A short tweet, reproduced on the Non-League Matters Forum, suggests that Clapton FC has closed it’s doors.

A screengrab from Twitter / x suggesting that Clapton FC has folded

The casual football fan might be forgiven for shrugging their shoulders. So what if a club in the tenth tier of English football has thrown in the towel? Well, this is what the football writer Norman Ackland once had to say about ‘the Tons’:

To the present generation of amateur football enthusiasts Clapton are just another club, rarely rising above the lower reaches… Clapton may even be confused with… Leyton Orient who were not so long ago known as Clapton Orient, and were then affectionately regarded as the Cinderella of the Football League. But no Cinderella are Clapton. They have a proud and regal heritage, a tradition and a past of glory – and if to-day this past seems remote, it has real vital links with the present.

Ackland’s words were published in 1960, in Volume One of Association Football, a four-volume collection from the Caxton Publishing Company. In his profile of the East London club, the author noted that Clapton “were the first English club to introduce soccer to the Continent. They went to Belgium and defeated a selected Belgian XI in Antwerp 7-0”.

This club were founder members of both the Southern and Isthmian Leagues, won the FA Amateur Cup five times and the Senior Cups of three Counties (Essex, London and Middlesex, respectively). If Clapton FC has ceased to exist, then a significant chunk of football’s history has gone with them.

This matters. Or, at least, it should. Clapton FC had been playing football since August 1877, when they were formed as Downs FC. Their former ground, The Old Spotted Dog Ground which is named after the (now demolished) pub in front of it, is the oldest senior football ground in London, having been laid out in 1888. Walter Tull – one of Britain’s first black footballers and army officers – played for Clapton. In an era of VAR, clubs charging premium prices for ‘match ready’ replica kit (as opposed to more forgiving cuts better suited to many fans) and legal challenges to League rules, clubs like Clapton and those we lost last season represent the soul of football.

But there’s also an argument that rather than mourning the death of Clapton FC, football fans should celebrate the fact they made it this far. In 1959-60, the season during which Association Football was published, the Tons finished bottom of the Isthmian League. Consult the Football Club History Database and you’ll find the club was usually at or near the foot of whichever division it was in. Last season, while competing in the First Division South of the Eastern Counties League, Clapton finished eighteenth out of twenty-two.

I made it to the Old Spotted Dog just once, while volunteering with Bracknell Town. That particular game was won 6-0 by Bracknell back in 2000 and I was one of a mere thirty spectators. The ground was dilapidated, to say the least. What good is a “proud and regal heritage” in those circumstances? A few months earlier, the club had been taken over by Vince McBean, who would go on to run it for two decades.

In 2012 something curious happened and gates began to grow massively, to the point where The Guardian covered what was happening in 2015:

“It started three or four years ago when a small group of friends wanted to support a local team who they could afford to watch every week,” says Dan James, a member of the self-styled Clapton Ultras. “A place without the corporate nature and restrictions of Premier League football, where you can’t stand up and it’s very expensive. The ultras tag is a tongue-in-cheek thing. We do have this political connection, a lot of people who come generally have not felt comfortable going to football elsewhere because of racism, sexism or homophobia.”

In the same article, Vince McBean had this to say:

“Shortly after I first arrived this club was condemned by the Ryman League, we couldn’t play any football here,” says McBean. “The ground had work that needed doing before it could reopen. Now we’re looking for over 1,000 [fans]. What they like to do is come here and watch football at an affordable price in a safe environment. We have a lot of laughs, they ask me to spend more money. When we had our presentations last year the fans were singing songs about all the junior players, the under‑15s and others. It made them feel so good.”

The following year Clapton FC won the Essex Senior League’s Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy – their first silverware for 27 years. The good times, though, were not to last.

Supporters became concerned at a perceived lack of transparency at the club and were angered by a mid-season increase in admission prices. It transpired that Clapton FC were not the leaseholders of the Old Spotted Dog Ground, which was technically controlled by a charity called Newham Community Leisure Trust. Mr McBean was simultaneously a trustee of this charity and the football club’s Chief Executive. With Mr McBean seeking to put the charity into liquidation due to debt allegedly owed to himself, fans boycotted home matches and then, in 2018, formed their own club Clapton Community Football Club (CCFC). This club launched an away shirt based on the colours of the Spanish Second Republic and sold more than 17,000 replicas, giving CCFC a solid financial footing the older club seemingly lacked.

In 2019, Vince McBean was suspended from football-related activity by the Football Association and Newham Community Leisure’s lease on the football ground was terminated. Clapton FC shared several grounds before eventually establishing a base at the Terence McMillan Stadium in Plaistow.

CCFC bought the freehold to the ground in 2020, but their purchase didn’t include the building behind the clubhouse, without which there were no changing rooms available. However, when the Insolvency Service took over the liquidation of Newham Community Leisure, they sold the building to CCFC. On the pitch, CCFC won two promotions to reach Division One South of the Eastern Counties League, a division into which Clapton FC were relegated.

The first ever ‘Clapton derby’ took place at the Old Spotted Dog Ground on 17 October 2023 in front of 782 spectators. CCFC won 2-1, but the ‘original’ club returned the favour on 24 February 2024, winning 3-2. However, there were just 50 people inside the ‘Terry Mac’ (an athletics stadium also used for football) to see the game.

At the end of the season, both clubs (and Tower Hamlets, who also play at the Terence McMillan Stadium) were told by the Football Association that they were to be transferred from the Eastern Counties League into the equivalent division of the Southern Counties East League. The latter competition covers a very different footprint, with many of its members coming from South London, Surrey and Kent. The additional travelling seems to have been the ‘final’ straw for those who had been battling to keep the Tons alive, even after the club had lost its home ground.

It would be easy to rail against the actions of Vince McBean, whose conduct at Newham Community Leisure earned him a disqualification from trusteeship in 2023. But, if you do so, does he deserve credit for keeping the club alive between 1999 and the arrival of the Ultras in 2012? When I watched Clapton ship six goals, there were fewer than three dozen people watching and, as a visiting official, I hadn’t paid to get in. How does a football club survive without gate receipts?

Is Clapton FC’s withdrawal from the Southern Counties East League a tragedy, or a mercy killing? Storied histories are wonderful, but they don’t pay the bills. The wider issue is the sheer number of clubs at Clapton’s level, or slightly higher, who are closing down. An hour up the Great Cambridge Road, FC Romania may be days from closure themselves

At the time of writing (19/06/24), a GoFundMe appeal aiming to raise £30,000 to keep the club alive had secured £490 of donations. This is becoming a bit of a recurring theme, which I first wrote about in February. The depth of the English football pyramid is unique, but its foundations are crumbling.

There are success stories out there, though. Let’s go back to Clapton Community. Having bought the Old Spotted Dog ground and the adjoining building, CCFC have placed the ground in trust and are working on improvements to it. Just today, Grays Athletic have announced that they are taking ownership of the Ship Lane ground which was the home of Thurrock FC until that club folded in 2018. Non-League football might be on shaky ground, but there are still clubs making progress.