Leyton FC’s Unfathomable Past, Unsustainable Present & Uncertain Future
The easy option would be to say that the resignation of Leyton FC from Division One North of the Ryman League brings to an end the story of London’s second-oldest senior football club, but nothing in the history of this particular club has ever been as straightforward as we might expect it to be. The story of this particular club (or the several that have played under its name) is an extraordinary story that has taken in four reformations, a trip to the High Court over a dispute regarding the right to claim the club’s expansive history and a VAT fraud case that imprisoned the club’s chairman.
What is not in doubt is that the original Leyton FC was founded in 1868. Crisis of some sort or other seems to have been a recurring theme of the history of the club, with it having been disbanded in the late 1890s, 1911 and 1914, but it was the incarnation that played in the Athenian League from the 1920s on that hit the purple patch in the clubs history, winning the league in 1929 and the FA Amateur Cup in 1927 and 1928. After another briefly successful period in the mid-1960s – they won the Athenian League again in 1966 and 1967 – they merged with the Jewish club Wingate FC, and played as Leyton-Wingate until 1992 before merging again, this time with local club Walthamstow Pennant to form Leyton-Pennant.
Again, the merger didn’t work out and a new Leyton FC (changing its name from Leyton Sports FC after a year ) was formed and moved back from Pennant’s Wadham Lodge to Lea Bridge Road in 1997. Both clubs, however, laid claim to the lavish history of the original Leyton FC, and the matter ended up going before the High Court in 2002. The court decision was pretty clear-cut, as laid out in this statement from Leyton’s solicitors, Richard West Freeman Christofi:
Please note that by Order of the High Court Chancery Division dated 26 July 2002, in an action brought against Leyton Pennant Football Club and the Football Association, Leyton Football Club (now incorporated as a Limited Company) of Wingate Stadium Lea Bridge Road Leyton has effectively been restored as Leyton Football Club, the unincorporated club formed in 1868; has had its membership to the FA restored; has had its history dating back to 1868 restored and the order also requires Leyton Pennant to refrain in any way from holding itself out to being Leyton Football Club.
But with this story, as with so many others in the history of Leyton FC, there was more to this than met the eye. Most people looking back at the time-line of football in Leyton would have felt that either the original Leyton FC ceased to exist with any of the previous clubs’ disbandments, mergers or de-mergers, or that Pennant, if anybody, were the true heirs to this history. It has also been noted that Leyton FC may have won their case primarily because Leyton-Pennant could afford to go fight the case. They changed their name to Waltham Forest FC in 2003 and have been playing under it ever since.
With the history of the club returned to their name, Leyton FC had another brief period of success, and surged up from the Essex Intermediate League (now known as the Essex Olimpian League) to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League between 1999 and 2004. Indeed, in 2005, they finished in fifth place in the Isthmian League, missing out on promotion to the Blue Square South in losing to Eastleigh in a play-off match. Since then, though, the club’s collapse has been spectacular. They were relegated in 2008 and only managed to maintain their place in the Isthmian League at the end of last season because of dissolutions and demotions above them after having finished in the relegation places.
Off the pitch, things were not going any better. Even during their successful 2004/05 season, crowds only averaged 123 and, by the 2008/09 season these had almost halved to an average of just 64. The successful years in the history of the club had been bankrolled by Costas Sophocleous, and his family had (and, as we will find out later, may still have) considerable influence over them. Not only was Sophocleous the chairman, but he also managed the team for two seasons and had his son, Mark, play for the club. Many unsavoury rumours spread concerning how the club was managing to keep itself afloat, but Costas’ time at Lea Bridge Road ended somewhat abruptly in January of last year.
Sophocleous, it turned out, had attracted the attention of HMRC over the business dealings of his company, Eastway Construction. HMRC established that, since 1996, Eastway (who had also sponsored the Essex Senior League for a while) had been falsely submitting VAT returns for work on houses that the company had nothing to do with the construction of. The total amount understood to have been netted by this fraud was in the region of £16m, of which £9m found its way to Sophocleous himself. This money had partly paid for a refurbishment of the E10 bar and cabaret club at Leyton’s Lea Bridge Road ground and it was also reported that Mark, his son, had been on a wage of £1,000 per week while playing for the club. Sophocleous was sentenced to eight years and three months in prison for his part in the fraud, along with his business partner Philip Foster and their accountant, Stewart Collins. Sophocleous’ wife Alison and his son Mark were both cleared of the money laundering charges that they faced but, in his summing up, Judge Edmonds said of Sophocleous:
I am satisfied that the prosecution are right to treat you as the driving force behind these frauds, whatever parts others may have played. These frauds enabled you to shrug aside a previous bankruptcy and live a life of some luxury and with the indulgence of your own football club. You have in my mind the typical characteristics of the fraudster – apparently unable to make a success of a legitimate business you turned to fraud.
With Sophocleous in prison, Tony Hardy took over the running of the club as chairman, but with Leyton bottom of the Ryman League Division One North for most of this season, the club’s future had an a doomed air hanging over it from the opening kick of the 2010/11 season. The club was suspended by the Ryman League last week after failing to pay its registration fee, leading to the departure of the entire playing squad, Hardy himself, manager Gordon Boateng and club secretary Steve Bellanoff and, on Friday, Leyton FC emailed its resignation to the league. The final irony for the club was that the resignation was sent by one Louise Sophocleous, who had been appointed as a director of the club on the 1st of March 2010, just over a month after Costas Sophacleous was sent to prison.
Leyton’s record for this season will be expunged from the record, but it is worth pointing out that they have not quite folded yet. We will have and see whether they restart next season, perhaps in the Essex Senior League or in the Essex Olimpian League – the club itself has stated that their under-18 team will continue for the rest of the season, which may indicate that the club will re-group – but, as the club’s public statement on the matter confirmed, “The future of the club is up in the air and only time will tell what the outcome will be but with no football being played it doesn’t look good”. Waltham Forest, meanwhile, have also had their fair share of difficulties over the last few seasons. The club was forced to leave Wadham Lodge during the 2007/08 season and had been ground-sharing at Ilford, but they are due to be returning to Wadham Lodge any time now.
It is somewhat ironic that Leyton FC’s last match of the season ended in a 1-0 defeat against Waltham Forest on the 8th of January. The crowd for the match was recorded as just 45 people, and this in itself tells us much about the problems that clubs in this area face. Football – particularly lower level senior non-league football – has been over-saturated East and North-East London for a long time. This factor, combined with the enforced ground-sharing and the fact that the political machinations behind the clubs concerned make even studying the past of them almost as much of a test as mathematical skills as of history, means that perhaps the biggest question facing clubs such as Waltham Forest is whether the will is actually there for them to grow and flourish.
Perhap, just perhaps, it could be. One of Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham United will move into the Olympic Stadium, a stone’s throw from Leyton’s old ground, in several years time, and Barry Hearn seems to be continuing to agitate for Leyton Orient to move out of London to Essex, to whence many of his club’s supporters have migrated over the years. Perhaps there is a chance for a new, community-based club to start afresh in Leyton’s ground from next season, determined to ensure that the near perpetual chaos that has involved football in this part of the world for more than three decades will never darken its door again. Or perhaps a “new” Leyton FC will just start next season, a division or three lower, continuing to attract crowds of two figures and doomed to, at best, repeat the mistakes of the past. It may be time for some lateral thinking, if the name of Leyton FC is to take on any revised meaning in this new century.
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