the real fa cup

Clapton Unplugged

Clapton 0-2 Mildenhall
FA Cup Preliminary Round 2013/14

There was some confusion amongst my colleagues when I told them I was off to Clapton on Saturday afternoon. “You mean Clacton?” No, I mean Clapton. “You’re going to your girlfriend’s?” No, she lives in Clapham. The confusion only escalated when I subsequently explained I was off to the football, “Who’s playing?” Clapton are. “Do they even have a team?” No, I’m going to form one when I get there.

Clapton do have a football team (I’d just tired of trying to explain non Premier League football as a concept to my colleagues), indeed they have done so since 1878. And though my colleagues may not know where they reside, a signpost at Forest Gate station thankfully does, pointing the way down Woodgrange Road to The Old Spotted Dog Ground, Clapton’s home for 125 years.

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Woodgrange offers a snapshot of a London High Street on a summer Saturday afternoon. Chicken shops and Kebab Houses of all nations sit on either side and Barry’s Meat Market does a roaring trade. Mothers chat outside the Post Office whilst children twirl from their arms, men in white aprons shovel ice onto glinting fish, a kid outside Wenty’s Tropical Food arranges huge watermelon slices. Among these people are individuals off to the match, only not the same match as me. This is West Ham territory with claret and blue flecks visible the length of the street; a small boy goes past wearing a West Ham shirt with West Ham printed on the back, as if he got fed up of people behind him asking why he supported Scunthorpe.

On Upton Lane a door to door salesman from the Ugly Window Emporium has made a killing, refitting the row of houses before the abandoned white timber of the Old Spotted Dog Inn. Behind the former pub, between a block of flats and a tyre garage, nestles the two humble red gates that lead into Clapton FC.

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“Respect man” says the man in the plastic booth as I pay for my entrance and a copy of the programme. A group of visiting Mildenhall Town supporters stand just inside; “Manchester United wouldn’t want to have to play here would they?” says one gesturing at the dry, patchy pitch with a wiggly penalty area ‘D’ the size of a helipad. “No,” replies the man next to him a good twenty seconds later and having given it some serious thought, “I don’t think they would.”

Behind the near goal sits the club house in which remnants of past glories hang on the wall. A framed etching depicts the FA Amateur Cup winning side of 1924-25, the fifth and final time Clapton won the competition. Such was their stature in the inter-war years that three of that Clapton side were selected for the full England team. There is no sign of Roy Hodgson here today though, just a handful of committee men in club polo shirts, one of whom busies himself twiddling the knobs of an implausibly large sound system.

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Back outside and with kick-off approaching the referee blows his whistle in the direction of the changing rooms, prompting excitable roars from deep within each. As the official stands at the tunnel entrance cradling the matchball and checking his watch, a particularly perceptive visiting fan stops and asks “Are you the ref are you?” less he be confused with an enthusiastic amateur.

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On the far-side of the ground, in a small structure, made predominantly of scaffolding, straddling the halfway line between the two dugouts, reside Clapton’s most recent and most lively fans. The Clapton Ultras, the Scaffold Brigada, come armed with banners and flares, beers and songs, turn-ups and beards. Hipsters? Perhaps, but what does that matter when they lift the atmosphere and mood of games like this. They’ve already started as the game gets underway, rocking the Casbah, with their own lyrics, “Bari don’t like it, Clapton Ultras! Clapton Ultras!!” From behind the goal a lone old man does his best to make this a two-sided affair with a yell of “Come on the ‘Hall!”

The pitch is hard and bobbly, and the football of the opening minutes much the same. Whenever players run through midfield dust clouds billow from beneath their feet, and the ball cannons off their shins at unplanned angles. With play generally bouncing around the midfield Clapton goalkeeper Pepe Diagne keeps loose by performing forward rolls on the edge of his box. “What the hell is he doing?” asks a Mildenhall supporter on behalf of us all, “He’s like a dog trying to get a biscuit out there.”

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The visitors are having the better of the game, their forward Steve Holder is as quick as he is blond and he’s causing problems for the Clapton back-line. So too is James Paterson on the right who earns the first corner of the game. “Lets have it in the net here Hall!” yells the old fella behind the goal, but the delivery is picked off by a pair of long green arms jutting out from the crowd as the unseen Diagne claims it comfortably.

Clapton’s opportunities are limited to quick breaks downfield; their forwards Jamie Pooley and Jerome Martelli like a trick, but unfortunately their desire to pull one off comes before effective countering, and two potential attacks end in a flick too many. Inevitably it’s the visitors who take the lead, a minute after Ben Coe has flashed a shot wide, Holder makes no such mistake, with Clapton failing to clear a Paterson cross, the forward turns from a horizontal position to rifle a shot into the corner of the net leaving Diagne with no chance.

The cheers of the coach load from Mildenhall fail to impress a couple in one of the back gardens bordering The Old Spotted Dog as they continue to peg out their washing unmoved by the noise. Now in front Town looked destined to build on their lead, particularly as Clapton centre-half Matt Tracey sits so deep at times he looks to be operating as a ‘false 1’. “One nil, and you still don’t sing” chant the Ultras toward the collection of middle-aged fans that have travelled with the visitors.

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Tracey eventually locates the rest of his back-line and as he does so the home side start to find a footing. Josh Coulson, the big number 9 for Clapton, flicks on a goal-kick and Martelli tries an optimistic half-volley which sends the Mildenhall ‘keeper scrabbling across goal, but the shot is always flying well wide. Martelli goes closer to an equaliser as the game approaches half-time, attempting to lob the goalkeeper when put through again, but as the Ultras prepare to celebrate it runs just wide.

It’s only now, standing behind the Mildenhall goal, that I notice the visitors’ left full-back. In stark contrast to the coloured boots and boyband quiffs around him Ricky Cornish is a footballer from a bygone age; he’s got a visible gut for a start, and what looks like a comb-over. He has the appearance of pub landlord from an early 80s sitcom. I can picture him pre-match, smoking a pipe and shoving old newspapers down his socks, shaking his head as his team-mates listen to their hippety-hop music on their boombox. Kids eh?

Clapton keep the pressure on up to the break, but get little reward, moving the ball round the edge of the box without ever really threatening to take a shot on goal. One decent looking move ends as Coulson falls to the floor in slow motion like a demolished factory chimney , but the referee rightly waves away his appeals and it is still 1-0 as the half-time whistle sounds.

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In the clubhouse a man as old as some of the portraits on the wall dodders up to the bar and attempts to help himself to our two coffees. “I thought they were mine,” he says, despite the fact he’s both on his own and yet to order. None of the chairs match so a dad perches precariously on a small stool thumbing through the programme whilst his young son lounges on an Edwardian throne singing the songs of the Ultras under his breath. The committee man at the sound deck is playing a reggae version of Cher’s Do You Believe in Life After Love, so the sight of the players heading back out through a dust smeared window is a welcome cue to leave.

For the second half we decide to infiltrate the Ultras, and whilst we’ve been inside they’ve passed the break in their own inimitable way, meaning a cloud of thick red smoke is pouring out from the scaffold and across the pitch as players and fans return. The Ultras have been swelled in numbers today by a group of Rayo Vallecano fans, who rather than take a back seat, are leading Spanish language chants with shirts off and bottles of red wine in hand.

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On the field, the game remains in the balance, with the bobbly surface halting any attempts at fluidity. The Mildenhall ‘keeper has made a shaky start to the second half, fluffing a high-ball, before turning over a free-kick that didn’t seem to be travelling all that quickly, but Clapton fail to stretch him further. “All that we want is a Clapton goal, get it in the net now,” sing the Ultras, but you feel their chance to do so has long evaporated and not even the novelty of Ace of Base centred football chants can change that. Coulson pulls off a neat back-heel flick, but there’s no other Clapton player in the same postcode, highlighting the home side’s isolation in attack.

“One of their players works on The Socialist newspaper,” James tells me, during a lull as  Clapton bring on Neil Matthews, “I’m not sure which one it is … I reckon it’s probably the guy with the beard”. Matthews enters the field in an odd shuffling run that suggests he’s trying to sneak up on the opposition unnoticed. It’s a tactic that fails to unnerve Mildenhall as within a minute they’ve doubled their lead; Craig Nurse holding off his man to turn and slot the ball into the bottom corner.

The visiting supporters clap and cheer, “Saga Coach Tour” chants the scaffold in response. “Clapton are completely shit,” says a guy into his phone, and though they’ve had their moments, at this stage in the game it is hard to disagree, they may have gone three up front or their winger may just be being lazy; it really is difficult to tell. They stick a fourth man up front before the end but it fails to warrant any more chances, instead the sights of goal go the visitors’ way as substitute Tom Trevivian wastes two great chances, watched through the red haze of a second smoke bomb, to put the game beyond any doubt.

Clapton’s attacks are now restricted to solo heroics; Matthews careers forward on his own performing a succession of step-overs, though this could just be an attempt to bring the ball under control, whilst in the last minute Diagne lollops forward for a corner, but the delivery eludes his lanky frame and the game ends soon after on a clumsy soft touch from Coulson that is symptomatic of the home side’s performance; plenty of will, but too little in the way of execution.

The Ultras clamber down from the scaffold to exchange mutual applause and then handshakes with the Clapton players, whilst on the far-side the Mildenhall players deliver the requisite clichés and gurning required of them by a lone BT Sports camera. We could stay for a bit longer, but the threat of further reggae and 90s pop-dance fusion looms large so instead we make a break for the exit; afforded further “Respect” by the man in the plastic pay booth as we do.

Words & Pictures Courtesy Glen Wilson
Glen is Editor of venerable Doncaster Rovers fanzine Popular Stand and can be found here on Twitter.

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