There were a number of football supporters wandering down Southbury Road at around one o’clock this afternoon. Many of them were probably not going to watch football- unless they were proposing to go and watch a Non-League, League One or League Two match wearing a Tottenham Hotspur shirt- and of those that were, probably very few were thinking about the days when the road they were on was the home of one of the most successful sides the Non-League game has ever know. Enfield FC were giants in their time, and their Southbury Road Stadium saw many, many highlights; including the parading of two FA Amateur Cups, two FA Trophies and eight Isthmian League titles. Clubs like that should not come to an end, and yet, as supporters of Bury FC have recently found out, history is no guarantee of the future.
We were off to watch the premier footballing side in Enfield these days, our very own Enfield Town FC. Their Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, on Donkey Lane, is ten minutes from the haunts of the old Enfield club, but it isn’t haunted by that past success. This is a new club, formed not from the ashes of the old one but instead perhaps as a protest against it, and certainly as a protest against its former owner, Tony Lazarou. He sold the lease on the Southbury Road stadium, and then moved the club out of the Borough, before it eventually came to an end twelve years ago. These days another new club, Enfield FC 1893, groundshare with Bishop’s Stortford, but they have long been eclipsed as Enfield’s main hope of footballing success by Town, and not only because the latter are still actually IN the town that bears their name. The success of the Towners has been built on their ownership model, and is worthy of celebration.
The Supporters Trust that formed in 1999 initially did so in the hope that they could become involved in the running of Enfield FC, and look to bring their club home. Two years later, when it became quite clear that this was never going to happen, they decided to do something rather unprecedented. They formed a club of their own, Enfield Town, and were soon winning the Essex Senior League, joining our ranks in 2006. The real catalyst for their success perhaps came in 2011, when, after a great deal of hard work and fund raising, they got the chance to bring football to the former Athletics Stadium on Donkey Lane. Football with a running track doesn’t often work (ask West Ham United), but here the surroundings almost make the athletics superhighway between the crowd and the pitch unnoticeable. This is a fabulous stadium, and what makes it all the more special is that it is filled with fabulous people who are passionate about their football club- as indeed they should be. They own it.
Enfield Town were the first fully supporter-owned football club in the UK. The natives of the QEII Stadium are proud of that, and so they should be. We think there are thirty-five supporter owned clubs in England at the moment, but we were visiting the pioneers; and about to watch their side, who sat in fifth place in our Premier Division, start their FA Cup journey. The Enfield team of yesteryear had many famous FA Cup matches to boast about, and it was perhaps time that the new club did the same. There was confidence amongst their supporters. Actually, there was more than confidence; Butlers Bar before the game, sat atop their Art Deco grandstand, was full of the bonhomie that you only seem to find in the Non-League game these days- warm, welcoming, friendly to all comers, and full of animated discussion and laughter. Everyone was determined that we would have an entertaining afternoon; from turnstiles to club shop, via the stewarding team and those watching BT Sport with a beer, the refrain, “you picked a good match for your first visit,” was uttered repeatedly, indeed so often that it almost felt like they were working to a script. Fingers crossed that they’d be right.
Their opponents today perhaps had something to thank their hosts for. AFC Rushden and Diamonds formed in 2011 using the model first utilised by Town, supporters of the former Rushden and Diamonds club creating the new outfit after the original side went into administration. A climb back through the leagues has been fairly dramatic, given they now sit at Step Three and they started at Step Six; and these days the supporters can enjoy success knowing that it is sustainable. Currently in fourth place in the Southern Premier Central Division, they had lost only one match prior to today- and perhaps notably three weeks ago walloped our former Isthmian Premier Division side Leiston by five goals to one. They certainly weren’t to be taken lightly. A number of away fans had made the trip down from Northamptonshire, and they, like their hosts, weren’t short on confidence. They were, however, rather fed up of having to travel to play in the cup- this was apparently their sixth consecutive away match.
Diamonds got us underway, whilst the Town fans behind the away keeper began to sing about Wembley. The optimism of the early rounds of the FA Cup never goes away, does it? Their drum began to beat, the wind began to whip around the stadium, and the home side began to probe, although with very little success initially. Behind the terrace housing the home faithful a collection of children were using the running track as their own personal Wembley.
Enfield Town's clubhouse and bar, taken from the back of the terrace
Diamonds got the first chance of the match in the seventh minute, Ben Acquaye taking advantage of the home defence being too clever by half to nip in, take the ball, and set up Nathan Hicks for a shot which whizzed across the goal. It was perhaps wider than it initially looked, but it gave Acquaye confidence, and a moment later he was running, centrally, at the home defence, only to be chopped down twenty-five yards out. The free kick was too close to Nathan McDonald and easily saved. The visitors continued to press, and Hicks shot wide once more in the eleventh minute. “Come on Rushden,” yelled the visiting faithful, sparking a predictable retort of “We’d forgotten you were here.”
Rushden were having the best of the possession, and tried once more to find an end product in the fourteenth minute, Nat Gosnal-Tyler forcing McDonald to save with his feet. A moment later Hicks again found himself with the ball at his feet on the edge of the box, but again his effort went wide of the post. Traffic was almost all one-way, the side in yellow and black having settled far quicker than their hosts.
Town had their first shot in the twentieth minute. Good work from Ken Charles saw the ball moved to Billy Bricknell, but the striker couldn’t get it out from under his feet. It was eventually played to Sam Youngs, who curled it goalward, but it cleared the bar by some distance. Perhaps it was a start? It wasn’t. Rushden were straight back on the attack and a shot was hooked off the line by Joseph Payne- Enfield were living rather dangerously.
There was half an hour on the clock before Town made more progress up front. Billy Bricknell had a shot which was deflected for a corner after more good work from Charles- their standout attacking threat so far- but the corner came to naught. The thriller we’d been promised certainly hadn’t arrived yet- although we did get some excitement when some lost cash was found, and, following a lost property announcement, the entire crowd tried to claim that it was theirs. Shortly afterwards we had a lost ball, too, as Tom Lorraine for Diamonds fired a shot so high over the bar that it left the stadium. Nobody moved to claim that, least of all the striker, who tried to pretend he’d had nothing to do with it.
The compulsory corner flag shot
Two minutes before the break Town had their best chance, and as you might expect it came to Charles. He ran at the defence, jinked from left to right, then fired in a shot that Ben Heath saved at the second attempt. Diamonds, stung by this, went straight back up the other end an earned a succession of corners, but they came to naught and the one added minute ended with the game still crying out for a goal. The players trooped off, and the crowd did the same, in search of sustenance.
Diamonds were back on the attack within two minutes of the restart, forcing a save from McDonald and coming close during a goalmouth scramble. Two long throws from Sam Brown also put the home defence under pressure, almost as if they had also been corners, but Town held firm and then applied some pressure of their own, a Ryan Blackman shot blocked on the edge of the box. Lewis Taafe earned them a corner in the fifty second minute, and the crowd woke up, the drummer woke up, and the pressure only came to an end when the referee gave a foul in favour of Diamonds which the home faithful weren’t too pleased about. A shot from Bricknell came shortly afterwards, but although it was low and hard it was far too close to Heath for the keeper to be unduly troubled. But it was promising, for a few minutes, until the normal pattern reasserted itself, Diamonds placing a header into McDonald’s arms, another one wide, and then applying more pressure from a corner.
Town made a change. Ken Charles left the fray, rather surprisingly, and on came Muhammadu Faal. Faal immediately went central, and Town began to show more attacking intent- a cross from the substitute finding Blackman at the edge of the box in the sixty third minute, but his shot, under pressure, went wide of the upright.
Ben Acquaye, undoubtedly man of the match if we were only counting the first half, brought the first booking of the game in the sixty fifth minute. He charged out of defence and left players trailing in his wake, until Scott Thomas caught up with him and brought him down, rather cynically. Thomas was soon injured himself, and there was a hint of retribution about the challenge, but the referee either thought otherwise or didn’t see it. We entered the last twenty minutes still wondering where our first goal was coming from- or even if we’d get one.
Of course, we got one almost immediately.
There seemed to be nobody armed with cassettes or CD players, but you can't be too careful
The substitute, Faal, was fed the ball from his own half, and immediately set off towards the Diamonds goal. He got to the edge of the box and fired goalwards, the ball flying across the turf and nestling in the bottom corner of the net. The same player then put the visiting defence under immense pressure a minute later, earning a corner, and the home faithful sang once more about Wembley. Blackman could have put them closer still, but his effort cleared the bar from thirteen yards out and he shook his head, annoyed with himself. In truth it was a little high when it reached him and he did well to get the shot off.
Diamonds then came the closest they’d managed the whole match. A goalmouth melee and McDonald made first one point-blank save, then immediately another, before the ball was hacked clear. Next, back at the other end, Faal was trying to win the match on his own. What a difference he had made since his introduction.
Diamonds brought on two substitutes as we entered the last ten minutes, as they tried to engineer a way back into a game they’d dominated. One of them, Sam Johnson, immediately earned them a corner, and a yellow head got to the cross- but it went behind. Town then decided that attack was the best form of defence, and Bricknell forced a full-stretch save from Heath. The corner brought the keeper into action again, until the referee gave him a free kick and relieved the pressure. On came Sam Bantick for Bricknell- an attacking change, Town weren’t setting themselves up to just hold on; but they had to hold on as McDonald made a flying save from a Ryan Dove header, twisting in the air to tip it over.
The board went up, and we had four added minutes to go. More Rushden pressure, and Sam Brown launched another throw in which McDonald had to punch away from underneath his own bar, the ball cleared once more. Not for long, and back they came, until Ben Farrell tried a shot which ended up on the running track and relieved Town’s worries. One minute left, and McDonald took his time with the goalkick. Another attack, another deflected shot, and the Enfield keeper once more threw himself on the ball. A kick out, a whistle, and Town were through.
The club shop- like a small version of the cave owned by Aladdin
The QEII Stadium, if it had a voice of its own, would shout one word- and that word would be “Community.” The 2017 Middlesex FA Charter Standard Community Club of the Year runs football schools, walking football, disability football, school holiday clubs; youth teams from Under 7’s to Under 16’s, Women’s football from senior down to Under 10’s; this is a club that knows its place, and it’s place is at the heart of Enfield. It’s a club that isn’t going to win the FA Cup, and it might not win promotion from our league- although you wouldn’t want to bet against it- but that’s not its focus. When you’ve had something you love taken from you, then you do your utmost to ensure that it never happens again.
There are many sorry tales of football excess doing the rounds at the moment, at our level and higher. What we have at Donkey Lane is at the other end of the spectrum, and it’s a story we should be shouting from the rooftops.