Football and fascism. Itâ€™s a longstanding, yet complicated, relationship. For those looking in from the outside, the link is no surprise. Racism, homophobia and sexism endlessly taint the name of Britainâ€™s national sport. â€œItâ€™s a space for men who practice those things.â€ Andy, a leading supporter of Clapton CFC, succinctly states.
Couple this discrimination with the often-brutish violence of football hooliganism and why would anyone be shocked that the terraces have provided a perfect recruiting hub for an innately violent, repressive and discriminatory ideology?
Whether itâ€™s the National Frontâ€™s permanent fixture at Stamford Bridge in the 1970s, the English Defence Leagueâ€™s emergence from Lutonâ€™s football hooligan scene or the recent rise (and dramatic fall) of the Football Lads Alliance. The far-right have always found football a useful tool to spread its propaganda.
Though Alfred Brown, of the anti-fascist Trade Union Football and Alcohol Committee (TUFAC), believes the acceptance of this is disappearing: â€œRacists are being driven out of the groundsâ€¦ If youâ€™re standing round a football ground shouting racist abuse, youâ€™d probably be kicked to death, people just wonâ€™t put up with it. We have to let people know this.â€
There is a sense of truth to what Brown is saying. Although abuse, comments and jeers do still regularly go unchallenged, it is a far cry from the atmosphere of the 70s and 80s, when black footballers faced near constant harassment from the stands.
But, itâ€™s still there. The targets may be different. The words less doused in overt racism. Footballâ€™s far-right have adapted. Groups like the FLA base their recruitment drives in more palatable concerns, like that of extremist terrorism.
Hope Not Hate researcher Joe Mulhall talked of this with Novara Media: â€œIf you have huge numbers of people on the streets talking about how angry they are that children are being blown up at concertsâ€¦ it is very difficult to speak to them about those issues in a progressive manner.”
This discrete, veiled, form of fascism is perhaps more disturbing. Itâ€™s harder to challenge and more acceptable to join. Just look at the forty odd thousand that flooded the streets of London in the early days of the FLA. Many of the faces are the same (Ex-EDL or BNP) but, theyâ€™re hidden. In a swell of people with genuine concerns and angers.
The severity of this threat requires serious opposition. As ever, anti-fascists have been there to meet the challenge. Whether itâ€™s the Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism or TUFAC, nationwide groups are proudly taking on the fight. But itâ€™s whatâ€™s happening on a local level, in the lower echelons of English football, that intrigued meâ€¦
A Small-Scale Uprising
In the past decade, various left-wing supporter groups have sprung up across non-league football. From the sticker-laden politics of West Didsbury and Chorlton to the militant anti-fascists at Clapton CFC. Taking ironic inspiration from their European counterparts, these self-described â€˜Ultrasâ€™ are seeking to create a fanatical, yet inclusive, community-led game.
Fanatical is one way to describe attending a Clapton CFC game. Hilarious, joyous, mad are others. Explosions of colourful flares and the endless belting out of 80s or 90s hits, with a Tons twist, bring instant affection to this fan-owned club. Not to mention the banging cowbellâ€¦
â€œIt was instantly everything I was looking forâ€, â€œIt felt like home right away.â€ For Andy and Matthew, there was no looking back once theyâ€™d entered The Old Spotted Dog. â€œI couldnâ€™t believe that this existed really to be honestâ€¦ A place where you can go and bring in your own beer, itâ€™s cheap, but thereâ€™s also lots of singing and thereâ€™s ultras.â€
Andyâ€™s sense of positivity, love and pure adoration for his club is replicated in each Ultra I spoke to, no matter their location or team they support.
Take Matthew Durrant of Union 1908, West Didsbury and Chorltonâ€™s supporters union, â€œItâ€™s the best place on earth, Iâ€™m absolutely in love with the place. Most of my best mates are people who Iâ€™ve met coming down to the games at West. It just warms my heart; it warms my heart so much.â€
Or Adam, of Brighton-based Whitehawk FCâ€™s own non-swearing rainbow-wearing brigade: â€œI went to a game and never looked back. It was absolutely the attitude of the fans which was what sold me straight away. Really friendly, really welcoming, loved to banter but it wasnâ€™t this primitive way of doing things.â€
Of course, a united sense of political will is a driving force behind this positivity. But, so is the sheer fun of it. Far from your stereotyped stony-faced all-in-black anti-fascists, these lot are having the time of their lives.
At Eastbourne Town, drums bash to the peculiar sight of dozens of Ultras shoes lofted in the air, as â€œShoes off if you love the townâ€ reverberates around The Saffrons. In East London, donâ€™t be fooled by the glaring sights of flare-fuelled smoke filling the stands, Claptonâ€™s own cover of â€˜Girls Just Want To Have Funâ€™ pretty much sums up their care-free approach: â€œWhen the working day is done, Tons just wanna have fun, ohhh, Tons just wanna have fun.â€
From witty chants about opposition goalies to bans on swearing. Any goading in Brightonâ€™s run-down suburbia of Whitehawk is friendly, not aggressive. Done with a laugh and a smile, not a punch and expletive.
Even in the rainy quarters of South Manchester, West fans find endless ways to take the piss out of themselves. Their infamous â€œHummus, Hummus, Hummusâ€ chant a tribute to the hipster-clad streets Durrant descends from. â€œWeâ€™ve always had a tongue in cheek approach to being seen as a middle-class hipster club. We live in bloody Chorlton, what are people doing? Eating Quinoa, itâ€™s not a real dig to point it out.â€
Itâ€™s a simple, yet essential, experience for Matthew: â€œGoing on marches all the time, itâ€™s important that you do that but, itâ€™s a little bit grinding and what Clapton is is where you can do that but enjoy it.â€ Because an expression of political will doesnâ€™t always have to be a grind.
What strikes you when watching and talking to these ultras is that the football isnâ€™t necessarily the most important thing. Yes, of course they want with all their will to win. But, itâ€™s no devastation if they donâ€™t. Because whatever happens theyâ€™ll be standing, side-by-side, with similarly minded people, singing and dancing until the end. Enjoying life.
Not to be completely distracted by the joyous exploits of their fandom, these ultras are determined to revolt against footballâ€™s often primitive nature, both in behaviour and views: â€œItâ€™s a reaction to the environment we grew up with and accepted as football fans. An environment which many people do not feel comfortable with.â€
â€œWe want to make football open and fun for everyone in our local community â€“ and to kick out all the pricks who oppose that.â€ Like the others, Eastbourne Townâ€™s Pier Pressure are unapologetic in their stance. One that hasnâ€™t always gone down too well since their formation in 2015.
â€œWeâ€™ve had various disagreements with other fans about our way of supporting the club â€“ weâ€™re not fortunate enough to live in a liberally minded city.â€ But these challenges only spur them on. â€œWhat is the point in preaching to the choir or living in an echo chamber anyway? Football is about different opinions and so is life.â€
Differing opinions that are even reflected amongst these ultra-groups. Whereas Clapton Ultras have a clear history of erring on the side of militant activism, attracting the likes of Matthew (â€œIt was the fact that it was assertively anti-fascist space that was important.â€), Durrant is more reserved in his description of Westâ€™s Krombacher Ultras (joking named after a German beer):
â€œIâ€™m generalising but, for the majority of people, itâ€™s just openly identifying as not being right-wing, rather than being your classic militant anti-fascists who go out and fight fascists, which obviously does have its place. Itâ€™s a banner to be like we are very openly left-wing.â€
Adam is even less effusive in his description of Whitehawkâ€™s Ultras leftist beliefs: â€œSome people wouldnâ€™t call themselves left-wing, some people are just like Iâ€™m against racism, homophobia and all that, I donâ€™t like prejudice.â€
So, not an entirely united frontier of ultras… What does unite their politics is this determined anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia stance. A will to confront. Not sit in awkward silence waiting for someone else to call out the sexist comment shouted from the row below.
â€œIf youâ€™ve got racist incidents then you stand up to it. You react to it.â€
For Adam, this mantra is personal. At a young age, back in Poland, he witnessed the worst of footballâ€™s far-right hooliganism.
â€œIt was watching my local team, that I used to absolutely love. I remember coming back to the opening game of the season and seeing a few hundred people Sieg Hielling and I was like â€˜what the fuck is this?â€™ I was absolutely heartbroken.â€
A memory that haunts but, also drives a belief in creating an inclusive footballing environment: â€œBecause football should be for all, we actually mean it when we say football is for all. We do mean it. It should be for all. If you were some sort of minority, you should be comfortable to come to the game, not to feel worried about being assaulted or abused.â€
â€˜Football for allâ€™, itâ€™s a phrase you often hear banded about by clubs, as if stating it magically makes it a reality. This isnâ€™t the case at Whitehawk. Since the Ultras were founded in 2011, both the club and supporters have put in a determined effort to engage and include Brightonâ€™s LGBTQ+ community. To allow them to feel relatively comfortable in an environment often tarred by homophobic undercurrents. A success? Itâ€™s hard to measure but, the numbers are moving in the right direction.
This thinking is at the heart of why this Ultra-uprising has occurred. Fans seeking to change the atmosphere from the bottom-up. Matthew may disagree on the wording but his sentiment sits along the same lines.
â€œPeople always chat about football for all, what I want Clapton, or what I want more places to be actually, not just Clapton, is first and foremost for everyone else. I can go fucking anywhere. Big, loud, lairy, fat bastard. I can go anywhere, footballs for me. I want us to think about how we make football for other people first.â€
And where better to try than at Clapton. A club steeped in history. That Walter Tull, one of Englandâ€™s first black professional footballers, began his career at. That owns the oldest senior football ground in London: The Old Spotted Dog.
A Sense of Community
In 2012, a group of locals set about making this peculiarly-named corner of East London their new home. Declaring themselves left-wing ultras, it soon â€œbecame the club that London anti-fascists, punks adoptedâ€ with rocketing attendances.
Fast-forward a few years and the ultras faced their defining moment. A chance to put their politics into practice. After a season-long united boycott due to plentiful disputes with the clubâ€™s owner Vincent McBean, some fans decided to go their own way. In January 2018 Clapton Community Football Club was born. Andy explains:
â€œWe donâ€™t call ourselves a breakaway team or a phoenix team or any of that right. We consider ourselves to be the true successors of the Claptonâ€™s members club. Because they were always a memberâ€™s club and we view the guy who came in as illegitimate, he took over and stopped it being a democratic club and stopped there being voting rights.â€
After some convincing, the whole fanbase deserted McBeanâ€™s Clapton. Leaving them unable to payÂ The Old Spotted Dogâ€™s rent and allowing Clapton CFC to take complete ownership of the ground in 2020 (helped by the sale of an infamous away shirt). A remarkable turnaround for this radically-minded set of supporters, or as Matthew puts it: â€œWe own a fucking football ground!â€
A community-owned football ground run by anti-fascist ultras. If there is one example of what this bottom-up movement is seeking to do, this is it. A space for the community, owned by the fans.
â€œAnybody that is a political activist in the UK should be paying attention to this. Itâ€™s important for people, in this country particularly, at this time especially, to see examples of community organising winning and community organising doing something that seems like itâ€™s just for grown-ups, the status quo.â€
â€œWe are going to be running it so that itâ€™s giving something positive to people in the neighbourhood.â€ Matthewâ€™s passionate devotion reflects the community ideals he sought when ditching his beleaguered Newcastle United. Ideals that led Durrant to say goodbye to Leeds and Elland Road. Ideals that, like their determination for an inclusive sport, bind these differing sets of ultras together.
For Durrant, founding Union 1908 in 2019, after years of supporting West as a Krombacher Ultra, was the epitome of this. It provided an official space to â€œgrow that sense of communityâ€ and further the work they already did. To which he then proudly lists off the impressive work the fans do with asylum seekers, food banks and local youth projects.
â€œI think having a community club that does focus on the things that matter to you outside of football and that isnâ€™t necessarily just all about getting the best players in, spending the most money and being top of the table. Itâ€™s something you can do as a fan that increases your sense of community and makes you feel a part of it.â€
Not just a blip in an ocean of supporters, this is his community. A community heâ€™s helped build as an ultra. A community that reflects his ideals. That is the appeal to him and the others. Theyâ€™re at the heart of the process. A process which is not only part of the local community but, provides a service to it.
A feeling thatâ€™s shared across all four clubs, as Matthew epitomises: â€œItâ€™s about getting involved, itâ€™s not just about having a share on a piece of paper, itâ€™s about having a part in building the club. Thatâ€™s the kind of democracy I like.â€
No wonder fans are flocking down, seeking this utopian form of football. So distant it is from the overpriced commercially-obsessed clubs of the Premier League and Championship. Across the spectrum, crowd sizes have rocketed.
West Didsbury and Chorlton recently set a new record attendance of 890. Whitehawk regularly get upwards of 300 through the gates. Eastbourne Town match the leagues above in attendance. And Clapton, an 11th tier club, often reach the upper hundreds on big game days. This is in stark contrast to the measly double-figures that were regularly trudged out pre-ultras.
Whatever your views, there is no denying this is a popular movement. Durrant sees the correlation as lying firmly in the politics: â€œThe more that weâ€™ve been able to show our identity, not that there is one identity, it seems to encourage more people to come down who think similarly.â€
Moving up the Pyramid
Can it be replicated? Every Ultra I spoke to supports a club residing in the 8th tier or below. Itâ€™s a long way from the overpriced heavily-marketised haunts of Premier League football. This is why it works, itâ€™s easy to change the matchday experience of a club when it only had 20 or so supporters beforehand. Twenty-odd thousand? Thatâ€™s a whole different ballpark.
â€œOn that level (the Premier League), itâ€™s never going to happen. But I think that level of the game is completely detached from community and reality anyway.â€ In Durrants case, itâ€™s not about changing a part of the game he feels is already lost. â€œI canâ€™t see them ever becoming more rooted in the community.â€
Itâ€™s about providing a space in football that actually contrasts the upper echelons of it. That provides this community-led inclusive environment to those alienated by the mainstream. Even rising up a couple divisions puts doubts in his mind:
â€œOnce you get to a certain level, you realise it canâ€™t always be idealistic. Once you get to say the 6th or 7th tier, youâ€™re starting to pay lads Â£500 a game and it gets to the point where winning becomes really important because youâ€™re an actual business, not a volunteer-run club.â€
Itâ€™s a feeling shared by Andy: â€œThe top goal isnâ€™t to go up the pyramid, the top goal is to keep what we believe in and are true to.â€ Like Durrant, Andy believes higher up equals compromising on aspects they wouldnâ€™t want to, including the basic fun factor.
He fears a level â€œWhere you canâ€™t just have a drink and watch the game or you need that kind of officious stewarding.â€ In an unofficial capacity, he hints that the club may get to a point â€œWhere we win a league and we turn down promotion and stay at that level.â€ A remarkable admission to mainstream fans, who spend their lives begging to realise the dreams of top-tier football. Â But, for him, their values and matchday experiences are more important than success.
Adam, on the other hand, does believe in a â€˜projectâ€™ to upturn the game: â€œI think football does have the ability to change. Football has the ability to change from the bottom to the topâ€ Heâ€™s even confident itâ€™s happening now: â€œThings are changing, theyâ€™re just changing slowly.â€
On a local level, Whitehawk Ultras are already having an impact: â€œWe were a part of the inspiration for Eastbourne Town Ultras so, we have inspired some people on a local scale and realistically, that is all you can hope for.â€
Adamâ€™s beacon of optimism is a reminder that this is a movement on a very small, local, scale. A fact that possibly makes it even more remarkable. This fascinating enclave of radical ultras are attracting people to a level of the game often unheard of. The Isthmian League South East Division doesnâ€™t exactly roll off the tongue.
Dredging through pouring rain to watch football of a standard not much higher than Sunday League may seem strange, even deranged. But, listen to the love and happiness radiating from these supporters and youâ€™ll understand. I do.
Seeing it for myself has brought into question my own support of mainstream clubs. Highlighting how far they have come from footballâ€™s supposed community roots and the distance their realities sit from my own politics. A fact I knew but was unwilling to confront.
They may not expect to overhaul the game immediately (or ever) but these ultras are creating an inclusive space to have fun, and enjoy the sport. Not feel the guilt of funding ridiculous wages or existing in a vacuum of morality.
â€œAnother way of supporting a football club is possible.â€ â€“ Eastbourne Townâ€™s Pier Pressure.