Pre season friendlies at Clapton FC are not normally interesting events. Long gone are the tours to the Channel Islands or even Europe but, on one occasion in the 1980s, the Tons took to the road and met with Exmouth Town of the Western League for a friendly in the Devon sunshine.
The match came about as a result of unique arrangement between the clubs. The FA were running an initiative called ‘Friends of Football’, promoting the idea of fans getting together. This was at a time when hooliganism was rife and segregation was standard.
In response to the FA’s initiative, the committees of Clapton FC and Exmouth Town AFC got together to form ‘twin’ the clubs, must in the same way as towns across the continent do. This move was applauded by the Football Association and, in August 1988, a friendly match was arranged to take place at Exmouth’s Southern Road ground.
The club’s at this time had differing fortunes. The Devon club were one of the strongest non league teams in the West of England. A couple of years later they were unlucky to lose and FA Vase semi final to Fleetwood Town, and they had won the Western League Championship twice in the previous four years. Their pre-season programme included visits from Bristol Rovers, Exeter City and Chelsea whereas the Tons, after facing Exmouth, had the likes of Beckton United and Ford United to look forward to.
On the pitch, the clubs were some distance apart. The Exmouth team were unashamedly semi-professional and boasted players with football league experience amongst their squad. Frank Howarth, Alan Hooker and Graham Weeks had all previously turned out for Exeter City.
The all-amateur Clapton XI included popular goalkeeper Brian Balkwill and captain Jim McFarlane who is now manager of AFC Hornchurch. Also in the side were Adam Baker who went on to sign for Leyton Orient and Miguel de Souza, who was later to become a very accomplished player in the Football League for many seasons after leaving the Tons.
The Clapton coach arrived in Exmouth for the match in good time, only to find that the kit man had packed the away kit by mistake and that the sky blue away shirts of Clapton would clearly clash with the royal blue of the hosts. The result was that the Tons borrowed Town’s second strip and played in all red shirts and sky blue shorts, a look that amounted to an offence against football fashion and thankfully has never been repeated.
The match itself was the usual lame pre-season affair with both teams going through the motions. The final result, a 3-0 win for the hosts, reflected the difference between the teams at this time. It didn’t matter. Showered and ‘spammed up’, the Clapton team left the dressing room with one thing on their mind, party. The food laid on by the hosts was superb and was washed down with copious amounts of beer by the visitors. Gradually, the home team drifted away until virtually all those that remained in the clubhouse were from the Clapton contingent.
Evening turned to night and the Clapton lads were very much on the town. The coach driver had been ‘bunged’ to delay the departure and eventually, as morning broke in Forest Gate, the Clapton coach pulled up outside the Old Spotted Dog Ground.
However, the party were minus one member who had missed the coach due to his taking a ‘tactical nap’ on the beach. No mobile phones then, no alarm calls etc. He finally returned to London on Sunday evening, shattered and with only a sketchy recollection of the previous day’s events. His secret is safe with me.
Since then the fortunes of both clubs has waned. Exmouth’s semi-pro policy came back to bite them on the bottom, as has happened to so many other clubs. Players left to chase the dollar elsewhere and kiss another badge. They were withdrew from the Western League and had to reform as Exmouth Town (2006). They now play in the South West Peninsula League.
As we know, the Tons lost their Isthmian League status in 2006 and have suffered hard times since.
However, the twins could both be on the up. Last season, Exmouth gained promotion to the premier division of their league and won the Devon Senior Cup. The Tons, as we know, are enjoying their best season for many years and are playing in front of attendances not seen at the Old Spotted Dog for some time.
The Friends in Football initiative by the FA might not have had the clout or success of the Respect or Grassroots campaigns, however it did provide some lads from East London with a jolly good day at the seaside and a few sore heads afterwards.