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Football both in and out of Enfield: it's... complicated
This week's long read is a story that has made the news this last couple of weeks, but which really stretches back almost a quarter of a century. And for me, it's personal.
The first time I went there it was a bricked up turnstile, tucked away in the farthest corner of the ground from the only turnstiles that were still used, that fascinated me more than anything else. Southbury Road was littered with little constructions around its periphery, a hut for the “Kid Es” junior fan club here, a portable cabin for a club shop there. There was even a nightclub in one corner, where you could start with, ahem, cordon bleu cooking before continuing with a bleu comedian.
But that turnstile fascinated me. It was particularly bleak-looking—the main stand at Southbury Road was a looker and the other three sides were all well-developed, but this one particular corner looked windswept in 1979 or so—but also an indicator of another time. “People used to come through here”, I remember thinking to myself, looking around to imagine what the ground might be like when it was full before remembering that there had been an actual football match going on behind me all the time I’d been practising my philosophy.
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It’s all gone now. The four towering floodlights that bore down upon the pitch from the corners of the ground. The 1930s main stand, with a terrace at the front and seats at the back, just as all good stands should have, and the rumble of feet on its wooden floorboards at moments of high enervation. The shallow terracing and low roofs behind each goal, which gave young me an impressive view of the backs of several people’s heads for several years. A dog called Bruce who would stand behind the goal and start barking whenever Enfield scored. Even Herb Alpert’s So What’s New?, which was the first run out music I remember hearing at any football club. All gone.
It’s complicated. In many respects, June 1982 was emphatically the end of a chapter in my life, moving from a council estate in North London to a house literally in the middle of nowhere, in a village between two towns–well, a town and a city, which I would later establish is extremely important, if you live around there–in Hertfordshire. The distance from Bush Hill Park, where EN1 and the Cambridge Road rub up against N9, to Smallford was just 19 miles, but to me at 9 years of age these two places might as well have been in parallel universes.
And my brief football-supporting life had also reached a crescendo which, in all honesty, I already know I will never surpass. In May 1982, Enfield went to Wembley—we all went to Wembley—and beat Altrincham 1-0 after extra-time to win the FA Trophy. Eleven days later, and at the second attempt, Spurs beat QPR to win the FA Cup. By this point in my life, I’d more or less persuaded myself that trophies, like concrete, were going to be pretty much a naturally-occurring substance in my life. May would come around, Spurs and Enfield would win something, and all would be right with the world.
Forty-one years on from that May, Spurs have won the FA Cup once, the League Cup twice and the UEFA Cup. Complaining about something like that is something of a first world problem. Plenty of teams have never won anything. Hold onto the idea that this very scarcity is what makes winning them so valuable. But four miles up the road at Enfield, there was a genuine existential crisis, which led to the demolition of a stadium to no obvious gain for the club, a new club being formed, and a schism which continues to exist to this day, however little sense it may make.
I, along with hundreds of others, washed my hands of Enfield FC in 2001, when their supporters trust took about the most radical action that it’s possible to take when a club is being mismanaged, and voted to break away and form a club of their own. That this should have been the case was a result of years of mismanagement, leading to the sale of Southbury Road and its demolition in 1999, all on the promise that a new ground would be built.
The new ground was never built, and Enfield FC began a rootless existence, playing wherever they could get a ground-share, with attendances having plummeted. By the summer of 2001 it was clear that there was no intention on the part of the owner of the club to actually build that ground. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the move, but a small number opted to stay behind instead by a margin of nine to one. There was some degree of bad blood.
The new club took the name Enfield Town FC, agreed a groundshare at nearby Brimsdown Rovers, and joined the Essex Senior League. But Enfield FC struggled on. They finished 19th in the Isthmian League Premier Division in the first season after the breakaway and were then relegated two years in a row. By 2007, they were in Division One North of the Isthmian League and playing to tiny attendances. Under these circumstances, how could they even afford a ground share? The club folded that summer under a weight of ‘historic’ debts.
There was an opportunity to reunite football in the borough. It didn’t particularly matter to Town, but an olive branch was extended to merge back as one club. Town were making good progress on getting a ground back in the borough. The supporters ownership model had worked well with a cooperative council. But the offer was rejected, and instead Enfield (1893)—the old club’s original date of formation—were formed, an act of bloody-mindedness that would be almost impressive if it didn’t look, a little, well, sad.
In 2011, Enfield Town moved into the QE2 Stadium, after completing the renovation of a dilapidated former athletics track. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a magnificent art deco main stand, it’s only a short walk from the site of the old ground, and as close to the centre of the borough as could reasonably have been expected, considering the cost of land in London nowadays, and it’s owned by the council, so it can’t snatched away by some chancer with promises of jam tomorrow which never get delivered upon. And the team has worked its way back to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, a perfectly respectable level of football for a club of their size. They carry out excellent community work and offer an excellent example of how a football club can be an asset to its neighbourhood.
But Town’s 2011 move also had an effect on Enfield (1893). When Enfield Town confirmed their move to the QE2, Brimsdown Rovers merged with Enfield (1893) and this club won the Essex Senior League in 2011. But with Town having taken the fixtures and fittings, which they’d paid for to bring it up to Isthmian League standard, with them from the Brimsdown ground, it no longer met the minimum requirements for a place in the Isthmian League and their promotion was denied.
Still Enfield (1893) hung on, playing wherever they could find someone who would take them on, renaming themselves as Enfield FC again in 2019, and still playing an unreasonable distance from Enfield. At Ware in Hertfordshire, at Broxbourne Borough—close to the Enfield but still not close—at Harlow in Essex, then at Bishops Stortford, on the Hertfordshire-Essex border. By 2019, their average home attendance was 74. To this day, they still tag every tweet they send with “#One Club One Enfield”.
Then the money arrived. Simon Needham (and one other, Dean Whittington) was appointed as a director of the club on the 1st January 2021. Despite crowds not rising much above 150, they were bringing in players from higher divisions, while Jamie Cureton, the former Bristol Rovers striker who ended up having an exceptionally long tail to his career as a non-league striker, arrived as manager. Needless to say, it is not normal for clubs at this level of the game to be doling out company cars.
It was reported that more than half of their games were free to enter, such was the desperation to build this club a fanbase. But the fundamental question remains; why would anyone support Enfield FC? If you live there, well, there’s a perfectly serviceable team with their own ground, bigger crowds and playing at a higher level right there. The same applies if you live in Bishop’s Stortford, where Enfield FC currently play.
Nevertheless, funded by wherever this money was coming from, they won the Essex Senior League in the 2022/23 season, running up 92 points and scoring 114 goals in 38 games. Promotion back into the Isthmian League following an absence of 16 years was a near-inevitable consequence of this carefree spending. And two wins from their first three league games of this season put them in fifth place in the table. Crowds had risen over 200. There were still no plans for them to return to the borough. There was still no particular reason for them to exist. But it was progress, of sorts.
But then the bomb dropped. Or rather, the bombs started dropping.
On Tuesday 29th August, Simon Needham was declared missing, The following day he was found dead, killed by a train on the line between London and Stanstead Airport as it passed through Bishop’s Stortford. His death has not been treated as suspicious. A statement from the club published the following day read as follows:
We can confirm that our much loved Director Simon Needham has passed away after being declared missing on Tuesday. Everyone at Enfield FC are completely devastated with this sudden news and we ask for people’s privacy and respect of the family at this time.
Tributes poured in from other clubs, players and supporters. But then, a couple of days later, came a second statement:
As we come to terms with our loss, our focus turns to all those affected within the club including Directors, Staff, Players and Supporters of Enfield FC.
Following events of the past week, we as a club have had emotions go from the highest high to the lowest low. This time last week we all thought we had it all… the reality is we had nothing.
Our impression was that the club owned a number of vehicles and assets … we have since found out this was not the case as everything was leased. As a board we have had to make quick decisions to ensure we continue to survive, working relentlessly to stabilise the club following this huge shock to all.
All vehicles are currently being returned with immediate effect and our players and staff have agreed to compete in our next game at home on Sunday against Walthamstow.
The board are extremely grateful as all Players & Staff including Management, have not been paid at all for the past month.
Sunday will be a day of mixed emotions whilst we all come to terms of what has been left behind. Following this weekends game we will of course make further statements as the plan for the future becomes clearer but due to the quick decisions made and the support of people around us we are certain the club will survive to live another day.
In the meantime we would like to thank everyone for the well wishes and support shown over the last week from all areas of the football family. With all your help we can ensure this great football club continues its journey with the same welcoming desire we have all worked so hard to create.
At this time, although we have a high amount of love and sympathy for Simon’s family left behind, we do not feel it is appropriate to celebrate Simon’s life at this stage until all outcomes have become clear.
Thank you all and see you Sunday!
Steve, Peter, Lee and Dean
(Board of Directors)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction to this statement was largely one of revulsion. “We do not feel it is appropriate to celebrate Simon’s life at this stage until all outcomes have become clear”? Cry arsing about having to return company cars? What on earth was going through the mind of whoever wrote that? Needham’s daughter was among those who expressed their anger at the club’s frankly mind-blowing self-centredness at such a time.
The statement has since been amended, but the damage had been done. It should go without saying that there is a time and place for such conversations to be held, and within a week of the death of the topic of the conversation is definitely not that time. Three days later, the club announced that their next match had been postponed:
It is with regret that following the events of the past week we unable to fulfill our game on Sunday On compassionate grounds. We apologise and want to assure our fans we will be back with further statements next week whilst we continue to ensure the future of the club is secure. Thank you to Walthamstow for the understanding and thank you all for the continued support.
#Only one Enfield
It had initially been believed that all concerned wanted to hang around to play one last game “for Simon”, but this evidently did not come to pass. A further three days on, the club issued another statement, this time outlining the extent to which this money had been propping the club up:
Firstly we would like to thank all the management and players for their efforts over the past few years what was created will never be forgotten. We can confirm that the management team to include Jamie, Jim, Gary, have now left Enfield fc by mutual consent and we wish them the very best for the future and thank them for what they have given to the club over the past 3 years. There are also a number of players that have decided to leave us with immediate effect and we wish them the very best for the future as we continue to focus on survival of our football club. Now it's time for the rebuild as preparation for Saturday game becomes paramount.... #comeonyouEs
#Only one Enfield
(They should probably hire a sub-editor, though I could understand it if quite a lot of you were grimacing at the idea of this and thinking, “Physician heal thyself, King.”)
As things stand, a new manager has been brought in to replace Jamie Cureton in the form of Alex Salmon from Benfleet, who play a couple of divisions down from them in the Eastern Counties League. Since the money to lease Woodside Park for the season seems to have been paid, the club at least have somewhere to play for the rest of this season, but when a football club brings players in on big salaries, as soon as those salaries dry up players and staff will leave.
As for what will happen to Enfield FC now, it’s difficult to say. Attendances had risen, but continuing to attract crowds may well prove to be more difficult if the team isn’t winning practically most games and if admission isn’t free or significantly reduced. Croucher Needham, the accounting company in which Simon Needham had been a partner, had also been sponsors at Bishop’s Stortford and their hometown team Saffron Walden Town, so Enfield FC aren’t even the only club affected by this.
If something untoward had been happening behind the scenes somewhere (and all there seems to be for now is pretty much unsubstantiated gossip, so I’ll return to that when appropriate), then that will likely all come out in the wash, but now is certainly not the right time to be having that conversation. Regardless of any other considerations or feelings, a family remains deeply in mourning. There is no question that this death, regardless of the reasons for it or any other considerations, is a tragedy at a personal level and this should be reflected in how we speak about it.
Those on the hunt for examples of schadenfreude from Enfield Town were left disappointed. The club itself sent a brief condolence message on Twitter, but otherwise the reaction has been pretty subdued. The fan site on Facebook has a thread on the subject, but there is no crowing on there, a similar sense of shock to that expressed elsewhere but also broadly speaking something of a shrug of the shoulders.
This is understandable. Even setting aside such old fashioned concepts as ‘basic common decency’, it has now been more than 22 years since this split took place, and sixteen since Enfield FC folded. A lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges over those intervening years, and Town are a club who really have little to worry about from a club who have the name of their borough in their title and a badge which feels familiar, but who continue to play their football a long way away and have shown little sign of persuading many people from Enfield to make that 25 mile journey for home matches every other week. But even for me, living 100 miles from Enfield and with no significant ties to even Town beyond going to the occasional away match when they play in this neck of the woods, this all still stings, just a little.
It took me a few years to front down everything that happened, even though I wasn’t even involved at the time. “Guess that’s who I follow now”, had been my first thought when I read about the Trust vote in the Independent in June 2001. It was the right decision, made for the right reasons, but I’d been watching St Albans for years by this time and Enfield all felt like rather a long time ago. A year later, I moved back to London for the first time since 1982, albeit a different part. In 2006, we followed an entirely predictable path and moved to Brighton.
By this time I was writing about football and starting the downhill slope towards middle age, and for the first time in my life I had reason to reflect upon the teams I’d spent my life watching. In Brighton I had no particular local team and took on an itinerant football-watching life instead, going wherever there happened to be a game on. Even now, 17 years on, that habit persists. Every other football club in West Sussex feels like the property of somebody else. They’re just not…mine.
In the summer of 2007, the summer that Enfield FC died, we got tickets to see a studio recording of That Mitchell & Webb Look at the BBC Television Centre in London. My girlfriend at the time was a civil servant working in Victoria. I took the day off work , bought an all-day Travelcard, and headed off to London with strict instructions to be at White City underground station at 5.00.
I got a combination of over and underground trains to Silver Street station in Edmonton. A walk past the doctors surgery to which my nan took me—in what can best be described as a ‘flap’—when I was stung by a wasp at the age of about four, an incident that I can still remember. Past the first flat we lived in, the one from which I can distinctly remember seeing the White Hart Lane floodlights as a twinkling haze in the distance as a very small child. And then back on myself to Edmonton Green market, where I bought a very fetching mantelpiece clock with a picture of our lord Jesus Christ on the face for an upcoming birthday for £2.
Edmonton Green to Bush Hill Park is only one stop on the railway, but over that couple of miles or so you definitely pass through an invisible line that demarkates between London and not-quite-London. Bush Hill Park is leafy suburbia by comparison with the Angel Edmonton, and the estate to which we moved upon its opening in 1977—built, coincidentally, upon the terraced streets in which my parents had lived, met and fallen in love a couple of decades earlier—was a concrete splodge dropped into an area which otherwise felt like a extension of Betjeman’s Metroland. I walked through the estate, past the library, the first place I was allowed to go to without parental supervision. I walked the length of Percival Road, past the social club where my both my grandad dad had played snooker and where we’d spent the evening of that 1982 FA Trophy final win.
At the top of Percival Road you meet Southbury Road, a main artery of a road which—kind of—connects Barnet to the west with Chingford to the east. Turn right, and five minutes down the road on the left was the site of the old ground, now long gone and with flats built on top of it. Turn left, and it was a short walk to Enfield Town centre.
(Regarding that whole ‘town’ thing; it’s worth remembering that London’s outward sprawl is something that happened within living memory; Enfield was a Middlesex town near London until being gobbled up by this. This map of London from 1900 shows the boundary of London being several miles south of even Tottenham. The suddenness of the green belt which has prevented further expansion north into Hertfordshire remains striking, to this day.)
But that turn to the right which, being the neighbourhood of countless great aunts and the like, I’d made hundreds of times as a child, was never really an option. Perhaps some other time. In my mind’s eye, if I walked down there and turned left a floodlight would still peer out at me from behind the trees. Those memories, I decided, were best left as they were. I walked up to Enfield Town instead and had an enjoyable hour nosing around before getting over to White City.
Four years later in November 2011, Enfield Town moved into the QE2 Stadium and I went to the first league game back there with my dad. He’d been to his first match at Southbury Road in 1946. I was back at the end of the season to see them beat Needham Market 1-0 in the Isthmian League Division One North play-off final and get promoted back to the Premier Division, where they’d been when I first went to see them so many years earlier.
I’d not been able to do it for the first game, but I was for the second. At the end of the match, as the players cavorted around the pitch celebrating their achievement, I walked from the ground and across the Enfield playing fields, on the other side of which had sat the old Southbury Road ground, past the football pitches which had been the venue for most of our away games with the cub scouts, when I was a kid. And there they were, as unimpressive as you’d expect modern flats built on the site of a former football ground to be. And I felt nothing. A shrug of the shoulders, and a glance over my shoulder, only this time it was in the direction of the present and the future.
So yeah, it’s personal.
I’m not going to speak for anybody else here, and there are hundreds of voices in this conversation who have more relevance than mine, but of course I’d take the “Enfield Football Club” name back. I’d do so in a heartbeat. And the badge. That’s what’s so needlessly nasty about this now apparently perpetual “#Only one Enfield'' hashtag. Losing a football ground hurts in a near-unique way, perhaps only matched by losing a much-loved pub. But even that doesn’t get anywhere near the same feeling of loss. A football ground is your childhood. It’s a part of yourself, in a way that even a pub can never really be.
To beat this constant refrain of “#Only one Enfield”, particularly from 25 miles away on the Hertfordshire-Essex border, and particularly when that Enfield folded to void their debts and then reformed while still claiming to be ‘the original’ is an ongoing insult to those who wanted nothing more than to keep football going in the borough and who took that leap into the unknown. The irony of the last eleven years is that yes, there is only one Enfield in Enfield (I’m aware of the existence of Enfield Borough as well, but they play their home matches at Wingate & Finchley, which is still not in Enfield, though it is substantially closer than Bishop’s Stortford). It just isn’t the one that claims to be the “Only one Enfield”.
And that, perhaps, is the key here. Look at that statement about the club cars and the like. Look at that hashtag. Does anybody really want to get involved with that? Just for a badge, a name, and the right to say that you won some half-forgotten silverware, decades ago? It doesn’t feel as though it would be worth the hassle, particularly when there is now a generation of supporters who’ve come through and who only know Enfield Town Football Club. Why risk the stability of everything they’ve built up for it?
You see, Enfield supporters who are old enough to remember these times already know who won all that. They were there, at Wembley in the FA Amateur Cup, before my time but not before my dad’s; he went to see them play in the final of that competition four times between 1964 and 1972, winning twice—once after a replay—and losing twice. We were there at Wembley in 1982 and 1988, and at various grounds as they bounced around the early around of the FA Cup in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, sometimes biffing bigger clubs on the nose. But it’s been 22 years, now. We had our day. Let Enfield Town, a club in which the local community can take genuine pride, be the future.
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