The end of season play-offs are both exhilarating and exhausting. For the clubs that finish in places just below the automatic promotion places, everything comes down those two or three matches at the end of the season and they come so quickly after the end of the normal league season that the work that has gone into securing a place just above that dotted line can feel as if it has come and gone all too quickly. This season, the Ryman League – long since shorn of its original, ancient Greek-inspired name, the Isthmian League – has run into difficulties with its end of season matches, with the weather upsetting the end of the domestic season, and nowhere was this more evident than in Division One North of this league.
With two matches of the season, it had seemed as if the title race in the Ryman League Division One North was more or less over. Second placed Enfield Town were at home against Leiston, the league leaders, and the match was petering out to the goalless draw that would be enough to crown Leiston as the champions. A penalty kick two minutes into injury time for Enfield postponed that coronation until the last match of the season, but the weather threw a spanner into the works with torrential rain leading to the cancellation of Leiston’s final match of the season against Potters Bar Town. With a 3-0 win at Grays Athletic, Enfield led the league for three full days before Leiston got their match scheduled and won their game by six goals to nil and consigned them to the play-offs.
This meant that the tight schedules that come with the end of the season were thrown up in the air. Last Thursday night, Enfield took on Grays Athletic for the second time in five days. Things were looking comfortable with them leading by two goals to nil with ten minutes to play, before Grays fought their way back into the match and force it into extra-time and to a penalty shoot-out. Enfield won this by three goals to one, and the following evening their opponents in the final were decided when Needham Market beat Tilbury after extra time to secure the other place in Sunday’s play-off final.
It was, perhaps, appropriate that the end of the season in this division should come to the played at The QE2 Stadium. Enfield Town moved into their new home after ten years at the end of last year. It was a move that had been a long time coming, and was a very special one for those that followed the club’s formation, a mass walk-out of supporters frustrated by the sale of Enfield FC’s Southbury Road ground in 1999 and its subsequent lack of a replacement. It would be a template for a different way of running a football club that could come to be commonplace elsewhere. After years of ground-sharing at nearby Brimsdown, the move to a once-dilapidated former athletic track just a stone’s throw from their old home proved to be, perhaps, the beginning of a renaissance. With crowds on the up, a league championship at the end of their first season at their new home was a step too far. The play-offs, however, would a chance to end the season on a high.
So it was that on Sunday afternoon, a crowd of over 800 people – a new record for the new ground for a competitive match – turned out in the drizzling North London rain as the Towners sought to resume an upward trajectory that has become rather unstuck in recent years. With the end of the season now upon us and both teams having played a full match and extra-time within seventy-two hours of kick-off, this was always likely to be a match that would be light on brilliance and considerably more dependent upon a bit of luck and a positive reaction to the pressures of the day.
Enfield started strongly, and took just seventeen minutes to grab the lead, when a looping cross from Adam Wallace was headed in by the impressive Walid Matata. Enfield continued to dominate possession, but failed to increase their lead and shortly before half-time when Deakin Napier broke through for Needham Market and seemed to be knocked over by the onrushing veteran Enfield goalkeeper Noel Imber. On this occasion, however, the referee’s whistle didn’t blow and the visitors were denied a golden opportunity to equalise. Mid-way through the second half, Enfield used up another get out of jail fee card when Imber saved smartly from Deakin Napier, and the follow-up was converted by Rhys Barber, only for the linesman’s flag to rise for offside and deny Needham a goal.
With this chance, perhaps, Needham’s opportunity to drag themselves back into the match came and went, and chances to score became thin on the ground as legs started to tire in the closing stages. At the full-time whistle, a celebratory pitch invasion marked the beginning of celebrations that would go on for long into the evening. For all that Needham Market were hard done by with the whistles that didn’t go their way, it was difficult to begrudge an Enfield team that had finished comfortably clear of the chasing pack in second place in the table their promotion, especially when we stop to consider how close they had come to lifting the league title at the end of this season in the first place.
It is to be hoped that the bigger crowd tempted along yesterday afternoon might have found their affection for this club rekindled by this success. The Ryman League Premier Division will provide considerably greater challenges for the club next season, but the feeling that progress is being made at Enfield Town after a period of stasis that has been ongoing for several years. Thirty years ago this month, Enfield FC was completing its first season in what we now know as the Football Conference second place in the table. They would follow this up the following year by winning it. In the same month, they defeated Altrincham 1-0 to win their first FA Trophy at Wembley. Those glory days seem like a long time ago, and the face of non-league football has changed so much the intervening three decades that they may never return. With Sunday’s win, however, another small step on the way to the top for this unique club was achieved. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a start.
Highlights of Sunday’s match between Enfield Town and Needham Market are available, courtesy of The Cold End, here:
There is a small selection of photographs from Sunday afternoon’s match between Enfield Town and Needham Market here.
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