Non League Daily

Enfield Town Show There Is Another Way

How many times have you heard it said in the modern era that football has lost its soul and the fans are the ones who inevitably get left behind?

How many radio phone-ins up and down the country are besieged, week after week, by angry supporters harking back to the days when their club formed part of the local community?

Such issues are not lost on fans of Enfield Town in the Ryman Premier, three tiers below League Two. Bournemouth may pride themselves on being Europe's first community-owned club – and look how far they have come since – but no club epitomises belonging to its fans more than non-league Enfield, the first wholly supporter-owned new club in the country.

The emphasis is on the word new. Or shall we say new-ish.

Fourteen years ago, after being rendered homeless and forced to lead a nomadic existence following the sale of their spiritual home by Tony Lazarou, a property developer chairman who had to clear debts and did a 50-50 deal with the land-owning local council, fans of Enfield FC, as it was known, decided enough was enough and refused to let their beloved club die.

As one of the most distinguished and reputed non-league names in the country, Enfield had won a hatful of trophies and titles and were regular FA cup giant-killers. The fans knew that in order to re-invent themselves, they would have to start from scratch and drop four divisions into the Essex Senior League but that didn't deter them. Enfield Town was established by mem¬bers of the Enfield Supporters Trust who immediately brought the club back into the borough, albeit in a ground-sharing arrangement, and set about running and financing affairs themselves with assistance from the newly created Supporters Direct.

In 2011, after rapidly moving up the divisions, the Towners finally secured a home of their own; having taken a 99-year-old lease at a run-down and neglected athletics stadium that needed considerable redevelopment but is round the corner from Enfield FC's original ground.

Enfield SponsorsWith limited resources but a loyal fan base, the club has gained three promotions in 10 years and the goal now is to consolidate in the Ryman Premier. The trophies and titles may be a thing of the past but the moral of the story perhaps is that anything can be done in football with a mixture of passion, determination, collective spirit and patience.

Assisted by Supporters Direct, it is no surprise that the club have laid much of the groundwork for other fan-owned entities like AFC Wimbledon and FC United as well as advising those setting up Supporters Trusts at other non-league clubs. Sponsorship deals are being put together, local support is growing with the fifth highest average attendance in the division despite the proximity of Tottenham and Arsenal and there is a genuine sense of empowerment.

Paul Reed, who has been on the board since the inception of the new club and took over as chairman last summer, was a staunch supporter of the old Enfield FC from the age of five and used to travel home and away. He recalls the transition from being a pressure group opposing the sale of the old ground to putting an actual group of players together, relying largely on donations and membership fees. "We got a team and a manager but in our very first friendly we forgot the match balls and corner flags. We had to learn just about everything from scratch."

In case you get the wrong impression, this is no Wimbledon-Milton Keynes Dons franchise-transporting scenario. Although a pocket of traditionalists refused to recognise Enfield Town and formed Enfield 1893 (the date Enfield FC was formed) who play two divisions further down, most of the old Enfield FC fan base embraced the restructured and renamed club with open arms. "We managed to capture the soul, essence and ethos of the club," insists Reed. "I'd say 90 percent of the fans came with us."

Vice-chairman Paul Millington says Enfield 1893, which play at Harlow several miles outside of the borough, have been invited for merger talks on at least two occasions. Rumour has it they didn't fancy the idea of being accountable to supporters and preferred the old-fashioned structure of running a football club. "Enfield FC was dead by then but they didn't want to entertain the idea of being merged with us," reveals Millington.

"The local council even offered to mediate. You'd have to ask them why they said no. The fact is we have never ever claimed the history of Enfield FC. We made a conscious decision not to do that."

Dave Bryant, the very first chairman of Enfield Town, recalls the "torrid times" trying to negotiate with Lazarou but says it was ultimately well worth it. "I lost my club in 1999 when they demolished the old ground," says Bryant. "We may have failed to prevent the sale but we raised Enfield's profile. It was very fortuitous that Supporters Direct came into existence at roughly the same time we were trying to develop a strategy and structure. They have helped us a lot though I must admit they were a bit taken aback that we were taking what was then regarded as the nuclear option by starting afresh."

The result of a postal ballot, recalls Bryant, was 9 to 1 in favour of severing links with Enfield FC. "Sometimes, to get your club back, you have to start again and we did it properly. Coming back to Enfield was the most important thing. That's why I'm 100 percent behind the actions of AFC Wimbledon. They are an inspiration in terms of what can be achieved. We had no right to simply take Enfield FC's position in the non-league pyramid but the fans took the view they'd rather watch a team in the borough even if we had to work our way back up through the divisions. Loads and loads people volunteered their services for free, and still do."

Whilst the fan-ownership model is no by means a panacea for success (indeed there are several cases of it being a disaster), Enfield Town, who have over 20 teams in different age groups, is a shining example of what can be achieved. Whilst the chairman still carries considerable sway, the 200-strong Supporters Trust elect the board to make decisions on their behalf. There is no sugar daddy and no one person calls all the shots. "When it comes to key decisions in terms of priorities and day to day running of the club, we listen to different opinions," says Millington.

"This is our third season in this division and we've been at our own ground for three years. The initial outlay on refurbishment was huge but we are seeing the benefits. It's taken that amount of time to learn about the costs involved. We spend wisely and do not go over-budget. It's about gradual progression."

Bryant believes more and more financially troubled clubs, like Hereford United for instance, will ultimately adopt the Enfield Town model. He is immensely proud of Town's pioneering achievement but, he cautions, supporter-owned clubs are often a last resort.

"Sometimes the one owner model works perfectly well. Sometimes it doesn't. We had both sides of the coin at various times at the old club. It's a fantastic achievement for us to have got where we are, with our own ground. When we win, our supporters feel it more intensely than most other fans because they know it is all down to a collective effort."

Source: Courtesy of fcbusiness magazine Issue 82 

Written by Andrew Warshaw

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