Having formed last year following a dispute that arose in Clapton FC, Clapton CFC are part of a growing football trend: clubs that look to distinguish themselves by stepping away from the more corporate aspects of the game, and instead taking on distinct identities relating to their community-driven nature and politics.

Having just completed their first full season, though, Clapton CFC have been successful beyond any reasonable expectations. Their away shirt, which referenced the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish civil war, a bright purple offering with the slogan ‘No Pasaran’ on the collar.

I came across the club through their extensive social media over the course of last year, watching their fanbase grow to an astonishing 1,400 or so for the final home league game, playing in 11th tier of English football. Having joined the club myself (at £10 for annual membership, why wouldn’t you), I got in touch with communications manager and match commentator Martin Fletcher to learn more…

Hi Martin! Before we get into the politics of the club, let’s cover some football. You’ve obviously put together a side that’s very competent for its level. What style of football do you play, and who are you stand out players?

This iteration of the club was founded in June last year, and so it was quite a rush to make sure we had a full and competitive squad for the season. Fortunately, our player coach, Geoff Ocran, has a lot of contacts and was able to pull some players in. We also held open trials which turned up quite a few gems. As you would expect, it took the new team a while to gel and at the halfway point in the season I think we’d have been happy with a good mid-table finish. However, from early 2019 the squad really started to come together, resulting in their title winning run that saw us go 9-1-1 down the stretch.

Key players in our run were keeper, Dan Anfossy, our defensive lynchpin, Dean Bouho, dead ball specialist, Stefan Nielsen and our bullet on the wing, Josh Adejokun, who scored a hat trick in our league title deciding game at the end of the season. There tends to be quite a high turnover of players at our level so it’s difficult to confirm who will be back next year. But I’m sure we’ll continue to play a pacey, attacking style of play that entertains our growing fanbase.

Clapton CFC seem to have developed into a kind of anti-facsist, alternative football club. How has this come about?

Clapton CFC grew out of a group of fans that started following Clapton FC, one of London’s oldest football clubs, back in 2012. From the beginning the fans who attended were looking to build an inclusive atmosphere and differentiate themselves from more mainstream clubs, which can sometimes be quite unwelcoming spaces for a lot of people. In the years after 2012 attendances grew largely through word of mouth as more like-minded people wanted to come along and participate.

The fans broke away to form Clapton CFC last year, as part of what is an ongoing dispute with Clapton FC’s ownership. The club was founded as a democratic, fan run organisation. Making the club an open, welcoming environment that stands up to intolerance runs right through the DNA of the organisation.

Obviously, the shirt referencing the Spanish resistance has gathered a big following. Were you surprised by the reaction?

We were completely overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the away kit last year. The shirt was selected from 16 designs submitted and was a clear winner among the members. The message behind it, along with the cool 90s style design really appealed to us. When planning merchandise for the season, we had been expecting to sell around 250 or so shirts. However, after a picture of two of our players celebrating a goal went viral in Spain and around the world, our volunteers were faced with a huge logistical challenge which they rose up to spectacularly. By the end of the season over 13,000 shirts had been sold.

Will there be a similarly politically-loaded follow up?

There was talk of doing another design competition this year. However, in the end we’ve decided to stick with the same design for our home and away kits as last season. A core part of the club’s ethos is to make supporting the team as accessible and affordable as we can, so we wanted to avoid fans feeling like they needed to shell out on a new away shirt every season. Besides, the volunteers who manage the shirt distribution need a year off after all the work they’ve put in over the last ten months!

Was it hard to keep on top of the publicity and orders around that shirt? Has the influx of cash helped the club significantly?

The publicity around the shirt certainly made for some interesting times on the Communications Committee, with members doing the rounds in magazines, radio and TV. My interviews were on Russia Today and ORF in Austria, which came as a surprise to my girlfriend’s Austrian parents when we popped up on their main 6 o’clock news.

As I’ve mentioned above our volunteers managing merchandise pulled off an absolute blinder to shift shirts in numbers many professional teams can only dream of.

The amount of money made off the shirts has been comparatively small as we try to avoid selling them for much more than it costs our ethical manufacturers, Rage Sports, to make them. However, the money that we have made will help keep the team on the pitch for quite a while and gives us a bit of breathing room to establish ourselves. We’re also in discussions with the International Brigades Memorial Trust about how a portion of the money can be spent keeping the memory of the volunteers alive.

You have one of the biggest followings at your level in England – probably the biggest, I suspect. Does that lead to a natural expectation that the club will grow?

Having something like what happened with our shirts in our very first season as a fan owned club makes it quite tricky to predict where things will go from here. Attendances have been growing through the season, to the stage where we had nearly 1,300 spectators for our last game of the season. However that was a sun soaked, league title deciding day so I wouldn’t expect those kind of numbers every week. We are ambitious though, and want to keep working our way up the pyramid. The league we’ve just been promoted into (Middlesex County Premier) is a competitive league, however we’ve shown that we can hold our own at that level. So we’ll just have to see how the team gets on, and if they can add any more silverware to the collection.

What is the atmosphere like at games? You’re bringing a big following to relatively small clubs – has that been quite surreal at times for your opponents?

One of the things I’ve really loved seeing this year is the development of a real family atmosphere on game days. When the sun has been shining we’ve usually ended up with a small group of kids sat on top of the dugouts and families bringing picnics along.

For those who want to get behind the team a bit more vocally, the noise of the fans in the main stand has often made it difficult for the bench to get messages out to players on the pitch. To the extent that our coaching staff have had to resort to passing notes to players several times to get their attention. At a level where most clubs can count their attendances on their fingers, I think it is a huge boost for our side to be playing into that wall of noise. However it does also mean that visitors tend to bring their A-game against us, as there are few more satisfying things than stunning 1,000 odd fans into silence. Not that it happens very often of course!

There’s a general ‘against modern football’ campaign that’s been gathering momentum in the non-league for some time. Do you feel an affinity to that?

I very much feel an affinity with a more grassroots, community based style of running a football team. Before I moved to London 5 years ago I was never much of a football fan, the few occasions I had gone I’d found the experience pretty dull. I don’t think that it’s helped that there will often now be one or two big clubs in a country who you know are going to win all the domestic titles before the season even starts. You’d see more competitive games following the Harlem Globetrotters than watching Paris St Germain.

While non-league does throw up some one-sided results, including an 11-1 win for us back in November. I love the feeling of being part of a community bigger than myself, rather than just being a paying customer buying a product. We’re unlikely to win any competitions your typical football fan has heard of, but the team is ours, we can afford to be there every week and can have a pint with our heroes after the game.

How much difference does being member-owned make to the club, and how do members come together to make decisions?

Ownership is by the membership starting from £5, all members have an equal share in the club regardless of how much they choose to pay. Accountability to all 1,400 of them is at the core of everything we do. The day to day work of the club is undertaken by committees of volunteers, any member can join any committee as suits their skills and interests. These committees have a small budget of their own and are responsible for making the small decisions that fall under their jurisdiction. For larger spends and decisions that could have a significant impact on the club, decisions are escalated to a vote of the membership. This can either be at one of our regular open meetings for the membership where numerous questions will be discussed and voted upon, or where a faster decision is required we will put the vote out to our members online. All the committees hold their own regular meetings and details on the decisions made and they money they spend are available for all members to see.

I understand the club went through some really hard times before finding this member-led format. Are you surprised by how well things have gone since? Do you consider the club that formed in 2018 to be a ‘new’ club, or claim the old history?

The fans who previously supported Clapton FC were involved in a long running dispute with the owner, Vince McBean. Issues included his closing the club to new members, a lack of transparency in decision making and attempts to liquidate the charity that owned the land on which the team’s stadium stood.

Clapton Community FC includes within its membership all of the remaining life-members of Clapton FC, the entire fan base and is responsible for the Clapton FC Archive at the Bishopsgate Institute. The dispute is ongoing but we very much feel we have a claim to the history of the club originally founded in 1878.

I think we are all pleasantly surprised with how our first season as a fan owned club has gone. We’ve had a lot of support to get us to where we are today, including guidance from Supporters Direct (SD) which has allowed us to learn the lessons of other clubs that have walked this path before us. Our first competitive fixture was playing for the SD Cup, an annual match contested by fan owned clubs, against Enfield Town. We got thrashed at the hands of England’s oldest fan owned club, but they and others set out a great road map for our own future.

How did the Liepzig trip come about?

Roter Stern are a fan owned multi-sport club based in Leipzig with around 1,500 members. They’ve been around for 20 years and the mens football team ply their trade in the German Regional Leagues. There are a number of long-standing friendships between RS fans and Clapton CFC fans, with groups making several trips to each other’s grounds over the last few years to support one another in games.

Earlier this year Clapton CFC made a trip to Barcelona to play in a friendly against CE Jupiter, as part of the city’s commemorations for the Spanish Civil War. We were looking for another opportunity to give our players and fans an overseas experience and were delighted when RS approached us for a friendly as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.

What are your hopes for the future of Clapton CFC?

The immediate priority is building up the stability of the club and its ownership model. We’ve made a fantastic start this year winning a cup competition and securing promotion as league champions at the first time of asking. We now need to use that momentum to keep the members we’ve attracted this year engaged with the club, continue building friendships around the world and carry on being as competitive as possible in every game the team plays.

Beyond men’s football we have ambitions to branch out into women’s and youth setups. The club has also recently launched the worlds first anti-fascist e-sports club, which is a great step into another environment that can not always be the most inclusive. Personally, in years to come, I’d like to see the club become a space where like minded people can meet and form groups or teams in anything they feel passionate about (Clapton Morris Dancing Club anyone!) whilst still coming together to cheer on the club come Saturday afternoon.

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