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All that can adorn and bless

10/15/2018

A piece I wrote for the latest edition of the FC United of Manchester fanzine Top of the World about how the club might commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre next year 

During this summer’s Euro away I bumped into a couple of FC’s newer supporters on their first trip abroad following the club. We chewed over recent events at the club for a while before swapping notes on where we stood in the ground; “oh, near the lefties then” said one as I explained my regular-ish location on the St Mary’s Road End, prompting me to blurt out something about how without “the lefties” this football club wouldn’t exist. It was something of a conversation killer and we drifted off into the night. Fuck knows what these supporters would have made of events at a fellow fan-owned football club in London this summer.

There’s nothing new about football clubs using their shirts to support particular campaigns or causes. Celtic players have worn a large cross on their shirts around Famine Memorial Day in recent seasons to commemorate the Great Famine in Ireland and, of course, the controversial red poppy is now emblazoned on shirts, merchandise and club websites in the run-up to Remembrance Day each year. But in August, before they had even played a competitive fixture, Clapton Community FC caused quite a stir with the launch of their red, purple and yellow away shirt inspired by the colours of the International Brigades who fought against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

Clapton Community FC are a fan-owned football club – formed this summer after a long running battle between the supporters of Clapton FC and its owner – whose supporters include a number of lifelong fans and a group known as the Clapton Ultras who, disillusioned with top flight football, boosted crowds at the club’s Old Spotted Dog ground in recent seasons. The supporters wanted a greater say in the running of the club and for the additional matchday revenue from average crowds, which rose from about 25 to more than three hundred over the course of five seasons, to be reinvested in the club. They staged a solid boycott of home matches throughout the 2017-18 season before deciding to establish their own club this summer, apparently seeking advice from FC’s former head honcho, Andy Walsh, amongst others. The newly formed club have begun life in the Middlesex County League Division One on the twelfth rung of English football’s ladder (for local equivalents, think of the likes of Heywood St James and Tintwhistle Athletic in Division One of the Manchester Football League) and is set up as a ‘one member, one vote’ community benefit society like FC United, run entirely by volunteers.

The Clapton Ultras have made no secret of their inclusive, anti-racist stance and, accordingly, the away shirt was designed to send out a clear anti-fascist message with the words “no pasaran” printed on the back. To everyone’s surprise it flew off the shelves after pictures of it being worn by players during a pre-season friendly went viral on social media, with around 6,000 orders for the shirt being received by mid-September. The club currently has around 400 members and had originally expected to sell just a couple of hundred shirts through its first season though, such has been the extraordinary level of interest, its website initially crashed and the small band of volunteers struggled to cope with demand. Much of this enthusiasm has come from Spain and, in a nice touch, some of the funds raised by sales of the shirt will go to the International Brigades Memorial Trust which commemorates those who travelled there in the 1930s to fight fascism.

You may have spotted a few red and white stickers in town or around Broadhurst Park bearing the name of the Clapton Ultras on them and wondered who they were. Living in London, I’ve been to a few of their matches – when the prices of Branson’s rip-off rattlers have prevented me from travelling north – and their fervent, vocal support reminds me of a smaller version of FC United’s away support. At least what it used to be like before we started drinking in ‘spoons. They’ve a fondness for flags, pyrothechnics, Polish beer and bouncing around and boast an extensive songbook that includes some familiar tunes but a fair few original ones as well; there’s a song to a Desmond Dekker tune that I particularly like (substituting Claptonites for Israelites) and the rousing Italian anti-fascist anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ invariably gets an airing and sounds great. In addition the Ultras have been active across their East London community, regularly collecting for food banks and refugees. There’s much to admire of these fans of a football club located in the heart of one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the world.

Meanwhile Clapton FC, whence the Ultras came, kicked off another season in the Essex Senior League and were forced to put out a statement clarifying that they are not connected to the new club after the popularity of the anti-fascist away shirt caused much confusion, with fans from Spain contacting Clapton FC (rather than the new fan-owned outfit) and people turning up at their Old Spotted Dog ground to buy the shirt. Clapton FC, formed in 1878 and one of the oldest non-league football clubs in the country, felt obliged to make clear that it has no allegiances to any political party and is focused on “football not politics”. A sentiment, of course, regularly voiced by FC United’s very own “leave your politics at the turnstiles” contingent.

So, what of our own politics and campaigning as we approach a very important anniversary? Next year will mark two hundred years since the Peterloo Massacre, when government forces charged on horseback into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to peacefully protest for representation in parliament. The troops slashed at the crowd with sabres, killing eleven people and injuring several hundred – an act of terrorism right here in the very heart of our city which, like all terrorist atrocities, was designed to engender fear. At the time only 2% of the population were able to vote in parliamentary elections and the London-centric government had no idea what life was like for workers in the north who had long grown tired of poverty wages, appalling working conditions and a lack of any say in how the country was run. Peterloo was all about putting these uppity mill workers who dared to protest back in their place.

And for a time it worked, as the lid was temporarily slammed on any form of dissent nationwide. But Peterloo marked a significant turning point in the fight for the right to vote, and ultimately led to greater democracy and the birth of the trade union movement. It also cemented Manchester’s place as a home for radicalism and protest which has continued over the following two centuries through socialism, trade unionism, the cooperative movement and conscientious objection to war, through to acid house, the “24 hour Peterloo peace people” and FC United of Manchester. Yes, this football club, like it or not, was born out of protest – a political act that can trace a long, red, radical thread back to Peterloo. Don’t believe me? Well, how come no other supporters of top flight football clubs around the country, protesting against the take over of their clubs by nefarious business interests, have gotten off their arses and formed their own football club? FC United is inherently political.

So how are we going to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo then? A special commemorative away shirt like Clapton Community FC? A pin badge? A flag? Summat with a bee on? A carefully worded statement on the club’s website that doesn’t offend any of our “stakeholders” or the delicate flowers on Facebook? Or are we just going to leave it to the Course You Can Malcolm volunteers to remind us, as we sit here with our small screened devices sounding off about nonsense, of how much we all owe to those who trekked to St Peter’s Fields to campaign for the right to vote two hundred years ago? It’s all a bit, erm, political isn’t it, let’s just leave it to “the lefties”. I hope not.

Business plans, debt repayments, governance arrangements and the club’s financial bottom line may have sapped much of our energy over the last couple of years – and rightly so, because we wouldn’t still be here otherwise – but beneath it all our proud rebel heart still beats. In 2019 let’s take the time to mark the events of two hundred years ago and recognise the long tradition of protest and Mancunian rebelliousness that this football club of ours is also part of.

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From → Politics, Sport

One Comment
  1. John Butler permalink

    How about a facsimile of The Riot Act 1714 sold with every matchday programme or as an item in the shop ?

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