced out of League football, decided to set down roots at our closest ground’ (http://www.claptonultras.org/the-ultras/). The team they adopted was Clapton FC who play in the Essex Senior League, tier nine in the English football pyramid, a full five levels below the Football League.
Recent times have seen the Ultras boycott the club on two separate occasions, first from December 2016 in protest at a sudden price rise of £1 on admission. While on the face of it this may not seem a lot, especially to those of us that follow Premier League teams, the fact that it was unannounced and across the board including concessions, set a dangerous precedent with the owner Vince McBean and the club hierarchy behaving in a manner that echoed those at the top echelons of the football pyramid. While it was vitally important to make a stand and not pay admission on principle, the Ultras of course couldn’t not go to the games and settled for congregating outside the ground using anything they could find, including old fridges and discarded toilets, to allow them to see the match over the perimeter fence.
Most recently this season the Ultras have been staying away from home games at the Old Spotted Dog ground in support of a campaign to return the club to a fully members-owned club and against the club administration’s plans to liquidate the charity that runs the ground. However, with the match last Saturday technically being ‘away’ to Hackney Wick FC, with whom they share the ground, the Ultras were due to turn out in full force. This prompted the home club to send out an appeal asking local people to come along on officially declared Non-League day and lend support alongside the Ultras. Where else would two completely hopeless football obsessives spend their Saturday afternoon?
So it was that we found ourselves desperately searching the modern equivalent of the London A to Z, Google Maps, on Saturday morning, heads slightly fuzzy from an evening spent at the Isle of Dogs’ very own Oktoberfest, trying to work out first of all where in the depths of deepest darkest East London the ground was to be found, and perhaps more importantly whether there were any pubs nearby!
Research completed we jumped on the DLR and transferred for the Tube bound for Plaistow. Upon arrival we were slightly stumped by the lack of a pre-match crowd streaming out of the tube station, or indeed anyone at all looking like they might be going to the match; so wanting to reassure ourselves that we were at least in the right place we asked a local guy standing outside the bookies which way the ground was? To our amazement he suggested that having lived round there all his life the only football grounds he knew were the old Boleyn Ground which had been knocked down and the Olympic Stadium but West Ham weren’t playing; clearly his football knowledge and awareness was far inferior to ours!
As luck would have it, just as were finishing informing our new friend that there was in fact a football ground not too far away and it was hosting a major local derby that very afternoon, a couple of guys wearing red scarves walked past and we adopted the age old tradition of football fans the world over and followed them.
When we arrived at the ground, we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was actually a ground, with turnstiles, stands and of course the all-important clubhouse selling beer, with the added novelty of being allowed to take said beer out with you to watch the match. Although the lack of even a basic purveyor of any kind of food was a slight cause for concern!
As newly avowed supporters of Hackney Wick FC, we were obliged to try a number of vantage points around the ground in the first half, the famous scaffold stand being off limits to all but the dedicated Clapton Ultras. On our travels we gleefully noted a traditional West Indian barbeque being set up ahead of half-time.
The standard of football wasn’t as bad as we had feared at this level, although it has to be said that there wasn’t a great deal of intricate pass and move play, however this wasn’t a major issue for those of us who have watched Orient recently and become accustomed to a more direct style of play shall we say!
Right from the kick off and all the way through the match the Ultras created an atmosphere that was reminiscent of something you would find at a match on the continent, constantly singing, waving their huge flags and banners and even letting off the odd pyrotechnic; it really created a surreal but hugely entertaining feel to the proceedings.
Just before half-time, with beers refreshed, I nabbed one of the former fast food restaurant tables which were liberally spread around the outdoor catering facilities, while Mrs Football Nerd went to see what delights were on offer at the Caribbean barbeque, returning with the most delicious tray of curried goat and rice, probably the nicest thing we have ever eaten at a football match.
Having gone a goal down in the first half, the Wick, as those of us in the know of course call them, couldn’t quite raise their game sufficiently and on the hour mark Clapton were awarded a penalty which had the two latest additions to the Wick army baying desperately that it had been a dive! All to no avail, the spot kick was duly converted but at long last this seemed to spark Hackney into life and they redoubled their efforts to try and get back into the game, which breathed some life into the scarce members of the 785 strong crowd not supporting Clapton, ourselves included.
Despite pulling a goal back with ten minutes to go, our newly adopted team couldn’t find the equalizer and ultimately we were to go away disappointed at the result. However, as we reflected in the pub after the match the experience itself was brilliant and one that we would repeat should we find ourselves similarly short of match going options in the future; although in solidarity with the Clapton Ultras it would have to be Hackney Wick we went to see until the fight has been won, unless of course we can find ourselves a suitable disused household appliance to stand on to watch the match!