Friday 25 September 2015

The Clapton Ultras v Strike!

This article appears in the current edition of Strike!

A football club where minorities not only feel welcome, but get involved, can never really be a bad thing, no matter how much gushing, middle-class wankery gets written about them. Wankery that they aren't responsible for, remember...

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Before 2012 there were no Clapton Ultras: over the space of only three seasons, a group of left-wing anti-fascist football fans have, with their passion, noisy songs and a fondness for smoke flares in support of Clapton FC, a club in Forest Gate in east London, shaken up the staid, parochial county league that the team plays in.

In doing so, Clapton fans have also attracted increasing outside interest and often unwelcome attention. One senior left-wing union official tried unsuccessfully to use the terrace where the Ultras gather as a stage for some shameless personal grandstanding, whilst far-right groups have repeatedly complained to an indifferent London FA about the Ultras 'political' flags (something we are entirely guilty of). Last year, as numbers grew to over 200 and more and more people headed east to find out what all the fuss was about, the Ultras also started to face attempts to pin one label or another onto us. We have been described both as saviours of the left and condemned as an insufficiently hard-case anti-fascist 'firm'. Memorably, someone even called us 'metrosexual Palestine hipsters', an insult so brilliantly hilarious that it is destined soon to feature on a supporters' banner.

Why it's always seen as necessary to fit everything new into a preconceived and largely pointless category is a mystery to me. Still, none of it has come close to explaining the phenomenal rise of the Clapton Ultras or the upsurge of support – over 500 supporters at the end of last season - for a lowly non-league club long overshadowed by its rich and popular neighbour, West Ham United, who are based less than a mile away.

In reality, what is happening in Forest Gate is a reflection of a growing trend amongst an increasing number of football fans who are tired of paying £50 or more for a match ticket, or simply cannot afford to, just to watch a game with no atmosphere or spectacle. At Clapton FC, most fans also support a League side, but have adopted a local team, one with a long and rich history but forever at the fringes of football, because it means watching with friends for only £6, a beer in hand, without oppressive policing or officious stewards insisting everyone remains seated. For many, this is what has attracted them to switch to non-league football, or to return to the game after often years away from regular attendance at overpriced Premiership and League fixtures.

There is something else, however, that makes the Clapton Ultras noticeably different from other groups of football supporters: their absolute opposition to the often boorishly sexist, homophobic and right-wing sentiment and behaviour tolerated at many larger clubs. This has been coupled with the adoption of the best elements of a continental anti-fascist Ultras' culture that is strengthened by the presence of many Italian, Spanish and Polish fans.

What I love so much about attending a home game at the Old Spotted Dog Ground and standing with other Clapton Ultras is not just having a few cans of Tyskie and singing daft chants throughout, but the recognition that the people around me are socialists and anarchists, that at any moment the Italian partisans song 'Bella Ciao' may erupt from the Scaffold (the ramshackle stand made of scaffolding poles and corrugated iron where the Ultras congregate), or a banner might appear in support of anti-fascists in Greece or Germany. It's the fact that we produce all our own merchandise, just like Ultras in clubs across Europe, and that our stickers pop up randomly all over the country. It's knowing that someone might shout out a reminder that Maggie Thatcher is definitely still dead, but no-one is about to start calling the referee a 'poof' or claiming that opposing fans are 'gypos' or 'chavs'. Try that kind of shit at a Clapton game and you'll quickly find out what a crowd turning on you feels like!

This attitude extends to the club's place in its local neighbourhood, one of the poorest in London and the most ethnically diverse in the country. Acts of solidarity organised by the Clapton Ultras include distributing rights cards on the powers of immigration enforcement teams, organising food donations for a local project supporting asylum seekers with no access to public funds, raising cash for local group supporting victims of domestic violence and turning up in numbers to support campaigns around homelessness and evictions. At the end of the last season, on a truly magical day involving rainbow-coloured smoke flares, we helped launch an appeal that eventually succeeded in raising funds to keep open Newham's only LGBT youth group, which faced closure because of council cuts.

For many of us, this kind of community organising is just as important as the football: the Ultras bring together, in significant numbers, a group of like-minded activists with years of campaigning experience who can make a real impact locally. This extended to encouraging more local people so Clapton FC better reflects the community where it is based: just recently, we held a stall at the local Forest Gate Festival simply to remind local people that the club still exists and is far more welcoming and family-friendly than many might imagine. It's a real necessary because, perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of working class football fans remain white, straight and male. Constantly reaffirming our opposition to all forms of discrimination is slowly encouraging a greater level of diversity as the number of supporters increases, but not as fast as we would like.

Fundamentally, though, the Clapton Ultras remain just football fans, who happen to have created a safe, supportive space for others like themselves on the radical, largely unaligned left. It's somewhere to have a laugh, make new friends, temporarily forget what a massive cockwomble David Cameron is and still enjoy an outpouring of emotion at away game in a tiny village somewhere out in the wilds of Essex.

Disappointingly, we are not saviours of the left and definitely not a hard-case 'firm', no matter how much outside observers might want this to be true. As for 'metrosexual Palestine hipsters'? Well, as the fantastic film 'Pride' said, if someone calls you a name, you take that name and you own it. Look out for the banner in the coming season.

You can find the Clapton Ultras online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @ClaptonUltras

The Clapton Ultras fanzine, Red Menace, is at
The Clapton Ultras podcast, The Old Spotted Dogcast, is at

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