This piece is the first of a series of articles intended as personal recollections of some of our lost football grounds. Should you wish to contribute to this series, please feel free to email us via the “Contact” page, which is linked at the top of this page. The first piece in this series takes a fond look back at Southbury Road, the late, lamented home of Enfield Football Club.
A couple of years ago I decided, apropos nothing, to take a day out to revisit some of the haunts of my childhood. I took the train out of London from Liverpool Street railway station and spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering through Lower and Upper Edmonton. My train journey ended at Bush Hill Park station. I walked up St Marks Road, a road which seemed so impossibly long when I was nine years old, across Main Avenue, a road that four generations of my family grew up in the sight of, through the estate that I lived in for five years and which replaced the rows of terraces that my grandparents lived most of their adult lives in and across Lincoln Road. I passed the Percival Club, where my father and grandfather had, thirty years apart, both been the snooker champion and up to Southbury Road. If I turned right, I’d end up at the site of what was occasionally known as “The Stadium”, the home of Enfield Football Club. And I couldn’t do it. I turned left, and walked into Enfield Town instead. Sometimes it’s best to just leave those childhood memories as they are.
Southbury Road was the first football ground that I ever watched a match at. I don’t know if the sense of scale was overblown by the distorted sense of scale that came from being six years old when I first went there, but it always felt like a “proper” football ground. By the mid-1980s, the floodlights were towering constructions, peering out from behind the trees that marked the edge of the playing fields that bordered the ground on two sides. As one turned right from Bryn-yr-Mawr Road, the side and back of the main stand seemed massive. The view from inside the stand was sufficiently high to feel like watching the match on “Match of The Day”. We occasionally made visits to other non-league grounds in the area, but few of them felt as much like a “proper” ground – a scaled-down version of a Football League ground – as Southbury Road. There were other idiosyncrasies which, with the benefit of hindsight, might not have been quite as individual as I have made them in my memory: the training goals stacked up in one corner of the stadium, the slowly decaying white hut that sat at the back of one of the terraces behind the goal and the abandoned, boarded up turnstiles in the far corner. I’ve never felt as at home as I did at Southbury Road on a Saturday afternoon.
In purely aesthetic terms, Southbury Road was not perfect, though it was lent a splash of individuality by the liberal amounts of navy blue and white paint everywhere (for a while, even the bases of the goal posts were painted blue), the white picket fence that surrounded the pitch (removed after being used as an impromptu by Lincoln City supporters angered by a 1-0 defeat in an FA Trophy quarter-final match in 1988) and the arrangement of huts that made up the Supporters Club, the club shop and the tea hut. The ground was far from perfect in some respects. The terracing behind each goal was far too shallow, meaning that only people over six feet tall could get a decent view if there was anything like a crowd present, and the “terrace” that ran the length of the pitch opposite the stand was made of compressed earth until it was concreted in the late 1980s. It was also a big, open ground, which sometimes made it difficult for the crowd to get lifted for a big match.
And then there were the Starlight Rooms. How suggestible do you have to be to believe that a small club-cum-cabaret venue built into the corner of a non-league football ground was one of London’s finest live entertainment attractions? About as gullible as I was at the age of eight or nine, I guess. Tom Jones had played there once, I was told, as had Bob Monkhouse and Paul Daniels. Out there in the real world, though, the Starlight Rooms had lost much of its veneer of glamour by the mid-1980s. The smell of stale Watneys and the smoke of Players Number Six cigarettes hung in the air there as the outside world moved on. It was the sale of the Starlight Rooms by Tom Unwin to Tony Lazarou that precipitated the crisis that was to engulf the club in the late 1990s and eventually kill it.
When the crowd were really in the mood, though, they were really in the mood. When Enfield played Wimbledon in an FA Cup Second Round match on a bitterly cold Tuesday evening in December 1981, my father decided that it was too cold to stand on the terrace and bought us tickets for the stand. It was my first time from that vantage point and it felt, to an impressionable nine year old boy, like being invited into a private club. When Enfield attacked, a low rumbling noise started up from behind me. It was the sound of the regulars stamping their feet on the wooden floorboards to get behind the team. There were probably less than 3,000 in the ground that night, but on a pitch hewn from solid rock Enfield skidded and slid to an improbable 4-1 win against a team that would be winning the FA Cup seven years later. In those heady days – FA Trophy winners in 1982 and 1988, Football Conference winners in 1983 and 1986 – it felt like life was one long summer. Those days wouldn’t last forever, though.
By the late 1980s, the sun had started to set on the real glory days. When automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and the Football Conference in 1988, a number of clubs upped their game, either paying more or turning completely professional. Enfield were eclipsed by their local rivals Barnet, who were supported by their ticket tout chairman Stan Flashman, and were relegated in 1990. The club stumbled and stuttered in the Isthmian League and, by the time the championship was won in 1995, the Football Conference was sufficiently unsatisfied with the club’s financial position to deny them promotion back. The decline was slow and painful. In 1996, with rugby union having turned professional, local side Saracens needed a bigger stadium and moved to Southbury Road. With a haste which was been a signal of what was to come, the club demolished the Playing Field side and erected a temporary seated stand but Saracens decamped to Vicarage Road, Watford a year later, the scaffolding came down and Enfield were left with a ground that was only barely up to scratch and an apparent sudden need to leave for pastures new.
They left Southbury Road in 1999, but Enfield FC was a piece of my past by then. My family moved to St Albans in 1982, and my Saturday visits to North London became more and more sparse as my grandparents moved from their homes, into care homes and eventually on from this world. Occasional visits during the 1990s showed a club that was in a slow decline, one which hadn’t moved with the times. After two years homeless and playing at such unlikely “home venues” as St Albans, Ware and Boreham Wood, the supporters finally gave up on any pretence that Lazarou was in any way serious about moving back to the London Borough of Enfield and started their own club. Enfield Town have played at Brimsdown Rovers’ Goldsdown Road ever since, although a home of their own is now just around the corner. The QE2 Athletics Stadium is far from an ideal venue, but it is barely half a mile from the old Southbury Road site. Crowds at Town, however, have stagnated at around the 200 level. They may have lost a generation of supporters with their exile. Soon, however, they will be home again. The other side of the schism plodded on until Enfield FC folded in the summer of 2007, but instead of merging back with Town they continue to plod along as Enfield (1893) in the Essex Senior League. Football in the borough seems considerably weaker for this continued division.
The seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness of my youth, though, are gone forever. Warm, lazy August evenings when you drag yourself to the first matches of the season, awaking from the slumber of the summer with home matches against Trowbridge Town or Boston United. Snow piled up around the pitch in mid-winter and the chronic worry, bordering on panic, that the match would be called off and I would be sentenced to an afternoon of shopping or stranded in front of the television watching the ITV Seven. The excitement of seeing crowds the length of the ground at the turnstiles (or even – gasp! – all-ticket matches) as the big crowds turned out for Second and Third Round matches in the FA Cup. The thrill of the end of season run-in, scanning the newspapers for results and league tables or phoning people lucky enough to be able to trek the length of the country for away matches in the FA Trophy to find out what had happened. And finally, every couple of years or so, a trophy presentation of some sort. The Alliance Premier League trophy or, in the surreallistically glamourous setting of Wembley Stadium or The Hawthorns, the FA Trophy. The realisation that, in some tiny way, your little corner of London would be remembered for something. I’ll never know such glamour and excitement again.