Tom and I meet up at Stratford station, and it's a short bus ride to a nondescript suburban street, in East London. The previous days wind, rain and general miserableness has departed, and it’s a fine warm August afternoon. You would have no idea that a football club was around here, the only thing that stops us checking the maps on our phones, are the two men with kit bags walking in front of us. 50% the kit bags and 50% their haircuts which make us think we might be going the right way. There is something about a footballer’s haircut, which when even not in the clubs strip, says "I'm a footballer", so we take it as a sign, and like the two kings following a star, keep going.
We are not disappointed, and see today's footballing Bethlehem through a black metal gate, at the end of a long cul-de-sac, Disraeli Road, E7.
Today is one of firsts. The first time either of us have seen an FA Cup game before the 3rd round, in fact today is the first round of the whole competition, the Extra Preliminary Round, as the long road to Wembley in the world’s oldest footballing competition begins. It is also our first visit to The Old Spotted Dog, the home of Clapton FC (CFC)
Down a barbed wire lined path behind one end of the ground, overgrown and in the shadow of tall trees, we are greeted by a large white sign, with red writing "CLAPTON FOOTBALL CLUB" strung up between two buildings. A red wooden partition leads your eye to the other end where it culminates in the turnstiles. The partitions separate the entrance in to two sections, "spectator’s entrance" and "players only".
It's long before kick-off and the turnstiles are yet to be manned, so we enter the ground through a rickety wooden gate, and a scene of pre match preparation unfolds.
A man at the far end of the pitch pushes a sort of wheel barrow around, dispensing white paint to mark out the boundaries of the pitch. Various tools litter the floor, as a handy man in a straw cowboy hat, goes about doing the last bits of spring cleaning, and a few CFC players casually kick a ball about between themselves on the pitch.
Not long after we arrive, today's opponents pull up in a minibus under the large white sign, and pile out, make the walk through the same rickety fence and make their way straight to the changing room. Stanway Rovers FC (SR) are no strangers to playing CFC having played each other twice recently in the same fixture
"OK boys, let’s go in" calls the manager to the players on the pitch, some glued to their phones, leaning against the railing around the pitch. The team go in followed by the gaffer, leaving the SR squad inspecting the pitch.
We are quickly learning that the "non-league" world is a relatively small one, and are starting to see some familiar faces, when we go to games. Someone we first met at the Hackney derby, Hackney Wick FC Vs Sporting Hackney FC, is Dan, formally on the staff at the very successful Sporting, but who is now on to pastures new as part of the management at CFC.
Due to work commitments, and holidays, Dan is a PE teacher and he and a colleague who has joined him at CFC from Sporting have been unable to get a "session" under their belt with the squad, so he says he is "really looking forward to today".
“The grounds got everything you want, it's all just a bit wanting, needs a lick of paint", says Dan, and he is not wrong, The Old Spotted Dog has seen better days, it's a hotchpotch of porta cabins, one containing the toilets, one containing the board room, a breeze block building which holds the "Tons Bar” and changing room. There is one main seated stand opposite the dugouts behind each goal is a bank of earth, with a minute terrace with enough room for about two, behind one of them. Large trees and houses ring the ground, so close are peoples back gardens you can almost see in their houses.
Dan also says he has never experienced the noise of the Clapton Ultras, we explain that's what brings us here today, "well it's not for the pitch" jokes Dan. As well as it being an FA Cup game, it’s also a great chance to kill two birds with one stone, after crossing paths with the Ultras at the Essex Senior League Final 2015, we have wanted to see them on their own patch ever since.
The smell of the petrol driven strimmer the cowboy handy man is wielding, and the arrival of a man holding a drum in a Celtic FC shirt, inspires us to make our way around to inspect the Scaffold. Situated between the dugouts, underneath what looks like a mobile phone mast, is the Oust Curve of the Essex Senior League. Just like at Hertha BSC Olympic Stadium, it's where the fanatical fans congregate on match day, the only difference the scale, but not the passion.
By the time we make it round, it's a left at the two cars that look ready to be scrapped, straight past a pile of bricks, and once you see the shipping container with "CLAPTON" spray painted on the side of it, you have arrived. The drummer boy, has secured his position, and drum on the raised section of the scaffold. People call him "Jinky" because of Jimmy Johnstone, his favourite player for his beloved Celtic FC.
"Your heart is a muscle the size of a fist, keep loving, keep fighting", "Football without fans is nothing" are messages painted along the back wall of the Ultras section, along with a multitude of football stickers, from visiting teams and supporters, which sends my obsession for them into overdrive. The Scaffold is exactly what it says it is a single storey creation of plywood and scaffolding poles, all painted red and black, with a step up to a raised section at the back, with one corner a collection of flags and banners from the Ultras well known Tifo.
Jinky is perhaps the most enthusiastic person I have ever met, like a Celtic supporting children's TV presenter on drugs, he is clearly itching for things to get underway, if he grips his drumsticks any harder I think they might break, he is so proud to point out "unique" things about the ground, and shares with us his favourite name for the Scaffold "The Love Shack".
Outside the ground, the opposite way we came in is the Spotted Dog Inn. In a previous life a hunting lodge, once visited by Henry VIII no less, then a pub, and now just an out of place, boarded up curiosity. The only hint of its past is a white entrance arch with "The Spotted Dog Inn" in gold above it. In homage to this old drinking spot, Tom and I sit on a concrete block, used to prevent people driving on to the land, drinking beer out of a brown paper bag, only to be slightly spooked by two police officers kicking around in the undergrowth behind us, "looking for something".
Back in the ground after our pre match paper bag refreshments, the players are finishing warming up, and a few away supporters, talk to the team behind the goals.
With about 15 minutes to kick off, the Scaffold is strangely quiet, just Jinky padding around, drumsticks in hand, when all of a sudden a tidal wave of beards, beer cans and banners descend.
"EAST LONDON, LA, LA, LA"
It is a hive of activity, as the ground is prepared for the imminent match. Banners of all shapes and sizes, including our own, cover every inch of the small Scaffold, and the fence in front of it "Refugees Welcome", "Clapton Ultras – Alerta! – Anti Facista!" and my personal favourite a simple blue circle with "Walter Tull 1888 - 1918 Footballer played here 1908 - 1909" in the style of a blue plaque you normally see on the side of a building a person of note has lived in. The name Walter Tull also adorns many of the scarves of the CFC supporters, and so it should.
Walter Tull was the first professional black outfield player in English football, the first to win a medal in English senior football, after winning the FA Amateur Cup & London Senior Cup in the 1908-09 season. It was his part in this winning team that got him a transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, and only a miraculous 12 after joining CFC from his orphanage team in Bethnal Green. His story does not stop with playing football, during The Great War he served with the Footballers' Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment he was commissioned an officer and became the first mixed-race combat officer in the British Army, despite the 1914 Manual of Military Law specifically excluding "Mulattos" from exercising actual command as officers. He died in the trenches of France in 1918.
A person and player CFC have every right to be proud of.
Like a game of Ultras sardines, more and more people squeeze onto the raised section of the Scaffold, and are soon spilling onto the area in front, to the sides, anywhere they can fit. I find myself standing in front of the drum which I instantly regret.
"WE ARE NEVER, NEVER, GOING TO FUCKING BARKING"
Everyone knows everyone, most people exchange hugs and shake hands, the hiss of beers opening and the smell of weed wafts, it's like a football Woodstock.
All the sights and smells, make me completely oblivious to the match, that is about to start, it's not until the teams are about halfway across the pitch, and are lining up, that I notice kick off is moments away. As much as I'm enjoying being in the thick of it, the drum, so close to my head, is tough to handle, so I bale, moving far enough, so not to lose my hearing completely, but still close enough to be immersed in the atmosphere.
Just as the players stand on the centre spot, ready for kick off a small child, waves her red and white chequered flag, she is barely tall enough to see over the railing around the pitch, on the whistle the Ultras break out into song, all to the rhythm of Jinky's drum.
"WEMBLEY, WEMBLEY, WE'RE THE FAMOUS CLAPTON FC, AND WE'RE GOING TO WEMBLEY"
It's packed, and from the low position, it is almost impossible to actually see what's going on in the game, my obscured view is added to by the huge Clapton flag, swaying back and forth at the front, and it's very hard to concentrate on anything other than the orchestrated mayhem around me, as the Ultras start their lengthy repertoire of chants.
"YOU ARE MY CLAPTON"
What I can see though, is that the rest of The Old Spotted dog is empty, expect for a few SR fans sitting in the shade of the main stand opposite. Every bit of support is crammed in to every inch around us.
SR have started the game the much better side, and hit the bar early on. The Ultras do what they can to put them off "Stanway play in a shitty yellow kit", but it is to no avail, and 20 minutes in they take the lead from the penalty spot. It's given for a handball the people around us think the decision is "harsh" how they could possibly tell is beyond me, I can barely see what's going on two feet away.
The penalty is slammed down the middle, keeper goes the wrong way. Do the Ultras sulk? Do they bemoan the decision? Nope, they take their own advice spray painted on the side of the shipping container "support the team".
"WE'RE GOING TO WIN 2 - 1, WE'RE GOING TO WIN 2 - 1"
There are almost 30 minutes on the clock before CFC get a chance, but no goal, but you would not know, goal or no goal the ultras sing, and the choices of tunes to sing them to, is what makes me smile, no Sloop John B or Hey Jude here, they are much more inventive than that, how about the theme tune to Super Mario Brothers or a dig at the clubs Chief Executive Vince McBean, perceived lack of spending any money to the tune of Gay Bar, by Electric Six.
"I want to take you to the old dog, old dog. Vince, why don't you spend any money?"
My on pitch highlight of the first half is when the SR goalkeeper gets an absolute bollocking from his team mate, after a feeble attempt to claim a cross from a free kick. "Why don't you fucking punch it?!?" The keeper looks crest fallen, one of the fans near me shouts "don't cry!" And for a split second, he looked like he might.
"Stanway give us a song, Stanway, Stanway give us a song. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" The Ultras goad the few SR fans opposite them, and probably for the first time fall quiet, waiting for a response.
The SR Manager, who looks like a cast member from Made In Essex stands confidently on the edge of his technical area, occasionally being harangued by the Ultras behind him for straying outside of it. I notice a couple of policemen near the clubhouse, perhaps after the recent attack by a far right group, at a CFC pre-season match, and this marks the first time I have seen any police presence at a non-league game.
As the half comes to an end CFC have started to brighten up, and for the first time in the match look like offering SR some competition, "score in a minute, score in a minute", sing the Ultras, but the half finishes 1 - 0 to the away team.
Pitch side looks like a bike park outside a major railway station, as East London's choice of transport are propped up all around. A man holds unofficial match day programmes above his head one is all yours for the princely sum of a 25p donation. A child sits asleep in a pram, how it has stayed that way, considering the noise is remarkable. One woman must of been in such a rush to get to the match today, she is brushing her teeth, yes you read that right brushing her teeth, and Tom splashes out on one of the Walter Tull scarves £8 if employed, £5 unemployed, which encapsulates the ethos of the Clapton Ultras, and ties it around his wrist like a Bay City Rollers fan, I'm left gutted that the bearded man has none left in the rucksack at his feet.
It's all SR as the second half gets underway, the man next to me eats takeaway pizza from a box, and the away side have two chances in short succession, only a save from the CFC keeper keeps it at 1 - 0 "Senegal number 1".
The inevitable second goal goes in for SR, it's a good finish from close range, and once again the Ultras support does not waver "We're going to win 4-2". The FA Cup is slipping away from CFC, but someone next to us is not bothered "It's all about the Gorden Brasted, that's a proper cup"
On or around the Scaffold its noisy, but it's not until you move away from it, looking at it from the other side of the pitch, that you realise quite what a site it is, quite how loud it is, it really is something else, it's like it's alive all moving and singing as one.
Finally CFC claw one back and it’s a bit of a surprise considering how they have been playing today. A run from the winger, cuts into the box and scores. It's once again hard to tell from the Scaffolds reaction if they have scored or conceded, because they are so consistent, but they do break into a rendition of Twist & Shout.
Although the CFC number 11 is creating a few options with his pace and good first touch, the FA Cup is almost over for this season, and at this point with the game almost over a few casualties of the Scaffold start to emerge from the scrum. A few people stagger from side to side, as perhaps the strong Polish lager, a favourite of these parts has taken its toll, along with the standing in the sun, one guy walks out with his head tilted back, a tissue plugging his bloody nose, perhaps he caught an elbow from an over enthusiastic supporter, and one guy who has pulled a full "whitey" the result of a bit too much weed, escapes the Scaffold the shade of porcelain, in search of some shade and a glass of water.
"Well played Stanway", coincides with the final whistle as SR finish the victors, and receive the recognition of the home fans. What happens next is something I first saw in Germany at Tennis Borussia Berlin, and it put the hairs up on the back of my neck then, and it happens again today. Even though the CFC players are dejected, it takes the keeper a while to get up, after sitting on the floor, contemplating the defeat, the whole team walks along the front of the Scaffold, and the fans and players exchange high fives, handshakes and commiserations. The connection between team and support shows a club united.
Just like anti-fascist Wombles the Ultras make sure the Scaffold is left as it was found, and encourage everyone to help out "we clean up our mess" as bin liners are feverishly filled with an unknown amount of beer cans, all ready for recycling I'm sure.
We walk across the pitch, and both comment how it is more like a ploughed field than a surface to play football on. It is uncomfortable walking on it in trainers, so only God knows how the players must feel after a full 90 minutes.
Following an invitation to join the Ultras for a drink in the local Irish Catholic Community Centre, a stone’s throw from the ground, we enter the masonic lodge, make a right past the grand sweeping staircase, like something from a BBC costume drama, and in to the gloomy bar, "these could be our new drinking buddy's" says one local, as his normally quiet bar is over taken by heavily tattooed men and women, in search of a pint.
Except for forgetting my notebook, only realising I had lost it half way home, and having to make a manic, panic filled journey back to the Irish Centre, only to be saved by a slightly sozzled CFC fan who produced it from his backpack, our first taste of the first round of the FA Cup and our first visit to the Old Spotted Dog, was a success.
The quality of football from the home side will have to go down in the, not some of the best we have seen column, but the support, well what else can I say, it is simply fantastic. I said it when we first met
I know that the club is in a state of turmoil, which is a blog in itself, but simply based on a day watching football, singing and supporting the team, regardless of the result, I'm not sure they can be matched.