Dons On The Run
September seems likely to see the closure of yet another famous, old North London football ground, as Hendon FC finally prepare to leave Claremont Road after a protracted battle which has seen the club sail close to the brink of receivership several times. At the time of writing, they still don’t know when the final match there will be (I have seen it written that they are likely to not know that it is the last match there until after it has been played), but there is a silver lining to the story. The club has been threatened with closure for several years, but at least agreement has been reached with its owners and the clubs Supporters Trust for ownership to pass into their hands. One could be forgiven for thinking that this is period of high excitement for them at first glance, since it has been confirmed that they are to groundshare at Wembley, but the truth of the matter is that they are to play at the somewhat humbler surroundings of Vale Farm, the home of Wembley FC, for the time being. Still, last month’s announcement is comparatively good news for a club that has been on the verge of extinction for at least the last five years or so.
At this point, I have to declare an interest. Hendon were, due to my affiliations with Enfield and St Albans City, “rivals”. They were a club of similar size and stature to these two clubs, and have had, at varying points in the past, a local rivalry with both clubs. In the 1960s, they regularly tussled with Enfield at the top of the Isthmian League and, more recently, a friendly rivalry developed with the Saints that was fuelled by the fact that the two clubs grounds were on the same railway out of London, coupled with a bad tempered FA Cup match played between the two clubs in the mid-1980s that still burns brightly in the memories of St Albans supporters of a certain age. Hendon, I had been brought up to believe, were a “big” club. They had won the Isthmian League twice and the FA Amateur Cup in their golden period between 1960 and 1973, and Claremont Road remained as a relic of the club’s happier days. As you can see from this selection of photographs, it retains the sense of scale of the old amateur grounds such as Enfield’s old stadium at Southbury Road and the original Champion Hill stadium in Dulwich, although (and I’ll return to this in a moment) it has been left to rot in recent years. Moreover, from a personal perspective, it was the only football ground that I saw every day. As anyone that gets the train from Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire into London for work will be able to tell you, the Claremont Road floodlights come comfortingly into view near Cricklewood railway station. I can’t be the only person that felt a daily frisson of excitement upon seeing them.
My last visit to Claremont Road was in April 2002. It was possibly the definitive meaningless end of season fixture. Hendon and St Albans City finished the season in ninth and eleventh position respectively. It was on a warm, sunny Thursday evening. It was the sort of match that makes you half wish that you’d taken a disposable barbecue and some sausages to. The match itself is but a blur (it ended in a 1-0 win for Hendon, apparently), but what stuck in my memory was the state of disrepair that Claremont Road. Weeds poked through the gaps in the terracing. Next to the main stand, a huge bush of stinging nettles had flourished. In spite of this, though, it remained, as it does today, an imposing arena. The terracing may be have been crumbling, but the size of the open terrace behind one goal was an indicator of Hendon’s former status. The main stand may have looked like an overgrown potting shed, but it all added to Claremont Road’s sense of character. One suspects that, should Hendon ever get the chance to move home, they won’t have it this good again.
Of course, the problem with non-league football in London is inherent. Small, financially frail clubs that own large, valuable pieces of land are always going to be of interest to unscrupulous property developers, especially in the capital city, where people will happily pay six figure sums just to own a garage. Over the last two decades or so, North London and Middlesex has lost Lower Mead (Wealdstone), Green Pond Road (Walthamstow Avenue), Southbury Road (Enfield), The White Lion (Edgware Town) and Falling Road (Hillingdon Borough), and many of the others that remain seem to be there by the grace of God alone. For Hendon, the Supporters Trust is cautiously optimistic about their future at Vale Farm, even though it is six miles from their current home. Their future may remain uncertain, but at least they have one and that is more than many people might have expected a couple of years ago.