The new season continues to loom large on the horizon, and pre-season friendlies are a chance for clubs to try out their new signings ahead of the season proper starting. Non-League Day’s Mike Bayly went to see two clubs from the bottom of football’s food chain in their preparations for the new season.
The London Borough of Haringey was recently named as the thirteenth most deprived area in England. Many of its residents eke out an existence on benefits, in a district plagued by gang problems and violent crime. A few years ago, a local councillor took up the case of an elderly disabled woman whose council owned property had remained virtually untouched since the 1940s; despite promises from the local authorities, she had spent years without a bathroom in the flat. It is unknown how many other properties in the area have witnessed the same neglect.
Haringey’s most impoverished area is usually reckoned to be Northumberland Park, near Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground, which has the highest proportion of working age adults claiming out of work benefits of any ward in London. It is a stark contrast to the opulence seeping through the cracks of Spurs’ skyline dominating stadium, which draws – or certainly drew – its fan base from this poverty stricken borough. Over the last two seasons, the club have spent over £100M on transfer fees coupled with an annual wage bill of around £60M. Ticket prices for category ‘A’ games can range from £47-£80 and the cheapest adult season tickets are around £650, assuming availability: the current waiting list is rumoured to be around 30,000 people long.
Before a move to the Olympic stadium was mooted, Spurs were on the brink of starting the largest, private-sector led regeneration project in decades, in one of the poorest areas of the county: a new stadium, new homes, new supermarket and new hotel would have bought a number of commercial opportunities to a decaying area. The Stratford bid – fuelled by escalating project costs of the original Haringey redevelopment plan – incensed local people, arguing the club were deserting their heritage and social responsibility. Now with the Stratford bid lost, Spurs have turned to the Government’s Regional Growth Fund for the Northumberland Park Project to build a 56,000-seater stadium in north Tottenham. “It would directly create thousands of new private sector jobs, attract millions of pounds of additional expenditure in the local economy and lever further private sector investment into the area” advised chairman Daniel Levy, though one wonders if such matters of social conscience would be paramount had Spurs been successful in their move away from the area.
Haringey is considered the most financially disparate borough in London, so it is fitting that just a mile down the road from the lavishness of White Hart Lane sits the decrepit and rusting Coles Park, home to Haringey Borough FC of the Spartan South Midlands League. It was not until 1970 that a team played under the name of Haringey Borough when Wood Green Town – who had played at Coles Park since 1930 – changed their name to Haringey Borough while playing in Intermediate football. However, the roots of the club go back even further to 1907 when Tufnell Park FC were formed and played in various local leagues, reaching the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1920.
Today’s match was a pre-season friendly against local rivals Wingate & Finchley as part of the pre-season warm up. Whereas their guests can boast one of the prettiest grounds in non-league football, Haringey’s Coles Park has the kind of bleak Ken Loach imagery that does little to endear the neutral to the non-league game. Talks are underway to relocate the club to the nearby White Hart Lane Community Sports Centre, which would itself undergo redevelopment, with the current ground demolished and sold off for redevelopment. Borough are leaseholders at their current ground until 2025 and chairman Achilleas Achillea has stated that whilst the club would be open to a move under the relevant assurances, the council has no legal right to force them from Coles Park. “We are legally secure here. We were granted a lease in 2000 which lasts until 2025, so I don’t see how they [the council] could move us, it’s a complete surprise,” he said. “That said, we wouldn’t completely close our minds to a move, subject to upgraded facilities. If it secured our long-term future we would have to consider it.”
Entry to the ground isn’t immediately obvious. An elderly man with a carrier bag of loose change substituted the turnstile, which provided access to one of the more rustic sites of lower league football witnessed in a while. The main stand retains a gritty corrugated charm, and if you look past the aesthetics, affords a very good view of London across to Canary Wharf. The other three sides of the ground are railed off, flanked by housing, garden allotments and the main White Hart Lane road. In the uneven gravel strewn car parking area, two small children hacked at a mole hill in favour of watching the warm up (or as transpired, the entire match) The clubhouse evoked images of desperately underfunded community halls, a hymn to battered stacking chairs and faded notice boards. A TV sat in the corner of the bar, a grey CRT offering that would have been star prize in those halcyon Bullseye days, but now looks hideously dated in the high-definition flat screen world. On a shelf on the wall, a cardboard box of old football programmes sat gathering dust. “Please help yourself” it read on the side. The free sandwiches and homemade cakes were laid out on the table next to us: somewhere a man sat wistfully with a lump in his throat.
Existence is a hand to mouth affair for many non-league clubs and Haringey Borough are at the sharpest of sharp ends; according to one supporter, it is only money generated from car boot sales that pays the club’s basic subsistence costs. The 2011-12 season will also see Haringey & Waltham Development (formally Mauritius sports) ground share at Coles Park which will bring in additional revenue, but presumably nowhere near enough. All youth teams have been withdrawn from competition as of last season, and although it isn’t explicit, you suspect cost to be a major factor.
“Haringey has a community of over 250,000 people but people know nothing about us or just don’t care” commented one supporter, “Spurs would rather pretend we didn’t exist, the press give us very limited coverage and the local council probably want the land for housing. You wonder how much effort it would be for them (Spurs) to make an announcement on the PA at half time telling fans to pop down to our ground if they can’t make an away game, but they never will. Even things like donating their old kit or balls would be a huge help, but they just don’t seem interested”
It is an often quoted accusation that larger clubs should do more to help their non-league brethren. In this case, Spurs are quick to point out they are inundated with such requests and to select one club over another just wouldn’t be fair. As for PA or programme announcements, the response is a little more reserved: “(we will) only promote matches affiliated with the club (e.g. legends teams, Spurs Ladies) or in aid of a charitable cause” Spurs – like many other Premier League clubs – can also point to the huge amount of community work they already do, so in many respects, supporting smaller non-league teams shouldn’t be their responsibility. Moreover, there are a plethora of amateur football clubs in the borough, so why should one with crowds barely over the fifty mark come in for special attention? “We’re the most senior non-league team in the borough and we’ve been around in one form or another for over a century” advised one spirited lady during the half time break “while there are people like me following them week in, week out, we won’t let the club die. The standard of football is good, it’s cheap to get in and everyone is made to feel welcome”
This, above all other things, is perhaps the most salient point. Haringey is a deprived area, and for a large cross-section of local people, watching regular live football at Spurs is simply not an option. Whilst the standard of football at Haringey Borough is clearly inferior, they still compete in the FA Cup and FA Vase, and with ground improvements and a larger supporter base could aim to push on to the Isthmian League. Unfortunately, like so many sides, Haringey Borough are in a catch twenty two; the ground is run down so people are put off going there, but until additional forms of revenue are found, the facilities cannot be improved. Even by ground hopping standards, Coles Park is considered scruffy and underwhelming and the crowd of forty or so here today represented a distinctly hardcore breed of fan. There are myriad agencies across the country providing grants for clubs to improve their stadiums, but one could argue it isn’t enough. There is still a huge disparity of wealth between those at the top and those at the bottom, and the trickle down funding from the Premier League as a percentage of overall revenue is – to put it bluntly – a pittance. Nobody would ever advocate throwing money at smaller clubs in order to pay inflated wages, but funding for basic clubhouse facilities, covered standing areas, youth team development and educational schemes would make a huge difference, especially in areas which have a basic lack of provision and opportunity.
The match – which finished 4-2 to Wingate & Finchley – was almost an inconsequence (the highlight of the game was probably the unfortunate Haringey substitute who had to keep retrieving the ball from the bed of thistles behind the goal) Perhaps I am being mawkish, but it’s hard to come away from visits like these and not be bitter about the way the game is going, and more importantly, where exactly it is heading. Football has never been more affluent, yet the struggle of smaller clubs has never been more acute. Despite this, volunteers across the country turn up in the most adverse of circumstances because they believe local affordable football is worth fighting for. This belief is best embodied by Haringey Borough club secretary John Bacon, who has been with the club since 1953: “I’m of the opinion that football should be played for enjoyment, not as a business. I’m very much the amateur football fan, and always will be.”
And who, aside from the minions of avarice, could argue with that?
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