VISITING THE OLD SPOTTED DOG ?
In the last couple of seasons, the Old Spotted Dog Ground has become the place to watch non league football. Just three seasons ago, Clapton FC was playing in front of attendances as low as 12, they now regularly have home crowds of 150 plus and, even at away games where Clapton are the visitors, attendances are regularly breaking the hundred mark.
So what’s the attraction that brings inquisitive football fans and Clapton regulars to the Dog? It’s certainly not the ground. The Dog is probably one of the most basic football grounds at this level. The spectator areas have fallen into significant disrepair; save for a small 100 seater stand on one side. The rest is a mosaic of concrete perimeter path, unkempt grass mounds behind both goals and, on the north side of the ground, the scaffold stand, domain of the now-famous Clapton Ultras (the Scaffold Brigada).
However, match days at the Dog are buzzing affairs, even if the football is not of the best standard if truth be known. But even Lionel Messi would have problems on this pitch as players often describe the experience as like ‘playing football on egg boxes’.
However, amid the fun and revelry being enjoyed by the Ultras in the Scaffold, I could not help but notice that before, during and after the game (not to mention half time) the club house behind one of the goals was virtually devoid of any patronage. Save for a couple of curious souls, such as myself, very few of the 150 odd spectators in the ground go in, or near the place. When I went crossed the threshold there were no more than four people enjoying the ‘facilities’. On the walls were some old photos, a couple of trophies in a cabinet and the furniture and fittings strewn about were, at best, very poor. It was hardly inviting, so having previously enjoyed a couple of beers in the Wetherspoon pub up the road, I gave it a swerve.
I then took my position to the side of the Scaffold so as to get closer to the Clapton Ultras experience. To my delight they did not disappoint and, without wishing to repeat a number of recent articles written about this fantastic group of fans, a fine time was being had by all.
Half time came, and I looked over to the club house door. There was none of the activity there as one would normally associate with non league grounds at half time (the ritual of the 12 minute pint, minus queuing time). Instead the Ultras stayed where they were, continuing the ‘bon vivant’ in the Scaffold.
On the pitch, it was pretty basic fare. A couple of decent players did their best amid a 'gaggle’ of others with questionable abilities, but all participants were serenaded, with full bells and whistles, for another 45 minutes until the referee decided to end the match. Clapton won the game with a last minute goal.
What followed next was something I have not seen at any football ground before. No one has left the scaffold as the home players line up in front of the fans. There followed a medley of songs and chants sung by the players and the Ultras. The players were literally dancing along with the fans and this corner of East London was bouncing. I had to remind myself that this is the Essex Senior League.
After about 15 minutes the fun comes to an end and I join the Ultras on their way towards the exit which lies just beyond the club house. As I pass it, I look in. There are two or three people in there. It appears that virtually none of the Clapton fans use, what is meant to be, their own club house!
I decided to ask, Terry, one of the 'Scaffold Brigada’ why this was.
“Basically Vince, the bloke who runs it, is taking the piss out of the club” he says. “He told everyone he owned the club and the ground but it turns out he doesn't own either and has used some sort of con to get his hands on it. He's an opportunist, and remarkably, he has fooled a lot of people. A couple of seasons ago he even put an extra quid on a can of lager at one match because the supporters had worked hard on getting a big crowd in. I won’t go in there out of principal and the sooner someone in football like the FA, or the tax get hold of him, the better.”
But these Ultras have been as active off the field as they have in the Scaffold. In recent months, they have re-established what they say is the old club, the real Clapton FC.
Club Secretary Andrew Barr explains “It has become apparent that the club being run by Vince McBean has no membership and it is impossible for the fans to join. In essence, Mr McBean’s club is not a members club but a private proprietary body. In June 2014, the club’s three life members asked a supporters group to re-establish the old club. In essence the life members were no longer part of the set up at Mr McBean’s Clapton FC.”
“So how are you going to change things?” I ask.
“Despite a very disappointing, apathetic responses from the FA, the London FA and the Essex Senior League we are very confident that we can show that we are the real club” he says. “In the meantime the supporters are continuing to support the team and not the regime. Mr McBean may be profiting from the increased attendances but its short term gain.”
“So what about the club house, is it a boycott?”
“There is no boycott of the club house” he continues. “It’s up to each individual spectator, Clapton supporter, away fan or groundhopper, whether they wish to support Mr McBean’s private business. It just so happens that, save for the gate money that enables us to continue supporting the team and maintaining the momentum, not many of us wish to do so.”
Since my visit to the Dog I have read more on the situation at Clapton FC and was interested to find, amongst other things, the article on the real club’s website that sets out how, they say, the club fell into the hands of Mr McBean.
Surely one would have expected Mr McBean to refute or deny what is a persuasive argument backed by a number of very concise documents. It might be that he cannot do so or feels comforted by the apparent apathy of the football authorities in letting him carry on unchecked or consideration given as to whether he is a 'fit and proper person'. One might also conclude that his silence speaks volumes.
Having considered all this, I believe I certainly made the right decision not to partake in my usual pre, half time and post match libations in the Clapton club house.
If you are visiting the Old Spotted Dog as an away supporter, a ground hopper or, like me, someone wishing to enjoy the experience of the Clapton Ultras, think twice about giving patronage to the 'club house'. By all accounts there is certainly something distasteful about what has happened there and, without Mr McBean coming clean about the club, the membership, or who actually is Clapton FC, I would rather give my money to Mr Wetherspoon up the road.
As was said to me at the ground, “it’s not a boycott, it’s a matter of personal choice.”
Tom Trenchard is a non league fan and groundhopper from East London.
Visiting The Old