Monday, 28 September 2015

Why Some Clapton Fans Should Get Off The Fence

There's still life in this old dog, I can assure you.  My computer is now back up and running and, whilst I apologise for my absence, I hope to make more regular contributions to this blog.

My absence has allowed me to reflect on one of the best starts to the season that I have seen from a Clapton team for many years.  Our team appears more organised, and the attacking players give the impression that they might score every time they go forward. There could be a number of reasons for this.  The new coaching staff attracting new and better players, players wanting to play for Clapton because we have unique support at the level of football or, perhaps we have the best white swipe board in non league football..

Nonetheless, I continue to be impressed with the consistent level of support over in the scaffold pole stand. Many people would have written off the initial interest as a fad, however, regular attendances in excess of 250 tells me that our Ultra friends are here to stay and inevidentably they will want the club to move forward.

As a retiree, I spend a lot of time on the internet during the day (between Bargain Hunt and Loose Women) and I have been interested by some of the comments on various websites/forums over what would happen, or rather, what has to happen, if we were to get promoted to the Ryman League.

Without wishing to pour cold water on such aspirations, I think that those considering this possibility are probably putting the cart before the horse.  I remember, all too well, the rigours of the Isthmian/Ryman League ground grading system and the trials and tribulations undergone by Clapton over the years.

The difference between our present level, and that of the Ryman League, is vast and was no more clearly demonstrated last week at the Dog when, following the burglary and damage caused in the dressing rooms, the participating teams (London Bari and FC Romania) agreed to go ahead with their match on Tuesday night despite the conditions. This was, apparently, agreed to by the Essex Senior League.  In the Ryman League this would not happen.  The game would not have gone ahead, and the ground and the facilities would be closed for league games until they were back to the standard required.

I recall Clapton having to play a afternoon home match in August, away at Barton Rovers, because the lux value of the floodlights at the Dog were found to be lower than the requisite level.  Ridiculous as it was then, those were the rules, and, from what I read of the Ryman League, they have become no more concessionary to clubs whose faciltities do not meet their standard.

It was not only Clapton who fell foul of this rigorous, and arguably, unreasonable application of the rules. I also recall Chesham United having to play their home League game against the Tons at the Old Spotted Dog in the early 1980s. There were many others over the years.

To bring the Old Spotted Dog Ground back up to Isthmian standard would take a lot of investment of both time and money.  Notwithstanding the situation as to 'who is the real club?', those supporters who dream of promotion might wish to consider how, and with whom, this is more likely to be achieved.

Vince McBean has always talked the talk.  But, in the years whilst he has been 'at the helm' (as he says), Clapton, on and off the field, has lumbered along between poor and farcical.  It has only been the emergence of the Friends of Clapton group, the Ultras and the growing supporter base that has given our club a new lease of life.  Even then, Vince has tried to claim credit for it, through his 'Tons Members Club'. (of which I have never been aware in all the time I have followed Clapton).

Vince's record in football also does not inspire confidence in that he will achieve what Clapton supporters wish for their club.  He oversaw the demise of Woodford Town FC and I would imagine he would have considerable difficulty in persuading the Isthmian League to take back any club under his control. One issue relates to a debt he owed to Kenneth Harris, the former chairman. I know that the Isthmian League were asked to arbitrate and despite their best efforts, Vince McBean failed to honour his commitment  I understand the debt remains unpaid and is now subject of an outstanding county court judgment.  The debt, the subsequent course of dealings with the League, along with all the other stuff, might have a bearing on his fit and proper person requirement, which will undoubtedly enforced by the Ryman League.

Some people have questioned where the gate money actually goes.  No one can be sure, because there is no openess or transparency from Vince.  Also, I don't think there has been a 'club treasurer' for a number of years. Having said that, there has been evidence of some improvements at the ground.  The portable toilet block for instance. There was also some work done by a charitable sponsor until they pulled out having done some subsequent research into who they were dealing with, viz a vis Vince McBean.  Wherever the gate money is going, it is not being ploughed back into faciltiies. The pitch? Well that speaks for itself.

On the other hand, there are the Friends of Clapton / Real Clapton FC group and I immediately declare an interest in that I know to two of the Life Members from years back and a number of the other members of the club.  The question is, what is their antecedents and what can they offer that Vince cannot?

Mike Fogg and Martin McShea were at Clapton in the late 70s when Harry Manning and Austin Williams were Chairmen and it was difficult times.  The lease on the ground had run out and a multi national corporation were looking to develop the site for housing.  This group rallied around and got received unified support from the unlikeliest of sources that ranged from Tony Benn MP to a member of the House of Lords. This campaign ended in 1992 with landlords Grand Metropolitain plc agreeing to grant a 99 year lease to a Trust. Messrs Fogg and McShea were the signatories on that lease on behalf of the Clapton Trust, which secured the ground, and, as they thought at the time, the future of the club..

I have read that the real Clapton has a committee and a membership of over 150 people. For all intents and purposes they are a proper club (subs, meetings Agms etc) which is in contrast to the supposed 'club' that Vince is presiding over. I also have no doubt that, among the membership of real Clapton is a vast array of talents in very many areas, all of which will be of benefit.

That aside, in order to bring Clapton forward into a position whereby it can regain its Isthmian status, money will have to come from somewhere and the figure required is unlikely to come from the membership.  An alternative would be to attract a financial benefactor, but such people will always want control of their investment and thus, the ideal of a supporters run club, as put forward by the real Clapton FC would be compromised.  It would be like swapping one Vince for another, except I have seen no evidence of any personal investment by Vince.

For a dynamic club, which real Clapton could be, there are vast opportunities for sponsorship and grants from the various bodies that oversee sport and community development.  There is no reason why real Clapton should not be a beneficiary of such help. In Messrs McShea and Fogg, they also have experience in this field.  The tyre warehouse, just by the Upton Lane entrance to the ground actually does not belong to Vince McBean, as previous believed by his tenants, but to the Trust, as the freehold was purchased with a grant from the Sports Aid Foundation a couple of years before his arrival on the scene.  Some of the club members who, are also among the Ultras, have taken action and instigated projects which have a social and community connotations and, I hope, is indicative of the direction in which real Clapton will want to go. 

In comparison, you may have read, as I have, on the www.clapton.info website of what Vince did with a £2million grant from the Millennium Commission that was intended to help a homeless project of which he was Chief Executive.  A reasonable conclusion might be that the chances of him getting any funding from such sources again, or help from any 'reputable source' that does research into the beneficiary, are practically nil.

For Clapton to return to being run a members organaisation once again and not by one chap, would be a great achievement for all the supporters and it is achievable.  But its up to the supporters.

If you are still undecided about what is best for the club your support, do your research. If we are serious, as Clapton supporters, about taking the club forward, there is no other choice than to back the real club. Sitting on the fence whilst buying Vince's beer, burgers and programme etc is not neutrality. That is obliquely supporting him and makes the task of securing the club for the fans even harder.

Go on the website at www.claptonfc.info and sign up.  Alternatively, I know you can join on matchdays in the scaffold.  You will have the opportunity to have a say in how your club is going to be run, something that many football fans can only dream of.

Its time to get off the fence.

As the bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, would say "Which Side Are You On?    (Those under 30 years of age should Google that)

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