One Step Beyond
“My coat has room for at least two flares if needs be.”
In the UK, mockery seems to be the standard response to the mention of ‘ultra’ culture. This was certainly my mate’s way of accepting, back in December, a trip to watch Enfield Town – or, more specifically, their fans.
Seeking out ultras at Britain’s football grounds is not the easiest task. The challenge is muddied thoroughly by the internet, where the u-word is regularly bandied around, particularly by younger fans, but rarely followed through to a delicious crescendo of drums, flags and flares.
It is anorexic pickings if you’re looking for organised, European-style fan culture in the top four divisions. Crystal Palace’s Holmesdale Fanatics are your only organised top-flight representatives, assuming you discount the ultra-parodies like Manchester City’s ‘Poznan’, imported duty-free from trips to the continent. But word has it that it’s all going off in the lower leagues – word that’s even getting broadsheets like The Independent getting all afroth over a ‘football revolution’.
Until it came to purposely seeking out these self-proclaimed ultras, the only impression of non-league terrace culture I’d gathered was from The Hive at Barnet. It was not a good impression. Essentially, we were talking about a drum surrounded by literally tens of vague rhythm-followers. Of less than a handful of template-melody chants, none caught on. The opposition that day, Alfreton Town, arguably brought more ultra to the table. Of a travelling support of thirty-ish, a sole fanatic got arrested for mildly-excitedly celebrating his side’s (ultimately futile) goal with the players. A sort of ultra-without-flag, you might say.
The Old Spotted Dog Ground in the fairly grim East London suburb of Forest Gate is a place to dispel such wrenchingly mediocre preconceptions. Clapton FC has become the poster-club for non-league ultradom; indeed, the team’s Scaffold Brigada really has got something going on that’s worthy of the name.
The group, now hundreds-strong, vocally extoll the area’s apparent wonders through a varied repertoire of songs, fly Palestinian and Senegalese flags, wear the badge of political leftism proudly and attract the odd exiled Italian who is evidently more familiar with this sort of thing than one of the few Sawbridgeworth Town fans in the as-good-as-empty away stand. “They took at least two-thirds this many to us,” mutters one travelling supporter in disbelief (or admiration), as his team get a hiding on a pitch of more bobbles than flat bits.
You can’t help but warm to it. But there’s little warmth to be found over a broadband connection when it comes to online discussions of Clapton or, indeed, other grass-roots, ultra-inspired groups. The word ‘hipster’ is often levelled on message boards and in comment sections, with pejorative allusions to ‘beards’ and assessments of the movement as ‘ironic’, ‘twee’ and ‘middle-class’ never far behind. As one Leyton Orient fan put it, it’s “Nick Cleggs drinking Tyskie”. Hell, the impact of Clapton’s efforts on other clubs has even been termed a ‘virus’.
It was semi-credible – and weirdly disparaging – online sources that sent me to Enfield Town’s Queen Elizabeth II Stadium. Admittedly, the ground name alone should have raised more doubts than it did: would HRH tolerate pyrotechnics in her name? In the event, she need not have worried; despite the odd ‘Enfield Town Ultras’ sticker directing people to social media, there was little to suggest that any insidious epidemic had reached these parts.
There’s no doubt that the club’s small number of fans are devoted, moving en masse to behind whichever goal the team are shooting at, but it’s fandom mostly borne of the British traditions of exasperated dedication and blurted solo encouragement, plus a rendition of ‘Twist and Shout’ with seemingly no lyrics changed at all. There was no homemade ‘tifo’ to be found here, either – just a St George’s flag and ads for Robert Dyas and Football Manager to stand defiantly behind as a brisk wind ripped round the athletics track circling the pitch.
At first glance it might seem like the incorporation of ultra traditions is something that would only appeal to a London or, more generally, southern, crowd. Ultra groups, though, can be found at such far-flung footballing outposts as Ellesmere Port’s Vauxhall Motors, North Shields FC and Mossley AFC. But it was Halifax Town’s The Shaymen Ultras that I went to take a look at over the Christmas period – largely due to festive geographic proximity.
There is little discernibly bourgeois to be found in this part of the Pennines. Initially, though, there was far more noise from Chester’s travelling fans, packed into one narrow section of the oversized allocated area (ultra-esque, you might say). It takes falling a goal behind for Halifax’s contingent, amassed amorphously at the back of the South Stand, to turn the heat up to lukewarm ultra levels. ‘Anarchy in the UK’, first heard as a melodic template at Clapton FC, pops up, re-imagined for West Yorkshire.
Town lose 0-2, but fan negativity is fairly minimal. And despite any real signs of an interest in homemade flag-making outside of London’s oft-dubbed ‘up-and-coming’ boroughs, you can’t help thinking that all these groups are meeting certain philosophical criteria of the ultra. If the mantra of the movement is ‘Against Modern Football’, then they’re achieving the benchmark simply by being supporters, not passive demanders of results; the antithesis of Manchester City fans, booing a freak 2-2 home draw, or the kind of personal protests that have targeted Arsène Wenger, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce in recent times.
So why all the online ultra-bashing? Probably because the immediacy of the various media the web offers has a tendency to bring out the worst in human potential across the board. But also, perhaps, because this is a style of fandom alien to the nebulous concept of a ‘British Way’, which surely involves chuntering at a moderate level, largely introspectively, while stubbornly bearing up to the injustices of corporate football. It is, by one interpretation, truly ultra to stick it out through a very bad thing – but a hell of lot less fun.
As for the ‘middle-class’ cusses: watching football in a ground these days is generally a middle-class endeavour. To pour scorn on ‘hipsters’ while lauding those suffering in apathetic silence in heavily-branded arenas is to argue for the ‘turn off, clock on, pay out’ culture of the middle classes over that of the more critical and creative sub-group.
If they’re hipsters at all, the football hipsters are the good ones – putting their money into a piece of local history and community identity, not taking selfies at a cereal café charging £3 a bowl. We live in the age of the spectacle, so to deride posturing seems a little rich. Posturing has always been a major feature of our football grounds; plus, we all posture to some extent in finding any sort of foothold in the understanding of ourselves. The value of it depends on the end result.
Whether people take pleasure in their leisure activities or not is important, but it’s hugely hyperbolic to suggest there’s a grass-roots fan revolution going on in English football. Those dropping down a few tiers to find a higher level of active, positive fan involvement are still few and far between, and the vitriol directed at those that do suggests this is unlikely ever to be much more than a noble tribute to a style of support that will never catch on in the nation’s larger grounds.
The ultimate test of whether the non-league ultras are the real deal, or just a hipster fad after all, will be whether they’re still there in three years or so. But even if many fledgling fan groups make it no further than a quickly-aborted Twitter feed and one guy hitting a tom-tom, the precedent of greater engagement at clubs struggling for survival in a cruel league pyramid is no bad thing.
Just as I thought about deriding The Shaymen Ultras for not being all that ultra at all, a blue flare flew from the top of the stand a couple of yards wide of my head and into the six yard box, spilling blue smoke into the freezing Yorkshire air.