Whilst we Clapton supporters were celebrating a fine victory over old rivals (and friends) Barking at the Dog, some of our other former adversaries were taking place in some high profile matches elsewhere.
Old Isthmian League rivals Sutton United were adding to their giant-killing pedigree by knocking Leeds United out of the FA Cup. It was a marvellous achievement for the ‘U’s and I I am delighted for them to have drawn Arsenal in the next round.
I remember watching the Tons at their Gander Green Lane ground for many years. Invariably we were on the end of a hammering, not least an 11-1 defeat in the sixties but this was not surprising as Sutton were always one of the top teams in the League with quality players such as Larry Pritchard, Steve Bangs and, of course, Dario Gradi. Our last ‘contact’ with them that I can recall was in the 80s when, their Manager, Barrie Williams agreed to loan us classy midfielder Glenn Swain for a few weeks whilst we're in the midst of an injury crisis. They were always a decent club and its marvellous to see them doing so well and, as importantly, at their traditional ground.
Up the road in north London, Tottenham Hotspur were hosts to other old friends from our Isthmian days, Wycombe Wanderers, who gave a fantastic performance, only to be pipped at the post, courtesy of a last minute goal. The last time we played Wycombe, their home ground was Loakes Park, a traditional old stadium in High Wycombe town centre. Loakes Park was most famous for its sloping pitch and, although Imight like to venture this as being a factor for some of the hidings we took at the hands of the Chairboys, it's not the case. They team was always populated with some of the best amateur players of the day. From perennial goalkeeper John Maskell, to ace goalscorer Keith Searle, they were a marvellous outfit and their progress to the Football League is a testament to their excellent administration over the years.
Last Sunday another match took place with which Clapton have connections. The FA Vase tie between Southall and Exmouth Town may not have grabbed as many headlines as the matches above but was eagerly contested with the winners being just three matches from Wembley. Southall were Clapton’s opponents in the 1925 FA Amateur Cup final and boasted a fine tradition. They became an Isthmian League club in the expansion of 1973.
In 1986, Southall also enjoyed a great run in the Vase and, having beaten Stevenage Borough at their own ground in Western Road with les Ferdinand playing at centre forward, actually reached the twin towers, only to lose in the final to Halesowen Town. Exmouth Town also enjoyed similar success. They were regularly Champions of the Western League and reached the semi finals of the Vase in 1985 when beaten on aggregate by Fleetwood Town.
Exmouth Town was Clapton's destination for a pre season friendly in 1988. A good time was had by all, very much in the traditions of the Easter Tours upon which Clapton parties often embarked in years gone by. Yes, beer was involved.
However, both these clubs have undergone some hard times since these heady days.
Southall ‘lost’ their home ground and started ground sharing. They were relegated to the Combined Counties League and, in 2006 suffered the ignominy of being expelled from the League and their record expunged due to ‘financial irregularities’. However, despite having to re-group and play two levels lower in the Middlesex County Football League, the club cleared its debts and have re-emerged as a fine club to which their Vase run is testament. They presently play in the South Midlands League in Division One and continue to ground share at Hanwell Town.
As well as the Championship winning seasons and the FA vase run, Exmouth Town also reached the 4th qualifying round of the FA Cup, only to fall at the hands of the excellent Woking team of that era. Their team was punctuated with some of the best ex-pros and non league players from the region.
Unfortunately, whilst such players give a lot of enjoyment to supporters and raise the profile of the club, this comes at a price and, unfortunately the club’s ability to continue to pay the cost of such an operation, heralded the departure of most of the players. This left the club with problems and they were soon relegated form the top tier of Western League and rattled around in the lower division for ten years before eventually gaining promotion. However, the success was short lived and they subsequently resigned from the League in 2006 due to financial problems. The club was then re-formed as Exmouth Town (2006) AFC and the first team took over the old reserve teams place in the Exeter and East Devon League. The next season the club became founder members of the South West Peninsula League.
Last Saturday’s match at Southall is, once again, marks a fine achievement by those at Exmouth Town who stood by their club and those who have come in to help sort out the problems left by their predecessors.
Last Sunday’s match was won 4-2 by Southall who’s reward is a home match against Cleethorpes Town. We wish them the best of luck.
There are lessons to be learned here for supporters of many non league clubs, not least Clapton FC. Losing your home ground, financial irregularities, the cost of ‘professional’ players and the legacy of short term success has a cost and it can take years to bring the club back.
As a Clapton supporter, I am far from convinced that the Old Spotted Dog is in safe hands. As there is no transparency, I also have no confidence in the administration of the club, particularly as far as financial issues are concerned and the obscure use of Limited Companies that don’t file records with Companies House and are regularly struck off.
As for the expenditure on players, in my experience, money doesn't buy loyalty from players, whether that is a Premier League or Essex Senior League level. We must hope that the excellent squad we have will be content to play for, what should be, one of the most prestigious amateur/nonleague clubs in the country with unrivalled support rather than to move on (frequently sideways) for money.
Despite the excellent result at the Dog last Saturday, it would take a brave man to back against Barking to be promoted in April and whilst it would be a shame to lose that fixture, should it happen, I will be pleased for them in their achievement in returning the 'Blues' to the Isthmian League.
So then, why shouldn't Clapton look to return to their traditional home in the Isthmian League.
What we must hope is, like Sutton United, Wycombe Wanderers we can progress, but on a realistic level and before than can happen, like Southall and Exmouth Town, we have to get our club back on an even keel.
Unfortunately, before this can be achieved we need to rid ourselves of the Vincent Mcbean's current regime whose secrecy and dishonesty is slowly being exposed and unravelled. This current debacle will undoubtedly cost Clapton FC dearly in the future. It will be then that we will need the loyalty of players and supporters to stand to shoulder to shoulder with those who may be left to carry the can.
Time will tell.