The prodigal Tons

The game: Clapton v. London Bari.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: dark and dry; just the way I like my oven-baked beetroot wedges.

Historical landmark. Political space. Home to some of the nation’s liveliest Ultras. Venue for one of the country’s rawest groundshare rivalries. As a Stadio Calcistico, it’s as famous as they come. You know it, I know it – we all revere it. It is, undeniably, the San Siro. The San Siro of the Essex Senior League.

The Old Spotted Dog bears several noticeable differences to Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, of course. The clubhouse has seen better days. One end of the ground is pretty much derelict. A blue double-decker bus, an industrial shipping container, some old tyres and a pile of rubble occupy a corner of the pitch. The main stand is called ‘the Scaffold’. It is quite literally a scaffold. All of this makes the Dog one of the most joyously ramshackle non-league grounds I have so far witnessed.

With the Scaffold Brigada – Clapton’s hardcore support – out in force for Tuesday evening’s Dog derby with resident rivals London Bari, the rickety setting came to life long before a football had been kicked in earnest. Chants inspired by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Desmond Dekker and the somewhat-less-seminal Shanks & Bigfoot rocked the Scaffold, anti-fascist refrains vied with some pretty candid censure of their opponents (one ditty to the disarmingly upbeat tune of the Super Mario theme was particularly blunt), Tyskie lager was consumed and serenaded in equal measure, while pennants and protest banners – one quickly confiscated – were draped and taped over the railing between fans and turf. As the players came out onto the pitch, the Ultras’ roars were thunderous. Kick off was still a couple of minutes away, but the whole ‘best fans’ thing was a foregone conclusion.

On the field, the ‘Tons’ made a fast start. In the second minute, a weak throw from Bari keeper George Hearson was snaffled up Fahad Nyanja; the Clapton attacker went one on one with the retreating Hearson, only for Simpson Mpalampa to get back and hastily cut him out. Five minutes later, Andy Mott won a free kick on the edge of the Bari box. Taking this himself, he fired well over the crossbar – an early sighter.

Straightaway, Bari carved out a great chance in response. Fleet-footed wide man Junior Decker received a pass on the half way line before racing down the left flank, beating his man and reaching the by-line; from there, he clipped a precise cross back for striker Tobi Adesina to head home, only for the number nine to nod inches over. Then, in the sixteenth minute, Decker slipped a ball through the Clapton back four and found Adesina once more; with Tons’ keeper Bobby Constantine stranded and the defence in disarray, he could only slide his shot past the post.

This miss provoked much mockery from the sidelines, including a brief burst of ‘Chuckle Chuckle Bari!’ that would probably have brought tears of happiness to Paul and Barry Chuckle’s ageing eyes; however, there was a hint of nervousness in the laughter – Bari were looking dangerous. The Tons’ players revived the Scaffold’s confidence in the twentieth minute when, after playing a clever one two with Shomari Barnwell, Mott volleyed narrowly wide of the upright. In what was becoming an open and even half, an incisive passing move by Bari then set Andy Greenslade up for a fifteen-yard effort from the left; the shot was heading toward the far corner, but Constantine saw it early and got down well to make the save.

In the twenty-ninth minute, the scoring was suddenly opened. A long ball from the back bounced kindly for Barnwell who – despite vociferous Bari calls for offside – calmly rounded the advancing Hearson and netted with apparent ease. The Scaffold went absolutely mad, the Ultras leaping about in Tyskie-fuelled abandon. The initial deadlock was broken. Advantage Clapton.

This advantage lasted all of three minutes. In the thirty-second, a quick Bari counter saw Adegoke Adetunji zoom off down the right wing. Whipping in a low cross, his ball through bodies found Decker sliding in at the far post; he prodded home to bring Bari level before nonchalantly jogging past the Scaffold and flashing the crestfallen Ultras a cheeky grin.

This certainly didn’t stop the singing for long, but it did give Bari the edge. Moments after the restart, Adesina latched on to a long pass of his own; skipping past Jake Stevens and going head to head with Constantine, his weighted chip over the keeper fell a yard away from the goal line – the ball then looped up and cleared the crossbar by a whisker. If this was something of a let off for Clapton, it was nothing compared to the number nine’s chance on the stroke of half time. After a spell of possession for Bari, Decker sent Adesina through the Tons’ back line once more. He dragged the ball past Constantine but, faced with a gaping goal, his low shot was weak; defender Jamie Lyndon dived in and thrashed this away. Adesina didn’t give up, galloping to his right to gobble up the rebound. Still he was denied; in an act of defensive heroism, Lyndon scrabbled over to block this too – Constantine then hoofed the ball clear, and the referee blew.

Another Tyskie (and possibly a whisky) later, and the second half was underway. Both sides seemed to be keeping it much tighter at the back but, consequently, the game was a bit less expansive; it took until the sixty-first minute for another opportunity to come along, this time for the Tons’ Troy Ricketts – his ten-yard snapshot across the face of goal was palmed out by Hearson. Then, in the sixty-ninth, the ever-threatening Decker won a corner for Bari. The delivery bobbled in the Clapton area and fell to Adesina, but his side-footed effort was blocked on the line and battered away; try as he might, it just wasn’t his night in front of goal.

Bari edged the last twenty minutes, but nothing much came off for either side late on; Cornelio Fonseca came closest to finding a winner, blasting over from twenty yards after Adesina had turned provider. Apart from that effort, it was the action amongst the fans that really captured my attention; chanting in disdain of new, lager-prohibiting ground rules, heading loose balls and generally making an admirable racket, they maintained the mood right until the last.

The match ended one-all and – even if Bari had the better chances – the draw was probably about right. The Clapton Ultras applauded their adversaries off to generous cheers of ‘Well played Bari!’ before both sets of players showed their reciprocal appreciation of the Scaffold; bragging rights were shared in the Dog derby, while a great night was had by all.

Result: Clapton 1 London Bari 1.
My MoM: Junior Decker. Inspired by the lyrics of Desmond Dekker. Double Decker. Decker2. Goal.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. Forza Clapton. Forza Chuckle.

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The prodigal Tons

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