In the heart of East London lies a historic treasure, a ground that has witnessed the ebb and flow of football for over a century. The Old Spotted Dog – often affectionately known as ‘the Dog’ – is the oldest senior football ground in London, and its rich history is intertwined with the evolution of the sport in the city. Having hosted some big teams and some even bigger players over the years, the story of the Old Spotted Dog is one well worth telling.
The Birth of a Landmark
The site of the Old Spotted Dog ground, located in Forest Gate, Newham, was once part of the Old Spotted Hunting Lodge used by Henry VIII. When the lodge (to be discussed later) became a pub, the large open grassy area adjacent to it was used for sporting purposes. At first, locals used the land for cricket but later hosting football became its primary purpose.
In 1888, the ground became home to Clapton FC, one of London’s oldest football clubs. The team, which was originally (and briefly) called Downs FC (as they played at Hackney Downs) began in 1877. A year after their foundation though they changed their name to Clapton FC and a decade after that they claimed the Old Spotted Dog as their own. The club’s decision to relocate to the Dog marked the start of a journey that would see the ground become an integral part of London’s football history.
For their first-ever game, around 700 spectators stood and watched as Clapton managed a 1-1 draw against Old Carthusians. In addition to playing their own matches there, between 1893 and 1902 the ground was the venue for the final of the West Ham Charity Cup. This was not the biggest cup game the Old Spotted Dog has held though. During the 1989/99 season, the ground played host to the newly formed and fellow London club Tottenham Hotspur. Around 12,000 people came to watch this cup clash, making it the highest-attended game at the Dog.
The Middle Years
Clapton struggled to repeat a crowd like that, in part because of their poor record in the FA Cup. Even when they reached as far as the first round proper in 1957 where they forced Queens Park Rangers into a replay, the repeat encounter was played at Ilford FC’s old ground on Lynn Road, Newbury Park. Despite their lack of cup magic though, Clapton were long regarded as one of the leading amateur clubs and this saw them secure some high-profile fixtures in the interwar period. As well as hosting neighbours West Ham, the Dog also welcomed Dutch giants Ajax in 1927, where they fell to a respectable 2-0 defeat.
With West Ham’s former ground, the Boleyn Ground (aka Upton Park), situated within walking distance of the Old Spotted Dog, Clapton FC and the Hammers enjoyed a close connection. During the 1960s West Ham would use the Dog for youth and reserve team matches. They even let their World Cup-winning players make an appearance at the ground in 1966 for what would be its first flood-lit game.
Clapton Move Out
In 2019, having spent over 130 years at the Old Spotted Dog, Clapton FC lost the battle to stay at their ever-so-familiar home. The issue boiled down to money with the leaseholder for the ground claiming they had not received payment for two years. This was not the first time Clapton had been absent from the historic ground, mind you. For the 2001/02 season, they played elsewhere all campaign due to the Dog not being up to the standard of the Isthmian League requirements. They did however return in 2003 when the necessary improvements had been made.
There would be no short-return for Clapton FC this time though, nor Hackney Wick who was also in on the ground-sharing arrangement at the time. This is because Clapton Community FC (CCFC) won the rights to the lease and later purchased the freeholder to become the new owners of the ground in the summer of 2020. Having had zero upkeep in the interim period, a major revamp was needed and CCFC raised in the region of £20,000 to make this possible.
On top of this, they were awarded a grant by the Football Stadia Improvement Fund for the purposes of building brand-new changing rooms as there were none on site. Getting the ground back into a spectator and player-fit state still proved a very costly operation though, even with this additional funding. Annu Mayor, one of the CCFC and OSD Ground Trust Members mentioned that “the clubhouse roof had multiple leaks and practically collapsed with all the rain”, an expensive fix as you can imagine. Even the turf needed some serious work following years of over-use. When taking over the ground, the surface looked far more brown than it did green.
There was much work to be done and you can even see the full progress on the Old Spotted Dog’s website. By April 2022 though, the ground was ready for its first test event, a friendly featuring big community names which treated the 400 spectators to an eight-goal thriller. Fast forward to September 25th of the same year and the first ever competitive Clapton CFC women’s game took place at the Dog with their side taking on Leatherhead FC in the London and South East Regional Women’s Football League. Under its new, community-focused ownership, the Old Spotted Dog has been enjoying excellent reviews from locals who love the atmosphere, food, staff and, of course, the football!
The Spotted Dog Public House
Right beside the entrance to the historic football ground lies the long-abandoned Spotted Dog Public House. Dating back to the early 16th or even the late 15th century, it is believed that the building was used as a hunting lodge for King Henry VIII. These royal connections have seen the former pub given Grade II listed status but despite this, the place has fallen into a state of disrepair. The pub has not been open to the public since 2004 and was deemed dangerous by the London Fire Brigade five years later.
In 2014, a campaign emerged to save the building from further neglect. Sensibly named ‘Save the Spotted Dog’, supporters campaigned to resurrect the building so it could either serve as a pub or some form of community facility. With the backing of local MPs and council members, the council approved renovation plans and also green-lit the construction of a hotel next door. This is yet to materialise but the oldest non-religious building in Newham should get a complete makeover in the near future. Not only would this be a boost for the local community but for CCFC also as having a pub metres from the pitch never hurts to attract fans!