The game: London Bari v. Clapton.
The ground: The Old Spotted Dog.
The conditions: comfortably lukewarm; just the way I like my mulled quince cider.
Stepping out of Plaistow tube station and into the balmy evening air, I frolicked past the dappled West Ham Park and toward The Old Spotted Dog for only my second ever trip to the home of Clapton FC. For the sake of the game I was about to watch, The Dog was to serve as the ‘home’ of groundshare partners London Bari; this was the reverse Dog derby, a double header for me and – to put it mildly – a ruddy exciting fixture at the very end of the Essex Senior League season. The Scaffold awaited.
With neither side having to worry about promotion or relegation, the game was all about the bragging rights – and the support. The Clapton Ultras arrived early, got chants going, passed the Tyskie around and generally readied themselves for an hour-and-a-half of good-natured Bari baiting. The teams soon emerged, Bari in home red and Clapton in their yellow-and-blue visitors’ strip. ‘We’re following Clapton away!’ reverberated merrily from the sidelines.
For the first ten minutes or so, Clapton played the better stuff. With the whistle just gone, Shomari Barnwell held up a long ball twenty yards out before laying a pass off to Jake Stevens; the Tons’ wide man arrowed a shot narrowly past the upright. With five minutes on the clock, Barnwell won a corner which was quickly taken; Daniel Aggio teed up midfielder James Briggs on the edge of the box before a deflection took his zipping effort just wide – cue Joy Division-inspired choruses of ‘Briggs, Briggs will tear you apart – again’. Moments afterward, Abraham Jairette sent Aggio away through the middle of the dusty, arid pitch. Clapton’s number six saw his on-target attempt cleared a couple of yards out. The Tons seemed ascendant.
Bari came back at them quickly enough, however. A decent attack in the twelfth saw striker Tobi Adesina fire just over from twenty yards. A couple of minutes later, Bari’s Neal Athanaze burst past Daniel Kiely on the right before squaring for winger Junior Decker; his effort from just inside the area went wide. The home side put real pressure on the Tons’ back four, and this soon paid off. In the eighteenth, a long ball was chipped forward to Decker out on the left. He squeezed in behind the muddled defence, scooted to the edge of the area and from there – Clapton keeper Pape Diagne was hesitating well off his line – lobbed the ball into the back of the net. One-nil.
Bari could have made it two only a few minutes after the restart; with Clapton now in disarray Louis Ohase played in the overlapping Athanaze on the right – his low shot at goal was saved by Diagne. The home team established a passing tempo across the pitch and – bar a thirtieth minute toe poke for Barnwell – it looked to be all them. Decker, Adesina and Andy Greenslade went close one after another. Then, in the fortieth minute, an injury temporarily stopped play.
This disturbed Bari’s rhythm. A couple of minutes after the resumption, Briggs received the ball in the centre of midfield. From there, he stroked a beautiful pass to the onrushing Stevens out on the right; Clapton’s wide man sprinted to the by-line, chipped in a cute cross unchallenged and found Barnwell leaping above his marker – the Tons’ number nine nodded a looping header over home goalie George Hearson and in. One-all.
The last few minutes of the half went by without incident and the referee signalled for the break. Clapton’s equaliser had come somewhat against the run of play, yet nobody in the Scaffold minded; Briggs was serenaded, a Smiths-styled ‘Panic on the Streets of Bari’ pealed out and then everyone grabbed their spare tinnies and headed to the grassy bank behind the away goal. I trotted along too, munching thoughtfully on my homemade pickle and brie sandwich.
The second period was far more even from the off. Two minutes in, Barnwell picked out Briggs ten yards from goal; he snapped a shot past the post. Five minutes later, Bari substitute Darryl Morson went close with an ambitious, twenty-yard curler. The two sides took turns to trouble their respective keepers, various speculative efforts keeping Hearson and Diagne leaping this way and that. Still, for a good twenty-five minutes, neither team could actually force a save. The game had seemingly become an unpredictable shooting session.
As time ticked on, it was Clapton who managed to recover some proper incisiveness. In the seventy-ninth minute, Briggs pinged a clever pass to Barnwell on the right; the Tons’ striker weaved his way past a couple of defenders before firing a low ball back at Briggs – his attempt almost shaved the crossbar on its way over. Not long afterward, Barnwell drew a foul from Bari’s Peter Wilcox twenty yards out on the left. Briggs stood over the ball. Briggs looked up to see Hearson busy mustering his defence. Briggs heard the official’s signal. Briggs smashed a free kick in at the near post, past Hearson’s despairing dive.
The Ultras bellowed. Everyone jumped. I fell in some nettles. Clapton reorganised. A stunned Bari could only muster one more chance before the end of the match, a corner in the eighty-seventh falling for Tony Cookey – he headed over. The Tons saw the rest of the match out.
Clapton’s players came over to celebrate with the fans at the end, leading both the chanting and mad pogoing on the pitch. Bari could feel a little aggrieved having lost despite playing so well early on, yet Clapton had successfully snatched their opportunities. So, with the Ultras’ songs filling the cooling night air, the Essex Senior League campaign came even closer to its close.
Result: London Bari 1 Clapton 2.
My MoM: Shomari Barnwell deserves special mention for a dynamic display, but it was James Briggs who truly tore them apart – again.
Best fans: the Clapton Ultras. ‘A win away, a win away, a win away, a win away’.