One of the longest-running hospital dramas in football came to an end this week when Enfield FC finally gave up the ghost and resigned their place in the Isthmian League. The club has folded, re-formed as Enfield (1893), and will play next season in the Essex Senior League - the lowest level of football in England that is described as "senior". The decision taken by the board of directors of Enfield seems to have been taken for pragmatic reasons. They had inherited a bankrupt club, without a stadium and playing thirteen miles from home in Ware. By closing down and reforming, they were only relegating themselves one division, so they they start next season free of debt. However, the divisions caused by their collapse and the formation of Enfield Town, the first "Supporters Trust" club - who provided the template for AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester - must surely mean that the original club will sink without trace.
It wasn't ever thus though, and it's always worth remembering that Enfield were, for many years, one of the most power ful clubs in non-league football. I should probably declare an interest at this point. I live five years of my childhood in Enfield, barely a five minute walk from their Southbury Road stadium. My father lived nearly fifty years in the borough, and had been a supporter since just after the war. I saw my first ever match at Southbury Road, in September 1977, in the Isthmian League against Carshalton Athletic, but there was no way in the world that I could have guessed at what was to happen to them over the next decade or so. It's probably fair to say that Enfield supporters had grown used to success. They won the Isthmian League seven times in seventeen years after joining it in 1963, and won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley in 1967 and 1970. In 1980, they won the Isthmian League by an astonishing thirty-one points, with a record over forty-two matches of thirty-five wins, five draws and two defeats. The following season they were arguably distracted by an FA Cup run that took them past Hereford United and Port Vale and into the fourth round, where they drew 1-1 at Barnsley. Southbury Road wasn't deemed safe to hold the replay so it was switched to White Hart Lane, where a crowd of over 35,000 saw the visitors win by a flattering 3-0 scoreline.
On the pitch, the summer of 1981 saw everything change forever. The biggest clubs in the Southern League and the Northern Premier League had split in 1979 to form the Alliance Premier League, but the Isthmian League hadn't been allowed to join the party. This created a problem for the APL, because it meant that they largely missed on the lucrative London area, so in 1981, Enfield and Dagenham were invited to join. As a club used to success, it's no great surprise that Enfield adjusted quickly to life in their new league, and finished their first season as runners-up to Runcorn. It was in the cups, though, that they had their greatest success - they were narrowly beaten at home in the third round of the FA Cup by Crystal Palace (having thrashed Wimbledon 4-1 in the first round), and got to Wembley in the FA Trophy, where a twenty-yard curler by midfielder Paul Taylor gave them a 1-0 win against Altrincham. The following season, a win at Runcorn on the last day of the season gave them the APL championship by one point, ahead of Maidstone United.
Although their form would slump somewhat over the next couple of years (the effects of which would be exacerbated by a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys from six or seven miles away called Wealdstone winning the non-league "double" of the FA Trophy and the APL in 1985 - including beating Enfield in a two-legged semi-final), happier times would return in 1986, with a second APL win. This time it was achieved at a canter, by seven points, and the air of optimism around Southbury Road was palpable as they beat Scarborough 4-0 on the last day of the season. The Football League had approved automatic promotion and relegation between the League and what would now be known as the Football Conference.
Enfield failed to develop as a club at a time when the non-league game was starting to radically change. They resolutely stayed part-time, whilst four miles up the road a ticket tout called Stan Flashman was pouring money into their local rivals, Barnet. Barnet would eventually go into the League in 1991, but Enfield stagnated. Their supporters were assuaged somewhat by a second FA Trophy win in 1988, which featured a quarter-final win against Lincoln City and a marathon four match semi-final against Barrow, before drawing 0-0 with Telford United at Wembley and beating them 3-2 in a replay at The Hawthorns. This, though, was papering over the cracks. An FA Cup win against Leyton Orient after a replay at Brisbane Road in 1989 continued to propgate the myth of them being a big club, but they were relegated from the Conference in bottom place in 1990.
From here on, their descent into obscurity was a slow and painful one. They consistently finished near the top of the Isthmian League, but always fell short. They finished in the top three at the end of every season between 1991 and 1994, and won the league in 1995, but were prevented from rejoining the Conference because of irregularities in their finances. In 1996, the chain of events what would lead to the formation of Enfield Town started when Saracens came to stay. The rugby union club had left their roped-off park pitch in Cockfosters that summer when the demands of professional rugby union became too great for it. Enfield were happy to put them up - so happy, in fact, that they demolished the "Playing Fields" side, opposite the main stand, to allow them to put up temporary seating. Saracens played there for a year before decamping to Watford, and Enfield were left financially no better off than they had been before, and now with a ground that wasn't up to Conference standard.
In September 1999, Enfield bade farewell to Southbury Road. The ground had been sold for £3.6m - half to be kept by the council, and half to be kept by the club. The club received £1.05m, and the council held the remainder in an Escrow account on their behalf. The chairman, Tony Lazarou (a property developer) kept making half-hearted noises about moving to a new ground, whilst they ground-shared, first at St Albans (twenty miles away), and then at Boreham Wood (10 miles away). Neither had direct public transport links to Enfield. What happened to the first £1m, no-one knows, and it's likely that no-one will ever know. The club said that it had paid off debts, paid for the running of the club, and was "invested". The straw that broke the camel's back came when the council refused to hand over the remainder of the money to the club. Lazarou threatened to sue, and the supporters decided that enough was enough. When Enfield Borough Council caved in and gave Lazarou the remainder of the money (the FA would later adjudicate that he personally owed the club £200,000), the Enfield FC Supporters' Trust voted on breaking away to form a new club. The motion was carried with 89% of the vote, and so it was that Enfield Town FC was formed. It was a template that was followed at AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester.
Town moved into local club Brimsdown Rovers' ground, and entered the Essex Senior League. After winning it and being refused a place in the Isthmian League, the supporters themselves carried out the work to bring it up to standard. Enfield, exiled and playing in front of crowds of less than 100 people, plummeted through the divisions to the point that, by 2005, the two clubs were playing in the same division. Whilst Town continued to prosper and look forward to further promotions, one wondered how Enfield managed to survive at all. Now ground-sharing 13 miles away at Ware on pitifully small crowds, their continuing existence surprised everyone. Th truth, however, is now out. The club was up to its eyeballs in debt, and folded this summer, resigning from the Isthmian League and dropping to the Essex Senior League. It is now surely only a matter of time before they give up altogether.
The issue of Enfield Town returning to the London Borough of Enfield is a constant one with the new club. This particular corner of North London is exceptionally badly served by public transport - a couple of railway stations and no underground link at all, so the return of the new club to somewhere central is a necessity, if they are to progress as a club. The council have recently been making encouraging noises about redeveloping the Queen Elizabeth Stadium, barely a mile from the site of the old stadium, but it would require a considerable amount of money to bring it anything like up to scratch and, although it's near two main roads, access would be a problem. On this issue, the board of the new club seem to be in opposition to a number (it's difficult to say what sort of proportion) of the supporters. Going from the comments on their forum, the supporters seem to prefer a move to the athletics stadium, whilst those running the show would prefer to stay at Brimsdown. My personal viewpoint is that the club should move, if it becomes a viable option. The club needs to be near the centre of the Borough, and as long long as they remain lodgers, they will be missing something crucial from their identity as a club. Whatever happens, if Enfield Town want to get back to anywhere near where they were a decade or two ago, they'll need a favourable council or a lot of money.
I'm largely of the opinion that Enfield FC died on the day that Enfield Town FC were formed. Having said that, though, I was not a supporter during the Lazarou era, and my memories are entirely of Southbury Road and the original club. All football supporters should be grateful to the Enfield Supporters' Society for, with the assistance of Supporters Direct, showing everyone else that there is a viable alternative to being treated like doormats by the various incompetents that have bought, lied and cheated their way to their ill-deserved positions of influence within the game. As I've said on here before, community clubs owned by their supporters are the way of the future.