Several miles north of White Hart Lane, and a couple further still from the great glassy oval of the Emirates, there is a small football ground tucked away among the bushes and the trees. Instantly recognisable by its art-deco pavilion, the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium is without doubt one of the most unique grounds in London, though it is largely unknown among the thousands of fans who sport the colours of Arsenal and Spurs each weekend. Walking to the stadium from the direction of the local high street, one has to cross the green expanse of Enfield playing fields, a mish-mash of football and rugby pitches that sprawls out behind a facade of semi-detached houses. It would be easy to pass by without ever realising there was a huge swathe of grassy parkland nearby, not to mention a football club that is of major significance to the English game.
The old Enfield FC was a notable club in its own right, having amassed pretty much all the non-league honours available during its seventies and eighties heyday. Previously a giant of amateur football, they won 11 league titles between 1960 and 1990, being named champions of the Isthmian League on seven occasions, the Athenian League twice, and even winning the Conference in 1982-83 and 1985-86. Though the amateur era officially ended in the early seventies, Enfield initially managed to ride the wave of semi-professionalism, earning a spate of minor trophies and even grabbing national headlines with a series of high-profile FA Cup upsets. Though they never gained entry to the Football League, they were a well known and well regarded team who played some of the best football below the top four tiers.
Unfortunately, Enfield's fortunes went emphatically south in the mid-to-late nineties. Though they had already been runners-up in the Isthmian League three times that decade, they soon found themselves in a difficult financial situation that belied their strong showings on the pitch. In 1991, an estate agent named Tony Lazarou became chairman of the club, and his time in charge came to represent a period of internal strife, acrimony and perilous instability. While Enfield managed to win the league in 1994-95, they were denied promotion back to the Conference on account of their precarious financial circumstances. Come 1999, the ground they had occupied since the 1930s, Southbury Road, was sold off for redevelopment, and so Enfield became a nomad club with no real future and barely even a modicum of hope.
It was not long after this, as the club was forced into groundshares with various clubs in Hertfordshire before ending up stranded in Borehamwood, that fans decided to take matters into their own hands. As Lazarou and Enfield Council wrangled over who was responsible for the disastrous handling of the Southbury Road move, not to mention the proceeds of the sale, Enfield fans set up a Supporters' Trust with the help of Supporters Direct, then a young organisation that had been established on the recommendation of New Labour's Football Task Force. With the situation looking bleak for Enfield and many fans disgusted by Lazarou's behaviour – not least when he stalled on last-ditch talks to hand the running of the club over to the supporters – it was decided that the Trust should ballot its members on breaking away and forming a successor club. The motion was passed by an emphatic margin, and so in the summer of 2001 the new Enfield Town FC was formed.
When Town came to contest their inaugural season in the Essex Senior League, they did so as England's first fully fan-owned club. While Chesterfield were technically the first club to pass into the ownership of a Supporters' Trust several months previous, that was really an emergency measure which – owing to various practical concerns to do with the Spireites' own financial crisis – was only ever going to be qualified and short-lived. Town, meanwhile, were a team run entirely by and for their supporters, with the fan ownership model in place for the long term. Initially setting up a groundshare at the nearby home of Brimsdown Rovers, the most pressing task for the Town hierarchy was to locate a suitable ground in Enfield and move back to the area that gave the club its name.
So it was that Town came to reside at the QEII, a derelict athletics stadium which they refurbished and repaired with the help of the council and a grant from the Football Stadia Improvement Fund. The deal for the ground was secured in 2008, though Town weren't able to actually move to their new home until November 2011, with several months' tenure at the home ground of Cheshunt FC in the interim. When they did finally settle in at the QEII, they found that they had come full circle in their first decade of existence. Only a stone's throw from Enfield FC's former home at Southbury Road, Town could proudly claim to have kept the spirit of the old club alive.
While Enfield FC struggled on after Town and its supporters broke away in 2001, the old club was liquidated in 2007 owing to unmanageable debts. Tony Lazarou had jumped ship by that point, marking the ignominious end of his involvement in the sad and sorry affair. In what may seem like a strange decision from an outside perspective, the small band of purists who had remained with the old club decided to form their own phoenix club, Enfield 1893. Though attempts were made on behalf of Town to reach out and organise a reunification of the two clubs, these were rebuffed, with the legacy of the two clubs' initial schism perhaps understandably a source of angst for some.
While Enfield 1893 now play in the Essex Senior League and share a ground with Harlow Town, their cousins at the QEII long ago left the ninth tier behind. Enfield Town have chosen not to lay claim to the old side's history even if they maintain that they have preserved the essence of the club, meaning that Enfield 1893 are the technical heirs to the original Enfield FC. That said, only one of Enfield FC's successors can claim to play in the local borough, or North London for that matter. Likewise, Town are by far the best supported club and regularly draw crowds of around 800, a relatively impressive attendance at their level. The QEII has played host to Ryman League football for five consecutive seasons, with Town missing out on promotion this year after losing to Dulwich Hamlet in the play-off semi-final.
If their relationship with the old club and Enfield 1893 seems somewhat tortuous and tangled, the significance of Enfield Town should be restated in the simplest possible terms. As the first fully fan-owned club in English football, they served as a test case for Supporters Direct and pioneered the fan ownership model now widely used in the lower leagues. Before there was AFC Wimbledon, before there was FC United of Manchester, there was Enfield Town, and they too have thrived under the leadership of an empowered fanbase. In striking out on their own back in 2001, Town set a precedent for a new form of ownership that has done much to encourage democracy, transparency and community values in the lower echelons of the game.
The principle of fan ownership seems to permeate pretty much everything at the QEII, which is another part of what makes it such a unique and prepossessing stadium. From the turnstiles to the groundsmen to the matchday stewards, the club is run on a volunteer basis. Everyone at Enfield Town seems to know each other, and there is no impression of cliqueness at the club. Fans mingle with directors and club officials in the bar, while kids play on and around the running track that loops its way around the pitch, sporadically opting to watch the football. Only a hundred yards from the turnstiles, amateur teams contest seven-a-side matches on public pitches in the shade of the trees.
Despite the presence of an athletics track – so often a blight on stadium ambience – the matchday atmosphere at the QEII is generally excellent. Not only do Town get supporters in numbers, they also seem to have a younger fanbase than the majority of Ryman League clubs, something that certainly sets them apart from the sleepier sides in Surrey and Suffolk. Things are often raucous at the covered ends of the pitch, with a hardcore group of fans serving as a dedicated orchestra and serving up their take on non-league ultra culture to a leafy, suburban backdrop. With Town still renowned for playing ambitious and entertaining football, the club is a hidden gem with many facets to its appeal.
In agreement on this point is Ken Brazier, a director at the QEII and Enfield supporter of several decades standing. He puts a fair amount of stock by the fan ownership model, and the way it has helped shape Town's identity as a dynamic community team. "In terms of supporter ownership, I'd like to think that we were instrumental in proving that it could be done," he tells VICE Sports. "While you have to have realistic ambitions and build gradually from the outset, that's essentially what we've done here. There's a broad desire [among the fans] to get back into the Conference, because that's where the old club were, but I think people are realistic enough to know that somewhere at the top of the Ryman Premier – or one step above that – we'll find our level, though I don't know exactly what that level is."
Ken is pragmatic about the financial limitations of fan ownership, but like many Enfield fans sees the model as valuable in itself. "At the moment it's great that fans can see a winning team at this level, and there's certainly a fantastic vibe about the place," he adds. "Still, I think the majority of supporters, or at least those that are members of the Supporters' Trust, realise that the sky isn't the limit on such a limited and prudent budgeting arrangement. The last thing we want is a big investor as it was with the old club. Having been stung once, there would be a lot of people among the membership who would fight against an investor seeking full control. People are just so delighted that this club still exists, similar in atmosphere to the old club and only a couple of miles down the road, though I'm sure we'll end up having discussions over the ownership model over the next few years.
"The club doesn't make any big decisions without consulting the supporters here, and that's how it should be," Ken goes on. In terms of nurturing their community spirit, the club has reached out to schools in the borough in an attempt to make sure that Town tap into a new generation of fans, while unusually for a club at their level they also have an Enfield Town Ladies and an Enfield Town Disability team. As such, there is a real sense in which a club is being built at the QEII, not as a nostalgic exercise in recreating the old Enfield FC but rather as an entirely new entity with its own outlook. "We don't have the hassle of full-time pro football, where you have to book tickets weeks in advance, they cost the earth and it takes ages to get in and out of the ground," Ken says. "We still live in a world where you can see a decent game, decide to come along on a Saturday afternoon and pay cash on the gate."
In a part of the world otherwise serviced by Arsenal and Tottenham – clubs that lay claim to the dubious honour of having the most expensive season tickets in the country – the non-league ethos at the QEII is especially refreshing. Town fans appreciate this, with many of them harbouring residual loyalties to one or the other of North London's footballing behemoths, though no doubt attracted to Enfield owing to the contrast in the way they treat their supporters. Rather than representing transient customers to a club that is otherwise essentially unanswerable and inscrutable, Town fans are at the heart of the decision-making process at the QEII. The cultural difference to the Premier League is best expressed by Claire Brunton, another longstanding fan of the club. "The fact that the fans own the club is one of the things that makes [Town] so popular, because people really feel that it's a community thing," she says. "I used to have a season ticket at Highbury with my dad, and I'm not sure I'd even go to the Emirates now. Here, the fans run the club, people do have a say in how things are run, the football is a lot more casual and it's £10 to get in."
While all this may seem like non-league romanticism, there are a growing number of people who seem to recognise that there is an alternative to the traditional North London giants, and Premier League football more broadly. "Unless you really are wealthy, you can't go to big games [at Arsenal and Spurs], and often if you want to go with your kids it's impossible to even get tickets," Claire goes on. "I'm here with my daughter, we both love football, and I don't want her being brought up to think that it's a programme on Sky Sports."
This is a common feeling among football fans, whether or not they are already aware of clubs like Enfield Town. While even the most down to earth Premier League clubs were long ago forced to follow the corporate route, there are non-league sides where the communal aspect of English football is alive and well. One of Town's matchday photographers, Tom Scott, has been snapping Enfield teams on and off since the eighties, and has essentially seen the club's death and rebirth through the end of a camera lens. Asked about the changes he has seen at the club in that time, he says: "[In the late nineties] there was a general air of decline, and the club was going nowhere. When people started sounding us out about the idea of starting a new club from scratch, I know I'm not the only one who thought long and hard about it, and wondered: 'Is it going to work? Is it worth it?' When we had our first league game, it felt like there were masses of people there, some of whom had stopped going quite some time before. That was when I realised we'd done the right thing, and that was liberating, I guess."
Gesturing at the QEII and its lush surroundings, Tom says: "We built this all up from what was basically a derelict stadium, and it's going from strength to strength. There's football in Enfield again, there are a lot of young fans here and the older supporters will eventually be replaced, so it's not just a team we're building here – we're building a club." Considering the strength of their community bonds and their status as trailblazers of fan ownership, there are many who will feel a natural affinity with Enfield Town. However much collective effort the fans have to put into the club, it certainly seems worth it to watch football the way it was intended to be.