Women's FA Cup: Meet Clapton Community, the seventh-tier side making history

By Andrew AloiaBBC Sport
Clapton Community celebrate beating Bedford in the Women's FA Cup
Clapton are second in the Greater London Premier Division this season and unbeaten in the league so far

A former DJ and a mother-of-two who grew up chasing paper footballs down hills on the Portuguese island of Madeira have helped Clapton Community distinguish themselves as history-making Women's FA Cup minnows.

The Greater London Premier Division side will be the first club from the seventh tier to play in the third round when they face Plymouth Argyle on Sunday. And the fan-owned side have crowdfunded their way there.

To set up the tie, they became the first team to topple a rival from four tiers higher when they beat Hounslow 3-1 on penalties.

Portuguese manager Claudio Gomes, an ex-nightclub DJ who now works as a sports lecturer and is in his second year in charge of the club, said he has been left "speechless" by the east London club's achievements.

Being part of a record-breaking Women's FA Cup run has also come as a surprise to Portuguese winger Maria Mendonca - a 32-year-old teaching assistant who has previously been to Wembley to watch the final with students.

"When I was told before the first match that this is the 'real FA Cup', I couldn't believe it," she laughed. "I knew it was a cup game, but not the FA Cup I'd go and watch at Wembley."

Maria Mendonca is hugged by a team-mate
Maria Mendonca (right) joined Clapton in the summer of 2020

Before moving to England as an 18-year-old, Mendonca had never played 11-a-side football, with much of her childhood spent with her six brothers playing football on the streets.

"We would use [scrunched up] newspapers for a ball, anything we could find," she said. "We would even play with apples, anything that was round.

"We were poor, we would play on the streets - and the streets of Madeira are hills.

"You can't imagine how much I ran down hills to get the ball. It never stopped. It's where I get my speed from.

"We'd have rocks down for goals and sometimes the neighbours would play with us and bring a ball."

When she moved to London with her partner, she joined a local side after seeing them training near a Portuguese restaurant.

She said joining that team more than a decade ago helped her get to grips with the English language - and now she is enjoying football more than ever with Clapton after moving from Dulwich Hamlet in the summer of 2020.

She said the team "will fight with all we have" in their third-round tie with Plymouth, who play in National League South - the same league as the Hounslow side they conquered in the previous round.

Central defender Annie Lyons, 25, who works as a policy adviser, scored the decisive penalty in that match.

"It has all been a dream come true," Lyons said. "It has seemed impossible.

"Every single game we have known that winning is improbable, but we've believed we can do it."

Lyons said she was "unbelievably proud" to pull on the Clapton shirt to play for a club that represents the community around it, with a mixture of local and international players.

"The football world that we inhabit is welcoming to people that might not have a place in a traditional football club," she said.

"So many of the supporters are LGBT - and many of the players are LGBT."

Claudio Gomes
Claudio Gomes joined the club last season

The 500-mile round trip to Plymouth for Sunday's game is a costly one in a competition that has so far yielded just £2,900 in prize money.

None of the ties have generated money as Clapton's have all been away from home, meaning they were not entitled to a share of gate receipts.

The team crowdfunded the money needed for travel and accommodation for their tie with Plymouth - and impressively they hit their target in 24 hours.

"We have done it to make sure the club is not financially affected by the expenses," said manager Gomes, who completed a masters degree in performance football coaching after giving up his career in music.

"We are a completely fan-owned club, run by volunteers and we give a lot back to the community. We run sessions for young people and it costs what they can afford to pay.

"It's not like we have a lot of money. What it would cost for travel and accommodation to Plymouth is more than the £2,900 we have made in prize money. We know a similar run in the men's competition would make a lot more."

Gomes said the team's exploits in the FA Cup so far had been "amazing" and "the belief is definitely there" that they could be in the mix when the Women's Super League clubs join the competition in the next round.

But he said the club had already "won" by reaching the third round.

"We have won as a team, as a club, a community and for women's football."

Graphic showing Clapton's run in the Women's FA Cup

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