Monday, 6 April 2015

Down Donkey Lane - Enfield Town FC Vs Bognor Regis Town FC, Ryman Premier League, Queen Elizabeth II Stadium (04/04/15)

A short walk down Donkey Lane, EN1, on the outer edge of North London, is the home of England’s first supporter owned football club, who play at the Queen Elizabeth 2nd stadium, Enfield Town FC.

Today is perhaps the first time I can say it is not cold, miserable or raining, or any combination of the three. And although spring is really yet to get going, and it’s still a little overcast, there is a slight breeze, but none of the previous chill that has been present at all our other games so far this year.

This is not my first visit to the Queen Elizabeth 2nd stadium, but it is the first for footballing reasons. My only previous visit was to attend a wedding reception in the function room on the first floor of the main stand, originally built in the 1930’s, redeveloped in 2011, but without losing any of its Art Deco charm. It’s all glass fronted, and white paint with a rotund feature at one end, which contains the spiral stair case from the ground to the first floor, with “CafĂ©” in large white writing written across it. Along with Fulham and local neighbours Wingate & Finchley it is certainly one of the more memorable stadiums we have come across so far.

£10 (or £6.50 for a medical student friend of mine who was joining us today, and had his student ID with him) to get in, and £2 for a program was once again a more than affordable and acceptable ticket price for an afternoons entertainment.

Once through the turnstile you are greeted by an athletics stadium, modified into a football stadium on match days. The long jump runways and blue tarp covered sandpits are far too tempting for some of the kids in attendance who tear down the runway and jump on top of the sand pit. Due to its duel function the main stands covered seating on the first floor level, has to be two running track widths from the pitch, in front are 3 uncovered sets of steps. On the opposite side is a small covered seated terrace, and at each goal end are two standing terraces, thankfully all within the running track and close to the pitch.

The clubs bar is on the first floor of the main stand and below it is the club shop, a shutter covered hole in the wall selling kit-kats and match day programs, and reminiscent of a school tuck shop.
Due to the distance of the main stand from the pitch, and thanks to the recommendation of some people on Twitter, we were advised to take up position behind whichever goal Enfield were attacking, as this would be where the “Enfield Ultras” would be, and the ideal place to enjoy the match and the atmosphere they create.

The word Ultras creates a negative image for most football fans, they instantly think of Italian hooligans, with flares and covered faces, trying to stab you in the bum, but from the little time we have spent exploring lower league football in England and across the world, this could not be further from the truth. In the case of Enfield, and many others I have come across, it has been reclaimed and is used in only a positive way, by groups of ultra-fanatical supporters, who have banded together to sing, and support their team, and reject the old stereotypes of violence, homophobia and racism traditionally associated with Ultra groups.

The teams enter the pitch on the opposite corner of the field to us, Enfield Town (ET) in blue and white and today’s opponents, Bognor Regis Town FC (BR) in yellow and navy. ET are still very much in the hunt for promotion and sit in 5th place, the last playoff position in the Ryman League Premier. There is a pack of eight teams behind them, including today’s opponents, and only five points separating them all, today would be a vital three points over one of their fellow play off hunters.

The teams shake hands, and do the customary huddle, and then to the annoyance of some supporters around us ET lose the toss and have to swap ends. This results in a mass exodus from one end of the ground to the other, like something from a scene out of the Ten Commandments. We are a bit slow on the uptake and stay at the end ET are defending, with the BR fans as the game kicks off.

The first half was made up of half chances for each side, but nothing of any real note. The “Made in Essex” look-a-like number 6 for BR, with his tan fresh out of a bottle, piece of string to contain his flowing hair, and  shouts of “play it” to his goal keeper and fellow defenders, had us more than captivated. As well as the wonderfully bearded linesman, who was like an extra out of a Hoxton/Shoreditch pop-up cereal bar.  The BR fans, few in number, made up for their low numbers with plenty of singing, probably our favourite, was when prompted by the ET Ultras to sing them a song, they responded with, “oh Bognor Town, is wonderful, oh Bognor Town is wonderful, it's full of tits, fanny and Butlin’s, oh Bognor a Town is wonderful”.

We did not stay where we were for long, as the constant banging of the drum, invoked something within us, like something from Jumanji, and beckoned us like an ancient call. From the opposite end they were making a good racket, “COME ON TOWNERS”, “WE LOVE YOU ENFIELD WE DO”, tightly packed into the covered terrace behind the goal, and were even more impressive up close.
The first half finished 0-0, and was fair considering each teams real inability to take advantage of the few half chances they had. The only real stand out as far as the football was concerned was the work of number 7 and 9 for ET, both showing a great turn of pace and touch, and number 9 just shading it as the best player of the first half.

We made our way to the bar at half time, a huge ET flag, as big as one storey hung from the main stand, and people stood on the balcony enjoying their drink, and looking like they were enjoying the view on a cruise liner. As we enjoy are pint, we both comment on the real family feel the crowd has, lots of kids entertain themselves with a kick about during the break, and there is a genuine feeling of community permeating from the crowd.

As the teams come back on to the pitch for the second half, the ball boys in reds bibs, hang around the entrance to the pitch, and high five the oncoming ET players, who are more than willing to oblige their outstretched hands.

During the second half, something happens that I suppose can only happen in the lower leagues, the fans swap ends again, ensuring they see their teams score, and in the second half, ET reward their fans change of ends with two goals from their number 9, Corey Whitely.

His first is thanks to great pace on the left wing a chipped cross, in to the box and his pace takes him away from the BR defender, and he meets it perfectly with his head, 1–0. His second not long after, is due mainly to the perseverance and determination of his team mate. A long punt down field by the ET keeper, looked destined to go out, and that seemed to be the opinion of the BR player, who instead of ushering the ball out of play, eases up, unlike the ET player who manages to get a foot around the ball, and hook it back into the box, to the perfectly placed ET number 9. His first shot is blocked, but the rebound falls perfectly at his feet on the edge of the six yard box, and on his second attempt, scores to make it 2–0.

The team celebrate a few feet in front of us, and his team mates drag Corey Whitely to the ground,  completely out of site. The players slowly peel themselves off, and I catch the look on the face of Whitley, it’s one of joy for getting his second goal, but also one of someone who has just had seven or more fully grown men on top of him, and it had been perhaps a far from enjoyable experience.
and all jump on top, and as well as some of the subs, create a perfect mound, with Whitely

None the less, and regardless of the traumatic goal celebration, his good work would put the game out of reach of BR, who were pretty toothless in the second half, and would score the all important play off pushing 3 points. ET went in search of more goals, had chances but were not clinical enough.

The goals only encouraged the Ultras to bang the drum harder and sing louder, and continue as they had in the first half, all the way to the final whistle, “OH WHEN THE TOWN GO STEAMING IN”.
On the final whistle there is a noticeable level of excitement, and it’s clear the fans around us, feel there is a real chance of playoff football. Even the linesmen & opposition substitute heckler near us, an older gent in black sun glasses who took exception to the linesmen, and shouted amongst many other things, “you bearded w**ker” at a correct off side call, and who could be heard saying to the BR subs as they warmed up towards the end of the game, “you ain’t coming on, give up you lost”, even this cheery soul was happy on the final whistle.

Something I take real pleasure in, and have noticed at clubs who have a hard-core section of support, is the players coming over and applauding them specifically, and ET were no different. As the players made their way over to the Ultras, they started to sing “WE ARE GOING UP” and “BY FAR THE GREATEST TEAM THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN”. It reinforced to me that be it the Bundesliga or the Ryman Premier, the players appreciate, and are motivated by the noise and support of the fans.

ET have created a blue print, that if they had not we would perhaps not have teams like AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester. Clubs run by fans, who for one reason or another, either the franchising of their club or taking exception to the way the owners are running it, just like ET. I can imagine not so long ago, it was a worrying time for ET fans, leaving their home of Southbury Road in 1999, and living a nomadic lifestyle until relocating back near their spiritual home in 2011, and thriving ever since.

The Ultras did a fantastic job in singing from beginning to end, their enthusiasm and passion is just what you want to see, at every level of football, and is the most exciting thing we see on our travels. Local fans with a love for their local team, and they are not afraid to let you know about it, and as it says on their Twitter profile @etfc_ultras, “football without fans is nothing”

Today’s crowd was by far the largest crowd at a non- league side we had visited so far, and had a very
welcoming atmosphere. Their star player of the day, is a product of the youth set up, and with such a large local catchment area, I hope they are able to nurture the local talent that is so crucial at this level.

Local talent and fans are the corner stone of this club, as has been the case at most of the teams we have visited so far, and it’s important to us to do what we can to highlight and promote this the best we can, as Enfield Town say themselves, Our Club, Our Community.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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