The past few seasons have seen the emergence of the UK's football ultras scene. Across the country, fans are reacting to the anaemic, sanitised and expensive "match day experiences" on offer by getting behind their teams in as rowdy a manner as they can get away with, and exerting their collective power to protest against the commercialisation of the game.
Ultras culture is mainly associated with Italy, emerging while the country was gripped in the major social upheaval of the "Hot Autumn", where millions of workers supported strikes and occupations as a violent conflict raged between forces of the extreme left, extreme right and the Italian state. As such, ultras are often known for their political leanings as much as their fanatical support.
An increasing number of people are going to non-league clubs where you can pay less than a tenner to watch football, drink larger tins and smoke by the pitch, and you may be able to get away with letting off some flares. The culture has worked its way into the Premier League, too, most famously with Crystal Palace's Holmsdale Fanatics who chant relentlessly during games. They can't really be placed in terms of a left/right political spectrum, but they've done a lot of campaigning over ticket prices. They also forced a Sky Sports news presenter to abandon his live reporting on transfer deadline-day last year, setting off flares and chanting, "Sky Sports, we fucking hate Sky Sports" at him.
The UK's biggest non-league ultras group, the Clapton Ultras – followers of Clapton FC in Newham, East London – have explicitly left-wing, anti-fascist politics. They have left-wing and anti-fascist iconography and slogans on their flags and banners. Support for their games tends to be super-raucous, but with nasty agg kept to a minimum. The Ultras sing songs all-game long, but the lyrics never include any sexism, racism, homophobia, or any of the other casual prejudicial bullshit you'd hear on many a football terrace. This week, Dulwich Hamlet FC – which has its own left-wing fan group, the Rabble – hosted an anti-homophobia friendly against Stonewall FC – the world's most successful gay football club. The Clapton Ultras made the Wednesday night trip to South London to support Stonewall.
But while a left-wing football culture has been emerging, the far-right have taken notice and become determined to ruin their fun. For over a year, the right-wing hooligans have been waging a low level war against the left-wing ultras, one which recently flared up into punch-ups. One ultras group had to stop completely. Now, things look like they're on the brink. Is the conflict coming to an end or is the violence set to spread to the Premier League, with a threat to Brigada 1874, an anti-fascist ultras group at Aston Villa?
Things began in December 2013 at Mangotsfield United, based on the outskirts of Bristol. An Ultras crew calling themselves the Inter Village Firm attached themselves to the club, getting behind the team with smoke flares and anti-fascist flags. This came to the attention of a group of people once known as Casuals United, who have links to football hooliganism and the far-right English Defence League.
More accustomed to street drinking and violence, the Casuals made themselves killjoy-busybodies. Six complaints were made by the group to the football club about the political flags and pyro on display at games. Very quickly, the club clamped down on the Inter Village Firm. With the club set against them, the relatively small ultras crew folded. I've tried contacting members of the crew and the club and couldn't find anybody who wants to talk about what happened.
Having put one group of left-wing ultras out of action, the Casuals United group, now calling themselves the "Pie and Mash Squad", moved onto a new target: the Clapton Ultras.
For nearly three years, the Clapton Ultras have been supporting Clapton FC one of England's oldest football clubs, Clapton FC. The season before the Ultras started going to games the club had an average attendance of around 25. Recent home games have seen hundreds turn up to the club's ground, the Old Spotted Dog. I went along the other week and watched the team grind out a draw as anti-fascist flags fluttered in the breeze. The Ultras have built links with the Newham community by collecting for food banks and supporting the housing protest of the E15 Mothers.
The Pie and Mash Squad first started mentioning the Clapton Ultras in March last year, but little happened beyond a few empty threats and some phone calls and emails to the club's chief executive Vince McBean.
The Pie and Mash Squad then started a false rumour on their blog that Ultras had insulted Lee Rigby, the tragically murdered British soldier who has become an unwilling poster boy for the far-right. Rigby's death had been mocked by Celtic supporters, but nothing had been said about him at Clapton. McBean, a former British soldier himself, told me how there were around five ex-Service personnel involved with the club, so insulting Lee Rigby's memory wouldn't have gone down well at all.
Things escalated in October last year when a group of between 25 and 30 far-right protesters turned up at Clapton's ground before a game. Nearly all of them had been involved with the EDL and are now part of splinter groups such as the South East Alliance and Portsmouth EDL.
After putting up a racist, anti-immigrant sticker and having posed for a group photograph taken with a flag, they were dispersed by police. Members of the group then travelled into central London where they attacked people attending the Occupy Democracy protest in Parliament Square.
I got in touch with the Pie and Mash Squad to ask them what they were trying to achieve at Clapton. One of their number called Katie told me that – like with Mangotsfield – they were upset about the Ultras flying political flags. They said that there are FA rules prohibiting the flying of explicitly political flags at games. They were also annoyed about the pyro. "It seems that the ultras want to turn Clapton FC into some sort of Turkish cauldron on match days, which the powers that be will certainly not tolerate."
The flag aspect of this is not really true. I spoke to sports lawyer John Spyrou from law firm Pinder Reaux, who told me how there was nothing in the FA Handbook – the rules which apply to all levels of the game – which would stop fans from waving political flags at non-league games. "The only explicit reference I could find to political standpoints or allegiances is to do with advertising", he told me.
It's pretty clear the complaints about flags are a bullshit pretext for a political beef. As Katie told me, "Any club that displays allegiances to a left-wing organisation will attract right-wing opposition."
I mentioned the flags pretext to McBean. "I wish they had just come out and said, 'listen, we don't fucking like you lot'," he said. "They're not going to be coming down to beat up our supporters. That wouldn't be a good decision," McBean added.
Turns out, McBean was right on that one. An away-day over Christmas saw Clapton FC smash Southend Manor on the pitch while anti-fascists were smashing fascists near the ground.
After making threats online, a bunch of far-right hooligans showed up on the day. They included Paul Pitt, chairman of the EDL splinter group the South East Alliance. He recently starred in a Channel 4 documentary called Angry White and Proud, in which he was quizzed about why he holds xenophobic beliefs, given that his real name is Paul Podromou and has Cypriot heritage.
A local 'paper reported that two people got arrested after a "show down" between Ultras and far-right "protesters". Anti-fascist sources told me that the show down ended in a punch up, with one of the far-right being left lying in a ditch, covered in blood while his friends ran off.
For several weeks following the Southend punch up, the Pie and Mash Squad page would start hyping up protests at Clapton's ground every Saturday. None have materialised as of yet. That might be because a crappy pitch and heavy rain prevented some matches from going ahead at all.
The threats against Clapton seem to have stopped for now, but the Pie and Mash Squad haven't gone away. In fact they seem to be taking their protest to the top of the football pyramid. In their sights are Premier League Aston Villa's Brigada 1874 ultras. In a Facebook post, Pie and Mash claim that these "silly antifa twats" have a "shock coming". When announcing their new campaign, they said anti-fascists can have non-league grounds, "coz nobody cares". It's hard to see this as anything other than saving face, after one of them was left lying bloodied in a ditch. Clapton FC have released a statement asking fans to stop using flares, but that's because of disciplinary action from the league. Meanwhile, the Pie and Mash page is coordinating protests against various left-wing non-footballing events in the coming months, so maybe the football pitch is just one battle-ground in a wider war.
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