Brighton is a Premier League city – this, most people know. The club’s recent rise from third-division stragglers to Premier League giant-killers has put it back on the footballing map after the lost years it spent in the decrepit Withdean Stadium, their temporary home for too long.
But that story is pretty well-documented. A more interesting one is taking place on the periphery of the seaside city, in East Brighton Park. Here, Whitehawk FC resides at the Enclosed Ground, and though its location is far from the clock tower that central Brighton revolves around, its influence is still felt there. Traffic lights adorned with stickers of Palestinian flags and anti-fascist groups are usually also marked with the logo of the club’s dedicated fanbase, the Whitehawk Ultras.
The Ultras are far removed from their Italian namesakes, mind. Sure, they share a burning passion for their respective clubs, the similarities end there. They’re not centrally-organised – there are a few figureheads, sure, but no designated leader – and they’re definitely not violent. Ask an Ultra about the v-word and they’ll throw it out almost immediately. Even swearing, a terrace favourite at any level, is out of the question at the Enclosed Ground – there are kids there, after all.
Community initiatives are more of the Ultras’ thing. “We do food banks and we’ve raised money for the Clock Tower Sanctuary Homeless Centre in town” says Simon, Ultra and presenter of the Odds N Evens non-league radio show on Mixcloud. “We’ve also been part of Non-League for Grenfell, so we’re bringing some kids down on 15 September to enjoy a day down the pier, come to a game, and give them a big of respite from whatever they’re going through.”
Non-League for Grenfell, established to support those affected by the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, is the brainchild of another Ultra, Andrew: “I started it because it’s something that I feel strongly about and wanted to contribute to making a positive change.
“You can see how much is being done – it’s gripped the whole nation – but I wanted to help the cause in my own way. Being a non-league football fan and part of a group of fans who are committed to food bank collections among other community initiatives, it was something I’m used to doing.”
This community activism caught the eye of the local GMB trade union branch a few years ago – now, they feature on the back of club’s shirt as sponsors. “A lot of our members in the branch are supporters so the connection of the union with the club has been long-term” says Mark Turner, branch secretary. “There’s a lot of things the union looks at instead of just throwing money at the club like Premier League sponsors do.
“We’re looking at what they do in the community, how they treat their employees, stuff like that. It’s becoming more of a community club and it’s the direction we’d like to see clubs like Whitehawk develop. The Ultras have our Whitehawk on the map.”
There’s a sense that those who grew up in the Whitehawk housing estate and later left are still very much connected with the club. Simon grew up there and played in the Hawks’ youth team – “we trained on Friday nights in front of car headlights” – but now lives in Northwest London. “I come down here every other week to see my mum and sister and come to the Hawks to see all the characters. It’s quite a commitment but it’s worth it.”
“We’re a sort of family, really.”
The Hawks, so far unbeaten in their three league games, are playing host to Wingate & Finchley, who only have a point to their name. There’s reason to be confident.
Fittingly, visible on the ambling bus ride from Brighton station to the ground is a Palestinian flag hanging from city’s clock tower. You don’t need to know that Brighton is the only place in the country with a Green Party MP to recognise that it’s a firmly left-wing city, although that only scratches the surface of its socialist and anarchist undercurrents. The Enclosed Ground is just one of the many places where these undercurrents come to visible fruition.
A steep walk through East Brighton Park, at the foot of the South Downs, gets you there, and though its name suggests a closed-off refuge, the Enclosed Ground is spectacularly exposed. The sea is visible form the roofless away end, while the subs’ benches back onto a hill used for sheep grazing. Every ball lumped that way is a retrieved by an unlucky scrambling ballboy.
Though it’s an hour or so before kick-off and the stands are mostly empty, tinny speakers begin to blade out Cypress Hill’s “I Love You, Mary Jane”. There’s no “Chelsea Dagger” or “Seven Nation Army” here – the music changes every week, from punk to “Uptown Funk” to Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” and, of course, Brighton’s own Fatboy Slim.
Most fans disappear into the saloon-style swinging doors of the clubhouse, the entrance is currently infested with a wasps’ nest. Football might be for all ages here but the drinking culture is still big, especially the Ultras’, who live off Smirnoff Ice. “Part of the appeal here is you can just have a beer on the terrace” says Kevin Miller, the club’s commercial manager.
Though the Ultras operate independently of the team, it’s clear that officials like Miller approve of their activity: “We want to make Whitehawk a people’s club.” The painted stairs on the main stand, reading “Love, Peace, No Racism, No Sexism, No Violence, No Homophobia” shows this.
The Ultras are pretty clear cut on their stance towards discrimination. “We sign have any place for stupid prejudices here” one fan says: “It would be great if, one day, being against discrimination is considered absolutely normal and sh**ty attitudes aren’t downplayed as ‘banter’.” Simon, fresh from pinning a Catalonian flag up on the clubhouse doors, says: “There’s no place for sexism, racism, or homophobia – end of.”
As the ground starts to fill out, it seems weird how chipper the atmosphere is at the Enclosed Ground. Coming here for the first time, you never would’ve guessed that Whitehawk had been relegated from the Conference South the season before, losing both their manager Steve King and a glut of their best players.
Not that King hadn’t been successful with the Hawks. He presided over their relegation, sure, but his first spell at the club, from 2014 to 2016, brought the club its best year in history. After saving it from relegation on the final day of the 2013-14 season, King helped the Hawks finish fourth in 2015 before beating Basingstoke Town 2-1 on aggregate in the play-off semi-final. Though they were beaten 2-1 in extra-time in the final by Boreham Wood – the closest they’ve ever gotten to fifth-division football – the record-breaking didn’t stop there.
A convincing 5-0 victory in the Sussex Senior Cup final brought some commiseratory silverware, but it was what happened the next season that caught neutrals’ eyes. Reaching the first round of the FA Cup for the first time, they beat Conference side Lincoln City 5-3. In the second round, taking on League Two Dagenham & Redbridge away, Jordan Rose scored in added time to force a replay at home. A record crowd of 2,174 (as well as anyone watching BT Sport) saw Juan Cruz Gotta score in added time to make it 2-2, but the third round proved a step too far, the Daggers scoring in extra-time to go through.
With the Hawks now in the seventh division with an average matchday squad age of 21, you could forgive even the Ultras for being a little pessimistic. Spirits are high here, though, and new manager Jude Macdonald, formerly the team’s longtime U18 coach, is proving popular. “We love him” says Simon “Everyone’s behind the youngsters and the manager. He’s an honest bloke, he’s not a shyster. He’s not a Charlie Big Potatoes, he’s here to do a job for the club and I’m sure they’ll stick behind him.
“Personally, I’m glad we’re getting back to basics. We’ve got seven youngsters from last year’s U18s that are with a manager who knows them and who can mould them. We’ll probably get beaten quite a few times this season, but as long as we stick together, it’ll be alright. It’ll be one of those ‘you score three, we’ll score four’ seasons.” To a fan group who claim to be against corporate football, a few seasons lower down is something to be excited about.
The Ultras aren’t the only ones here, mind, though they’re certainly easy to pick out. For every Smirnoff ice-liking, chanting die-hard is a quieter semi-fan happy to stand on the sidelines. Rod, a self-professed Manchester United fan and Brighton season-ticket holder, is one of those, and while admittedly he’s here to watch his son, backup goalkeeper Jordan Hawkins, he still seems impressed: “The budget has been cut but they seem to be doing alright, they’re off to a good start.” The off-pitch quality is what interests him more, though: “The difference between this and the Amex is you can buy chips pitchside here.”
After some pre-game chatter with the referee – “make sure you come over and consult us on every decision, we have VAR” – the Ultras converge on the away end as the match kicks off, a flurry of Whitehawk scarves, anti-fascist t-shirts, and dogs. A surprisingly large amount of dogs. Ultra Andrew later jokes that they’ve seen more matches live than the average Premier League fan.
The Ultras waste no time getting started on their exhaustuve repertoire of songs. There’s ‘Allez Allez Allez’, sure, but the Hawks contingent are at their finest when they become a surprisingly tuneful singing political manifesto: “Sing it loud, sing it clear, refugees are welcome here” and “Homophobia, we say no” to the tune of ‘Kumbaya’ are particular highlights. The Wingate goalkeeper seems to be a closet fan, nodding along and even shutting down one Ultra who insults his ear size: “I remember my first beer.”
He’s not in a good mood, for long, though, as a fantastically non-league goal puts the Hawks 1-0 up before the half-hour mark. Striker Jason Williams clatters into the goalie, gets up before him and rushes towards the open goal. A Wingate defender rushes in but missed the ball completely, allowing Williams to slot home. “That’s why I love non-league” one fan says later “You can see dross all match but then get a brilliant moment like that.”
It’s not 10 minutes before Wingate are awarded a penalty. With the non-swearing policy in force, the Ultras innovate, chanting “The referee’s a referee” before goalkeeper Melvin Minter punches the ball into the net. Wingate are awarded another penalty just before half-time, again converted.
Half-time sees the Ultras switch ends to the Din, a charming mix of corrugated metal and exposed girders covered in, you guessed it, stickers. Here’s where the Ultras are their most musical: while the designated drummer, trumpeter, and…go-go bell player plug away, others also the corrugated metal and steel pipes. An improvised industrial jazz session that wouldn’t be out of place on Miles Davis’s ‘Bitches Brew’.
Throughout a mostly dull second half, not much happens on the pitch – but it’s all go in the Din. The Ultras simply don’t stop chanting, something best epitomised by their “We only win when we’re singing” song.
The Hawks’ fate seems sealed late on when Wingate snatch a third, though the fans stay optimistic, immediately shouting “We’re gonna win 4-3.” An 89th-minute header from Luke Embedding sparks hopes of a comeback – clearly the players are hopeful too, as goalie Minter rushes out of his box to take a throw-in – but Whitehawk lose for the first time this season.
Still, spirits aren’t dampened in the Din: Simon remarks “I’d rather watch them then a bunch of mercenaries” and it’s obvious that they’re still looking forward to the season ahead. With four other Sussex teams in the Bostik Premier League this year, there are plenty of upcoming derbies.
“It’ll be good for the whole club to spend a couple of seasons here” says Simon: “This time we’ve got a load of local players.
“I think it’s gonna be alright.”
The atmosphere at the Enclosed Ground feels special. But should it?
The Ultras’ anti-discrimination stance might seem unique – it’s got its own article after all. But should it be?
Whitehawk is often labelled as a political club for these positions. And sure, there’s no denying that the Ultras are – Simon’s remark that “We’re a leftie f**kin’ club”, accompanied by a smile and shrug, shows that, among other obvious signs. It’s part of the fun there.
But when did being for equal treatment and keeping in touch with the local community stop being the norm in football?
It’s no secret that the sport has its flirtations with racism and nationalism, but when did officials get to decide that this wasn’t a problem worth focusing on? Did the fans get a say when FIFA ended its “Kick It Out” anti-racism campaign, or when hate groups like the Football Lads Alliance co-opted football?
Andrew, the founder of Non-League for Grenfell, has strong feelings on this: “Charity and helping out communities broken by tragedy through football and people power isn’t political – it’s doing what’s right to help others who have lost everything.
“I think calling us political is just a way people use to describe something they don’t like or understand. Being anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist shouldn’t be political. Surely that’s common sense?
“We identify key issues happening in our city and we try to help them out and sometimes we take on broader issues as well. It’s all about a community ethos – looking after one another and tolerating those marginalised by our society. You could call it radical because it goes against the grain of how most football fans function, but being political is normally a buzzword by certain bigoted individuals intent on being intolerant.”
Whitehawk definitely isn’t the only club that operates this way. Ultra Mark, a former Gillingham supporter, rattled off a list of clubs like Whitehawk: Clapton, Dulwich Hamlet, Haringey Borough, Wrexham, FC United of Manchester. Notice how all of these are non-league.
If there’s one thing clear about the Ultras, it’s that they like people. They have rivalries, sure, but they also reach out to other clubs and potential supporters. “The hope is that we grow organically and people come along because they want to have a new experience” says Simon.
There is hope among supporters that football is moving in a more fan-friendly direction. “People are becoming more community-oriented due to fans being treated like £ signs and their clubs being bigger than the fans – there the Oyston Out campaign at Blackpool and the anti-Duchalet movement down at Charlton.” says Andrew. Simon thinks similarly: “If you look at social media you can see that there’s a left-leaning, socialist movement as opposed to the traditional right-wing fan. There’s a lot of work to do, though.”
The question of what happens to football in the future also includes the future of the Ultras themselves. They seem to be happy as they are, organising but not quite organised. Will it always Saturday that way, especially if the club becomes more successful?
“I think essentially it comes down to being more organised as a group, which arguably would take the fun out but would save the atmosphere. We would have to be more organised as a core group with a concrete identity otherwise you could argue it’ll become diluted” says Andrew. “If you look at Dulwich as an example, they now pull crowds of 1,000+ but the rabble contingent can’t be what it was seven or eight years ago.”
For now, though, the Ultras will just do what they always do: have fun on match days and help out when they can.