Looking at the average attendance tables for the Ryman League Division One North doesn’t make for especially happy reading if you are interested in the well-being of the non league game in North-East London. The four smallest clubs in the division are all from that particular neck of the woods, with Ilford, Waltham Forest, Redbridge and Leyton all struggling to break into three figures for their home matches. The obvious question to ask at this point is how they keep going, and the reasonable answer to this is that they it with enormous difficulty, and with the considerable support of extremely dedicated volunteers. The truth of the matter, however, is that survival for these clubs has been an uphill battle for decades.
Leyton Football Club is, after Cray Wanderers, the second oldest football club in Greater London. They were founded in 1868, and have spent the vast majority of the last 140 years playing in the not inconsiderable shadow of the likes of Leyton Orient, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur. There were occasional successful times amongst the bread and butter years of ekeing out their own survival. They won the FA Amateur Cup in 1927 and 1928, and were regular winners of the Athenian Football League before being elected into the Isthmian League in 1982. The club had merged to become known as Leyton-Wingate in 1975, but the marriage of convenience wasn’t to last. The club demerged in 1992, and the club returned to its original name three years later.
It took a High Court case in 2002 for the club to be officially recognised as the continuation of the original club. By this time, the club had dropped back into the Essex senior League, but they were promoted back into the Ryman League under the managership and chairmanship of Costas Sophocleous and were, against the odds successful. In 2005, they finished in fifth place in the Ryman League Premier Division and found themselves ninety minutes from a place in the Conference South in the play-offs, before losing to Eastleigh. Off the field, however, their survival remained an uphill battle. Their crowds average just 123 during that season, and an increase to 137 the following season was skewed upwards by a visit from AFC Wimbledon. Last season, they finished bottom of the Ryman Premier Division and were victim to some horrendous results, including an 11-1 home defeat at the hands of Hendon and a 9-0 defeat at AFC Hornchurch.
This season, with no discernable away support to boost their home crowds, gates have fallen by a further forty per cent, to an average of just 64. They have been reasonably successful on the pitch, and are currently sitting in seventh place in the Ryman League Division One North. However, the extent of the financial problems that they face came into sharp focus at the end of last week, when they were forced to postpone their home league match against Redbridge because they had been locked out of their Hare & Hounds stadium by their landlords after failing to pay their rent. The money has now reportedly been paid, but one cannot help but wonder whether a club can remain sustainable of gate receipts of around £500 per fortnight. There may well be more to the current goings-on at Leyton than meet the eye but, whichever way one looks at these events, they hardly paint a healthy picture of grassroots football in this part of the world.
As has been reported on here before, non-league football in North-East London has given the impression of being in a perpetual state of crisis for at least thirty years now, whether demonstrated by the debacle that was the mergers of Leytonstone, Ilford, Walthamstow Avenue and Dagenham into Dagenham & Redbridge (and it’s worth remembering that, in spite of the Daggers’ comparative success, they remain one of the worst supported clubs in League Two), the sad decline of Clapton FC (five time winners of the FA Amateur Cup, who now play home matches in front of 25 people in the Essex Senior League) or the current woes affecting Leyton. The responsibilty for the wellbeing of Leyton FC ultimately lies with the community within which it is a member. Does the club involve itself in and engage with its local community? Should Leyton seek to associate themselves with one of the bigger clubs in the area? Leyton Football Club is a club with a wonderful, expansive history, and the club should seek to assert its ties with its neighbours before it is too late, and yet another non-league club is consigned to the history books.