100 Owners: Number 88 – Tony Lazarou (Enfield FC )
In November of last year, a non-league football club made its first appearance at its new home ground. This in itself is nothing truly remarkable. After all, football clubs relocating has been a common enough sight over the last quarter of a century or so. For this particular club, though, the move was a special one, bringing, as it did, to an end twelve years of asset-stripping, internecine arguing and a battle to keep senior football alive in a borough on the periphery of London that had become synonymous with one of the best known names in non-league football. In November 2011, senior football returned to Enfield for the first time since 1999, but the name of the club bringing it back wasn’t quite that which more casual observers might have expected.
Enfield FC was originally formed in 1893 as Enfield Spartans, before truncating it’s blame seven years later. The club moved into a new stadium – almost enigmatically called The Stadium, but more commonly known by the main road near which it stood, Southbury Road – in 1936. Developments over the years turned it into an archetypal small English ground, covered at both ends, with a large cover on one side and a seated stand in which was located the changing rooms, bar and offices. It was in the 1960s that the club began to make its name, appearing in the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley four times between 1964 and 1972, winning twice and losing twice. When non-league football began to solidify in the late 1970s, however, the likes of Enfield were left out in the cold. The Alliance Premier League – now the Blue Square Bet Premier – was a league formed between the Southern League and the Northern Premier League, and there was no invitation offered to the largely London and Home Counties based Isthmian League, of which Enfield were members.
Before long, the inclusion of only two divisions below the APL started to look like a misjudgement. The Isthmian League was arguably as strong as the others, but hadn’t been included in non-league football’s brave new world. Moreover, a lack of London-based clubs – Barnet were the only team from the capital initially invited to join the league – meant that the most densely-populated part of the country had only one representative in non-league football’s new jewel in the crown. In 1981, Enfield proved their credentials to play at the highest level of the non-league game by beating Hereford United and Port Vale in the FA Cup on the way to losing a Fourth Round replay against Barnsley by three goals to nil in a match switched to White Hart Lane, having drawn the first match at Oakwell. At the end of the 1980/81 season, Enfield and Dagenham were invited to jump ship from the Isthmian League and join the APL.
In the case of Enfield, the invitation was automatically vindicated. The following season, they finished in second place in the league behind Runcorn and won the FA Trophy at Wembley with a one-nil win against Altrincham. The following year, they lifted the league title and repeated this feat in 1986. Non-league football, however, was changing and its top level would come to leave Enfield behind. With the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation in 1987 came a rebranding of the Alliance Premier League as the GM Vauxhall Conference and a lot of money being spent by clubs that had waited a long time for this opportunity. Enfield won the title in the last year before the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation, but even a further FA Trophy win - a replay win at The Hawthorns against Telford United after a goalless draw at Wembley – could only paper over the cracks. Enfield were relegated back to the Isthmian League in bottom place in the table in 1990.
The years that followed would prove to be difficult for the club. Their return to the Isthmian League saw the club finish in second place three times in their first four years back, before lifting the league trophy in 1995 only to be denied promotion because of concerns over financial irregularities at the club. In 1996, they were pipped to the league title by one goal on goal difference by Hayes. The cups brought a little respite from this disappointment, with Cardiff City, Aldershot and Torquay United being dumped out of the FA Cup and runs to the latter stages of the FA Trophy in 1994 and 1995. The good times, however, were set to come to an end. The club had existed under the patronage of Sir Jules Thorn until his death in 1980 and also under chairman Tom Unwin, but in 1991 the chairmanship of the club had been passed to a London estate agent called Tony Lazarou, who had begun his career a decade and a half earlier working for a local chain of estate agents called Adam Kennedy.
The first link in the chain that would lead to what was to come appeared in 1996, and it came from another sport. Rugby union had recently turned professional after decades of remaining strictly amateur and the according upswing in crowds that came with a significant rebranding of the game meant that some of its senior clubs, who had only very basic facilties, needed to find grounds that could cope with the bigger crowds that came with professionalism. One such club was Saracens RFC, who traditionally played at the Bramley Road ground in nearby Cockfosters. They needed more sophisticated facilities and agreed a ground-share with Enfield. One entire side of the ground was levelled in order to make way for a temporary seated stand, but after just one year Saracens decamped to Watfords Vicarage Road, London the temporary stand came down and Enfield FC was left with a ground which was now struggling to meet ground-grading rules for promotion and a still mounting pile of debt.
By 1999, Southbury Road was gone. Sold to property developers, Enfield played their final home match in the Isthmian League Premier Division against Hendon in the autumn of that year. The club sold its home, however, with no long-term plan in place to return to the borough in place. The club played out a nomadic existence, using six different grounds including St Albans and Ware before, after attempts to get planning permission to redevelop Cheshunt’s ground failed, settling on a long-term ground-share at Boreham Wood FC. The combination of a lack of a new ground, the fact that the small amount of money that had been salvaged from the sale of the ground – £750,000 – was now in the hands of Lazarou, who had threatened legal action against the council if they didn’t pay it to him and the breakdown of talks that were supposed to pass ownership of the club to the supporters meant that drastic action was now required.
The clubs supporters had set up a trust with the guidance of Supporters Direct at the turn of the century. The trust appeared to have seemed to have managed some sort of progress towards wresting control of it from Lazarou by the start of 2001 when it brokered a deal with Lazarou that would have allowed him to walk away with £600,000 of the £750,000 that still sat in the bank (which was nowhere near enough money to pay for the building of a new ground, of course) in return for relinquishing control of the club to them and clearing its debts. Even though the council maintained that it was only on condition that he found a new ground, however, Lazarou claimed the rights to a retail unit on the old site that he had been promised as part of the ground sale, and the deal collapsed. By the summer of 2001, push had come to shove and the supporters of the club voted on something that would change the face of football in England forever. In June of that year, the trusts membership voted by 263 to 34 to break away and form their own club. In that one moment, Enfield Town Football Club – and the very notion that protesting supporters could take protesting against an incumbent chairman to another level in starting anew – was born.
The new club joined the Essex Senior League and moved to Goldsdown Road, the home of nearby Brimsdown Rovers, but it needed to find a home of its own, and a site at the QE2 Athletics Stadium, barely half a mile from the site of the old Southbury Road ground, was identified as being potentially ideal for it. Enfield FC, meanwhile, struggled along until 2007 before collapsing into liquidation with tax debts reported to be at around £200,000 but, in spite of efforts from Towns trust board to attempt to reconcile with the few that had opted to stay with the old club, a new club called Enfield (1893) was formed. In October 2008, the local council finally agreed to allow work to start on the dilapidated athletics stadium. Progress, however, was glacially slow and Enfield Town had to – somewhat ironically – play a season at Cheshunt before the it was ready. Enfield (1893), meanwhile, ended up as beneficiaries of Town’s move themselves. When Enfield Town confirmed their move to the QE2, Brimsdown Rovers merged with Enfield (1893), and this club won the Essex Senior League. There was, however, one final sting in the tail for the old – or new, depending on perspective – club. With Town having taken the fixtures and fittings – which they owned – to the QE2, Goldsdown Road no longer met the minimum requirements for a place in the Isthmian League and the club was denied promotion. In November of 2011, Enfield Town FC moved into The QE2 Stadium with a friendly match against a Tottenham Hotspur XI and ended the season getting promoted via the play-offs to the Premier Division of the Isthmian League.
At the time of the split, Lazarou blamed – as many football club owners are wont to do in such circumstances – the council for its lack of support. A sizeable proportion of the clubs revenue came from a club built into the ground called The Starlight Rooms which was built into one corner of the ground. By the 1990s, however, the notion of what people expected from a nightclub had changed almost beyond recognition and the redevelopment of an industrial site near the ground which included the building of a very large and very modern nightclub just a couple of hundred yards from Southbury Road was considered by some to be a nail in the clubs coffin. Whether the decision to sell the ground with no plans in place for a replacement was a straightforward act of asset stripping or mere incompetence, however, is a question that is difficult to answer beyond doubt at this remove, but there can be little question that at the very least a successive string of ill thought out decisions brought about the demise of this club. Still, though, questions remain. Why did the council back down so quickly when threatened with legal action over the remaining money from the sale of the ground? Why did Lazarou renege on the deal to hand ownership of the club over to the supporters trust when every asset that could be wrung from the club had gone?
The long-term ramifications of his actions are, more than ten years on, obvious. Divisions created between supporters which have never healed and the progress of both clubs after 2001 was hamstrung by having two clubs in the same area in competition with each other. In the summer of 2011, however, the battle may be over. Enfield 1893, now merged with Brimsdown Rovers, continue to play in the Essex Senior League in front of crowds that just about reach into three figures. The spirit and soul of the club, however, moved to the QE2 Stadium with Enfield Town. At the opening match last year were dozens of former players, coaches and managers, reminiscing about those days at Wembley and The Hawthorns. It was a powerful show of the extent to which so many consider the Towners to be the true continuation of the spirit of Enfield FC.
In a broader sense, the vote taken by the membership of the supporters trust in June 2001 had further reaching consequences than anyone may have realised at the time. It would be stretching credulity somewhat to suggest that the subsequent higher profile breakaway clubs formed at Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester or Chester FC – for example – wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened without the trail blazed by Enfield Town, but the events of the summer of 2001 confirmed that it was possible for supporters to go it alone if unhappy enough with the direction that their club has taken. At that time, supporters of the club were taking a leap into the unknown and, whilst their success on the pitch has been more modest than elsewhere, that their club still exists eleven years on and plays at a ground which provides it with a firm base for the future is perhaps a more significant success than anything that the club could realistically have achieved on the pitch. As such, the story of Tony Lazarou isn’t even really the story of Tony Lazarou at all. He is but a mere pock mark on the face of the history of non-league football. It was the decisions that were taken as a result of his actions that ended up being so important in the story of the development of the supporters ownership of football clubs in Britain.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.