Two Men In Search of The Beautiful Game accompany Bowers and Pitsea FC to cup final glory encountering anti-facist Clapton Ultras along the way. No pyro, no party!
Words by Daniel Magner
Photos by Tom Sparks
Our cab winds its way thought the streets of a new build housing estate in Essex, it’s an early Sunday afternoon, and the sun is beaming down, it is a glorious day.
The cab driver is a Spurs fan, he travels home and away, and his house backs on to the ground of the team we are spending the day with today, he goes when he can, but as with so many other smaller clubs in and around London, there is a lot of competition and they struggle for attendance.
Between two houses is a road leading to the ground of Bowers & Pitsea FC (BP) of the Essex Senior League. Today is the day of their Cup Final against Clapton FC (CFC) in the Essex Senior League Cup.
We clamber out of the cab, a large modern looking silver coach is parked up, and the players are in a circle talking away in full club training kits, and look quizzically at the big guy and the guy in a flat cap holding up proceedings. After a quick glance, they continue talking amongst themselves and a man in a baseball cap and white polo shirt walks towards us.
The man is Darren, our point of contact at BP, all round social media guru, helper, fixer and landscaper who uses his skills to look after the clubs pitch. He has been involved with the club for 12-13 years, a Spurs fan and ex season ticket holder who like so many has fallen out of love with the top flight. He bought a house near the BP ground, and could hear the noise on match day wandered up there, and in his own words “has not been home on a Saturday since”, much to the dismay of his wife. He has agreed to us joining the team since we got in touch following their defeat of Haringey Borough FC in the semi-final.
Darren is instantly welcoming and puts our initial anxieties to bed as he introduces us to the club secretary and the Chairman, who with short grey hair and beard in a blue suit looks just like a mob kingpin from an East London gangster film.
Things are quickly underway, and the team, staff and a few fans board the coach, for the short drive to the venue of the final. The players fill the back few rows of the coach and we sit up the front with the club officials.
Not long after hitting the road, a lady with a rosette pinned to her top in the clubs colours, is quick to dish out histories largest picnic, from a straining, groaning bag, which takes up its own row of seats on the coach.
“The players can’t have any cake” says Darren sitting behind us, as she offers out crisps, raisins and I’m sure the rotisserie chicken hiding in there somewhere will be on offer soon.
I’m quick to ask Darren about today’s opponents, a club perhaps more famous for their fans then their football. CFC as Darren says are a bit of a “bogey” team this season. Beating BP once in the league and only managing a draw in the other game, otherwise BP have been flying this season, pushing Haringey Borough FC all the way to the end in the League coming second, but getting revenge and hammering them, 4-1 in the semi-final. They finished the league with a goal difference of +99, scoring 155+ goals in all competitions, and the clubs top goal scorers having a staggering 70 odd goals between them. All under the stewardship of the young coach Rob Small, only in his early 30’s, and only manager since the beginning of the season, he has had a miraculous turn around on the clubs performance. Rob Small is not on the bus, in fact he is cutting short a family holiday, planned long before the end of the season, and is meeting us at the ground. The team have not played for two weeks, and he hears the pitch is far from ideal, but says “if we play our football, we will win”, but admits to his own nervousness, and with a shrug of his shoulders says “it’s a Cup Final”.
The roads are very busy, and we stop and start in the traffic, we are on the main road to Southend, and people are swarming to the coast for a day by the sea, Darren says “it will be a crawl there”.
We stop to pick up two players on the way, and they high five a few of the fans sitting at the front of the bus. The previously reasonably quiet back of the bus sparks in to life, at the arrival of the two late comers.
BP get about an average attendance of 68 and that includes all the staff, and the club secretary thinks they will be lucky to get 100 today. CFC though will have 3 coaches full of the non-league phenomenon which are the Clapton Ultra’s we are even warned we might struggle to film anything today, because they are so noisy. One of their recent home attendances was over 500, which in the 9th tier of football, puts Conference sides to shame. We are both fascinated to hear about the Ultras, having yet seen them ourselves this season, well known for their fervent support, bringing all the colour, noise, enthusiasm and show of their European cousins, but with a staunch ,fanatical stance of anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, anti-violence, as they say themselves, “sometimes anti-social, always anti-fascist”.
Off the main road and making our way thought Essex country side we are close to the venue of today’s match, Burroughs Park, the home of Great Wakering Rovers last year’s Essex Senior League Champions.
The Cup competition itself has bad recent memories for BP, as they lost 9-1 two years ago.
At the top of a narrow lane, surrounded by allotments, the coach driver has to navigate his way along to the ground. Two pensioners look on, from the shade of their shed, as if a silver spaceship is invading their quiet corner of sunny Essex, and half way down the driver abandons the journey, we and the team are walking the rest of the way.
It really is a lovely day, and has got lovelier on the short coach ride from BP. The players gather on the pitch, chatting once again, Rob Small has also arrived, and we wait for the changing rooms to be cleaned, following the earlier game here today.
Burroughs Park is a tight and modest little ground, but more than suitable for the Cup Final. On each side of the pitch is a covered stand, the one behind the dark wooden hutches or dugouts is all standing, opposite is all sitting. Behind each goal is a small strip of concrete for standing, and behind one goal, are nets to avoid any stray balls ruining anyone’s car in the car park. The club house and changing rooms, are all within a one story brick building, and in large green letters reads “Nobbys End”, named after Nobby Johnson, a club official, who sadly passed away a few seasons ago. “Tea bar” is written on a number plate, above two small white windows, and the same goes for the “Home” and “Away” dressing rooms, also written on white number plates.
Gold buttons on the blazers of league and club big wigs, sparkle in the sun, and the players in small groups chatting are bored of waiting, sit down on the pitch, and are keen to get on. A few CFC players are leaning perfectly under the “Nobbys End” sign, and are oblivious to the rest of the team snapping away, sniggering to themselves, taking pictures.
We are both introduced to Rob Small, I ask if we can have a team photo, he is quick to get the players moving over to the goal mouth, and we get the picture. Someone asks us to “watch the grass” as the players kick up sand and dust that has replaced the grass on this part of the pitch.
The club kit man, with the club 18 years is busily readying the changing room, and ceremoniously and meticulously lays out the kit, which all looks pristine, and neat, but only for the few minutes until the players are let loose. His job started the previous day, getting everything ready for the big day.
I leave the changing room, under a poster saying “no guts, no glory”, the players are given the green light to go in, one player whose job it was to be “on sweets” has forgotten them, his team mates don’t seem surprised, but does leave them stranded with only 2 packs of fruit polos.
Tom and I make our way to the bar, for a cool drink, and let the players get ready in peace. We pass the turnstile which has started to tick over as the first few people start to arrive.
The left overs of the previous games post match meal, are strewn across a couple of tables, as the players and their families make their way home. It is so warm in the club house, and a jolly woman behind the bar serves us a much needed cold drink, Bert a BP fan in his 80’s who also travelled with the team, stands near the bar, seemingly unaffected by the heat, as he is wearing a woolly hat with his name on “BERT”.
As in any good club house, fading pictures of teams from years gone by hang on the walls and banners “Great Wakering Rovers 25th Anniversary at Burroughs Park” in the clubs colours of green and white decorate the room.
BP is first out to warm up, in sky blue tops and red shorts. The coach with the “magic beard” puts the team through their paces. Darren told me before we had arrived at the ground that coach Mark Hunter, had not trimmed his beard in something like 6 months, ever since the team had been on a great run, so the facial hair was staying put.
The chairman of BP watches the team warm up, and is tucking into some of the impressive spread covering about 4 tables in the board room, a cornucopia of sausages rolls, chicken drumsticks and coronation chicken triangle sandwiches. CFC makes their way on to the pitch in red shirts and blue shorts, and the BP changing room is open and the music is pumping out.
All of a sudden like the distant drumming in King Kong, something has become clear, the Ultras have arrived.
The single turnstile and the two women manning it, are struggling and acting like they are under siege from the 3 coach loads of fans that have arrived, I don’t think Great Wakering Rovers FC was quite prepared for this. Within two minutes of the first fans getting in, the first St Pauli reference of the day is made in the form of a t-shirt. St Pauli the God Father of anti-fascist, punk, rock and roll football that many don’t want to copy, but aspire to, and connect with their message. Most people look dressed for a gig in Camden, rather than a football match.
The red, white and black of CFC is suddenly everywhere, scarves, t-shirts, banners and flags, many with the anti-fascist symbol. One fan holds up a flag “GEGEN NAZIS” – “AGAINST NAZIS” another has a drum slung across his shoulders with two red CFC scarves tied together.
“YOU ARE MY CLAPTON, OH, AH”
The few who have got in and passed the bag check, are now retrieving the “contraband” under the fence, all behind the back of the blazer squad at the main entrance looking on, and not sure what to do. Darren had said that some grounds turn a blind eye to the beer and flares that the Ultras bring in, but they were not taking any chances today, and under the fence it went.
All of a sudden a confrontation breaks out, and one fan is asked to leave the queue, by a tall older gentleman, with his gold buttons gleaming. He has taken exception to what has been said, and a tense standoff ensues, but is quickly resolved, the Ultra is allowed in.
Within moments of arriving the Ultras have taken over the stand behind the dugouts, and their flags and banners are, “TONS”, “FORZA CLAPTON” and the Jolly Roger quickly hoisted. Not all of them are in, and they slowly drip thought the turnstile, at one point one of the ladies manning it shouts “we need more tickets”. A Clapton fan talking about his fellow fans, says they are “probably shot gunning beer in the car park”
We follow the team off the pitch, and into the changing room, which is now a sea of boot bags and clothes.
“Relax and take your time” are the words of the Manager, as the players strip off their training kit, and get their match kit on.
“Quick Start” is the advice of one player, pacing around the changing room.
“Straight at them”, “We go out there and enjoy it, if the occasion is going to get to anyone its them”
Everything Rob Small says is delivered in a calm and articulate manner, he emphasises the importance of the players listening to him now, because once they are out there, the noise of the Ultras will mean they won’t be able to hear him.
“Show good character, we wiped the floor with Haringey”.
Some players are deep in thought some are smothering themselves in Vic vapour rub. The keeper is wrestling with his shirt “it’s too tight”, Rob Small instructs the kit man to “give him what he wants”.
The referee bangs on the door, game time. The players all shake hands, and a few offer their own words for the occasion “Come on boys” “We have been waiting all fucking season for this!” Rob Small turns off the music playing, and is the last one out.
The relative darkness of the changing room means its takes a few moments to adjust to the bright sunlight as we follow both teams out on to the pitch. They walk out side by side, one line of blue one of red. The teams line up, and the voice on the PA introduces the club Chairman and the league Chairman, who will be greeting the player’s pre match.
“WE ARE THE CLAPTON, WE ARE THE CLAPTON” accompanied by the constant banging of the drum, huge swooshing flags and billowing smoke, come from the stand the Ultras have occupied.
BP kicks off, and all I can hear is the popping of smuggled beer cans and the smell of skunk mixed with smoke fills my nostrils.
It’s hard to concentrate on the game “EAST LONDON, LA, LA, LA”, I take up position between the dug outs of which some of the Ultras are sitting on. They are sitting there not necessarily to get a better view, but like any good Capo’s with their backs to the game, they are conducting the support, in the middle of the mayhem of the Ultras, I could be forgiven for thinking I am watching a game at Galatasaray or on the Yellow Wall at Dortmund, the singing, and drum is hypnotic, and is everything you could want from supporters.
CFC have the first chance of the game, only for a super fingertip save from the BP keeper denying the goal. For CFC though that will be about it as far as chances go in the half, and in fact the whole game, because what happens over the next 90 minutes is one of the most single handed demolitions I have ever seen, and I should know as a long suffering Spurs fan.
Twenty four minutes in and BP take a much deserved lead, a huge throw in is expertly knocked down, and a stunning strike from just outside the box, flies low past the out stretched CFC keeper, 1–0. The BP bench jump to their feet, and the Ultras are only affected for a nanosecond, and are back to singing almost instantly “Oh East London, is wonderful”.
Two minutes later and BP extend their lead, this time from the penalty spot, via the CFC keepers hand and cross bar. The BP player puts the ball on the spot, turns, takes a few steps, faces the keeper runs and strikes the ball. The CFC keeper makes a fine one handed save to his left, the ball bounces up hits the cross bar, loops back into play, and straight to the original penalty taker to head it in, 2–0.
Instead of moaning and going quiet the Ultras applaud their keepers efforts “Senegal Number 1”, but bemoan the referees decision, “the referee’s a Tory” “David Ike was right, he’s a lizard, you scaly bastard!”.
Rob Small from the side lines gets a message to the team, “push them straight away, get the ball back”, and they don’t let him down. It’s all BP, and a 3rd goal is imminent, the game could be over before it even begins.
The CFC keeper is bundled over after a BP corner, and it looks like he has banged his head on the post, but it can’t be too bad, because as soon as the referee blows for the free kick, he is up to his feet and is charging out of the box to remonstrate with the players he thinks did him wrong, only to be held back by the referee.
CFC is not in the game at all, but their fans have not stopped. BP get a another chance, but the 1 on 1 brings a great save from the CFC keeper, and Rob Small has his head in his hands, and can’t believe it’s not 3–0, but he will not be disappointed for long. A well delivered cross from the left is flicked on at the front post, bypasses the whole CFC team, and finds the BP player unmarked, untroubled and it’s a simple header and an easy 3rd, 3-0, half time.
BP players sprint to the changing room, like the last 45 minutes in the sun have meant nothing, the CFC players are a little more laboured.
In the changing room you can hear the bustling of half time though a open window, but inside its relatively quiet, and the players sit down, one or two players josh about, one squirts another with his water bottle, but they are all listening attentively.
Rob Small’s first instruction is for his team to take on water, he then delivers a seamless half time team talk.
He was calm, collected and informative, he would make a cool cucumber look positively roasting. Perhaps this had a lot to do with his team being 3-0 up and totally bossing it, he did though highlight points of improvement to one or two players, a few minor tweaks, nothing major, but the sign of a true perfectionist. When he could not remember one of the point’s he wanted to raise he asked his assistant, and then was straight back into his flow. Had the result been the other way round, it may have been all hair dryers, boots cutting eyebrows and tea cups flying, but at this moment, this was a happy changing room, God knows what was happening next door.
“It’s only half done”
The players are out first and the Manager is bringing up the rear, and gestures for us go first. Tom congratulates him and I got the feeling from his reaction that the congratulations were for when the game was over. I asked him if he was always the last out of the changing room, a superstition perhaps, “no, I’m just polite”.
As the players get ready for the second half, the Ultras have unfurled their own “Coreografia” choreographed display, a huge flag in their own colours and at the bottom a banner “HATE TORIES, LOVE CLAPTON!”.
Sadly once again CFC can’t do their fabulous fans justice with their on pitch display, and it’s about four minutes in to the second half BP go 4–0 up and put the game out of sight. The BP player cuts in a couple of times and unleashes a shot across the goal, and we are close to a rout.
“4-0 and you still don’t sing?” sing the Ultras, their support once again not wavering despite the score.
Finally the Ultras have a goal to celebrate, not that you could tell the difference anyway, but even with a considerable amount of the half left its feels very much like a consolation at best, as BP have a few more up their sleeves, 4–1.
“IF YOUR’E NOT JUMPING, YOUR’E NOT CLAPTON”
When the fifth goal goes in for BP, a totally unopposed overlap on the left, a square ball in to the box, and scuffed shot pea rolls into the back of the net, it’s the first time the Ultras seem ever so muted, but still chant “We’re mighty Clapton”, 5-1.
BP are getting so many chances, they don’t seem to know what to do with them, It would be unfair to say CFC have given up, but they really have been out of the game since the 3rd goal went in.
“NO PYRO, NO PARTY” rings out as the Ultras hold smoke bombs above their heads, and once again blot out the stand and benches, what a scene it was when CFC are making a substitution and the referees can hardly be made out through the fog. The Ultras have now completely occupied the roofs of both dugouts, a line of beer glasses along one edge, one holds a large bottle of champagne, with his back to the game, I’m not sure he has seen any of it, and continues to drive them on. The familiar site of Ultras with their scarves half covering their faces, probably so as not to inhale the red smoke or it could be to stop the overwhelming smell of weed.
“CLAPTON ULTRAS, LA, LA, LA, LA”
In the dying moments of the game BP add two more goals, and the destruction of CFC is complete. CFC give the ball away cheaply on the edge of the box, and a queue of BP players line up to shoot, the one who does hits a fine shot, by now what must be a very dejected keeper, 6 – 1
The final goal for BP is a bullet header and seals the Man of the Match performance from Durrant, who gets his hat trick, and in the words of Rob Small, “not bad for a full back”.
On the final whistle many of the CFC players drop to the ground, the BP staff are celebrating and congratulating each other. Instead of booing and jeering their own players, the Ultras show a great sign of class, “Well played Bowers, well played Bowers”. They quickly take the pitch, the ever flying flags still held high, and the songs still being sung. Some fans commiserate the players, but not a negative word amongst them.
CFC and the Ultras gather in the centre circle, and lead each other in a song, a back and forth between the team and the fans, the large bottle of champagne is handed to one of the players who drench the Ultras in bubbles. The team collect their runners up medals, and its BP’s turn to lift the cup.
BP collect their winners medals, clapped by CFC and the Ultras once again “well played Bowers” all beaming ear from ear, from their remarkable result, bogey team you say? Not on this performance. The kit man is giddy, a long time servant of the club, who had said to me earlier in the day “they are going to do it”.
I catch Rob Small’s eye and he tells me he is back off on his family holiday to Centre Parks, he was not joking about going on the final whistle, he has had his winner’s medal in his hands for only a few moments.
A man hands over the cup to the BP captain, the clubs colours in ribbon hang from the handles, the customary “ohhhhhhhhhhhh” in anticipation of him lifting it above his head from his team mates, turns into rapturous applause when he does. Another bottle of something sparkly showers the team, and the team jump and sing on mass, “Champione, Champione, ole, ole, ole”
As they leave the pitch, Bert still in is woolly hat, has the biggest smile of all, and gets a high five from every player.
We leave the Ultras still singing and follow the team into the changing room, who crack into a group rendition of Frankie Valli’s – “I love you baby”.
The Roman banquet of sausage rolls is in full swing in the board room, and Tom and I peer through the window like a scene from Oliver Twist.
We bump into a delighted looking Darren, and thank him for the opportunity today it’s likely the team will be hanging around for a while, and sadly its work for us the next day, so it’s time to work out how to get home to North London. I enquire with one of the many Ultras who have flooded off the pitch into the bar, and one of the 3 coaches have room and we can have a ride home, but not quite yet so we have 30mins to kill. What better way then, after snaffling a few tuna sandwiches, then a big kick about on the very pitch we had watched the game on today, and a jumbo game of headers and volleys commences with BP and CFC fans playing together.
We climb aboard the brownest of all coaches, and take part in a version of Clapton Ultras wacky races, each coach taking turns in overtaking the other at break neck speed on the motor way back to London. The buffet was flung open to all, and some people did not hold back, ones fans paper plate almost buckles under the weight of potato salad, and people pass around bottle of cider. Scarves hang in the windows “ULTRAS E7” like football themed Christmas decorations, and Hotel California on the radio is quickly rewritten in to a new chant, “Welcome to the Hotel Clapton Ultras”.
Today has been quite brilliant in so many ways, the football and support was exemplary.
To see what is possible, what is being done and the passion on show from the Clapton Ultras was exceptional. The love they showed for their team, the message they purvey, the nonstop singing to the tune of 90’s pop songs, and managing to shoe horn in a Spice Girls song takes real creativity, the choreography, the display is truly a thing of beauty, something I thought I would only see on a trip to Germany or Italy, but it’s going on in my own back garden.
In my eyes there is no right or wrong way to support a team, you do it however you want, but the way I want it, the way Tom wants it, is just like how the Ultras do it, and we look forward to be choking on red smoke and cracking open a Tyskie with you soon.
It would only be polite to finish with our host for the day, and a big thank you and congratulations to BP, for their resounding victory. They showed great skill and intelligence during the game, and really dismantled CFC scoring some wonderful goals.
In Rob Small they have a young talented English manager, the Holy Grail in British football, who I’m sure will continue to develop the team, and march them on to promotion and a cabinet full of silverware in the not too distant future. Not only was the football a pleasure to watch, but watching how he conducted himself in the changing room and the way he spoke to the team, was remarkable.
Thank you once again to Darren, Rob and all the staff and players at Bowers & Pitsea FC.
Check out the boys’ fantastic site – a celebration of the best of football beyond the Premier league glare – here