Down in the Southern Combination Football League Premier Division, the ninth tier of English football, there’s a group of fans clad in yellow and blue huddled under a corrugated iron stand. “It’s full of old people and seagulls, oh, Eastbourne Town is wonderful!” they sing. This is Pier Pressure, one of the local ultra groups. I caught up with one of the group’s founders, Alex Brown, to learn more about the group’s ethos and why he feels that left-wing fans gravitate towards non-league clubs.
There are worse places to watch football than Eastbourne Town FC. The club plays in the serene grounds of The Saffrons, a central location within Eastbourne. With the attractive Italianate tower of Eastbourne Town Hall at one end, the visitor almost gets the feel of being in a Victorian country club. Eastbourne Town FC is the oldest football club in Sussex, founded in 1881 as Devonshire Park FC.
All the atmosphere is generated at one end, with the drums and flags of supporters’ groups Pier Pressure and The Beachy Head Ultras, both named after local landmarks.
The Foundation of Pier Pressure
Alex Brown co-founded Pier Pressure in 2015. Brown concedes that Eastbourne is a geographically unusual place for an ultras group. “Whilst there are three FA-chartered non-league sides in Eastbourne, there is only one football league club in East Sussex – Brighton & Hove Albion, 20 miles away,” he tells me. Another challenge in the area is that many local football fans support teams in the North-West, such as Liverpool or Manchester United. “I’ve never understood this, Paris Saint-Germain are geographically closer to Eastbourne,” Brown adds.
The lack of local professional football clubs in the area led Brown and his friends to support their local side. “We settled on the idea of supporting Eastbourne Town based on its location – on the same road as train station – as this was the easiest meeting point for a group of friends spread across Eastbourne and its surrounding towns and villages.”
Brown explains that Eastbourne is a seaside town with a large amount of social deprivation, but it is also a traditionally Tory-voting town and there is huge disparity in wealth in the area. “Politically we align ourselves to the Left and we our outspoken about this,” Brown continues. “We have supporters and detractors within the club and have been threatened with bans on numerous occasions relating to banners that we have displayed and the use of pyrotechnics at games. We have come to an agreement with the club that any political messaging on banners or stickers that we produce should be attributed to the ultras group, which is entirely a separate entity from the club.”
Brown says that Eastbourne Town FC is the most traditional of Eastbourne-based clubs so perhaps not the most obvious choice for a left-wing ultras group to support. “To be honest, we completely overlooked this fact when we first pitched up to a game in the autumn of 2015, armed with a packet of chimney cleaners we set light to, in lieu of having any smoke bombs,” Brown explains. “Whilst the club was cautious about our support at first, we have been welcomed with open arms by most.”
And Pier Pressure certainly contributes to the experience; group members produce the match day programmes for the club and maintain the website and social media accounts.
“So, as well as running the ultras group, we volunteer for the club,” Brown says.
Why are left-wing ultras attracted to non-league clubs?
So why have non-league clubs like Eastbourne Town, Dulwich Hamlet, Whitehawk and Clapton attracted like-minded, left-wing fans? “I think the reason non-league has experienced a resurgence in interest in the last decade is based in part to the Internet and the community you are able to cultivate through social media,” Brown argues. “And, also, the disillusionment with modern football, many feel priced out by Premier League clubs and are seeing the benefit and sense of community you gain from supporting a local team.”
Brown explains that European clubs like FC St. Pauli and Rayo Vallecano were not on Pier Pressure’s radar when they were starting up their section. Instead, they were inspired by what they saw going on down the road in Whitehawk and in London at Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton.
“We were inspired by this and sought to replicate it, using the ultras group as a vehicle to express our politics and beliefs, and meet new people through doing so,” Brown adds. “It’s definitely worked, and I have met some of my closest friends through the club.”
A core group have known each other for years through playing in various bands together in the south-coast punk scene. “Our approach to running the ultras group is born out of the mentality of those punk days, it’s very idealistic and everything is self-funded and produced in a very DIY way, we even funded the new stand at The Saffrons which we spend our Saturdays in,” Brown says.
“I feel that political groups within English football are very much a niche and almost a bit of a novelty,” Brown continues. “Weekly, we will get requests on social media to send out stickers or pin badges that we have self-produced and there is almost an ignorance to the fact that we are an ultras group and not a brand, we’re not for sale, everything we do is to promote interest in our political beliefs, and hopefully people will support the club and join as a by-product of that. The response to these requests is always the same, come to a game – see what were about and show some support… They rarely do.”
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