The Battle for Ryman League supremacy

There was once a time when Enfield FC were a real force to be reckoned with in the semi-professional game. They were a club that won Isthmian and Conference League trophies and FA amateur competitions as a matter of course and even once had ambitions to climb the ladder into the Football League. Unfortunately, their one and only application to join the Football League in 1986 fell well short of the number of votes required to gain promotion (The bottom four Division 4 clubs all gained re-election that year) despite the North London club winning the Conference title in 1985/86. In an ironic twist of fate, the following year the winners of the Conference were finally granted automatic promotion to the Football League without having to apply for election, but it came too late for Enfield who could only finish 4th that season behind Maidstone United (3rd), Barnet (2nd) and Champions, Scarborough. Both Barnet and Maidstone United both went on to eventually gain promotion to the Football League in the following seasons, but Enfield never got that close again and just three years after reaching the pinnacle of non-league football, the club suffered relegation out of the Conference and they haven’t been back up to this level since.


However, whilst relegation to the Isthmian League in 1990 was a blow to the club and its supporters, the club continued to be a force in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League, a feeder league to the Conference at the time, with the club finishing runners-up in 1990/91, 1991/92, 1993/94, 1995/96 and 1996/97. The club also added another Isthmian League Championship trophy to their ever expanding trophy cabinet in 1994/95, their eighth Isthmian title since accepting an invitation to join the Isthmian League structure in 1977. The club also finished runners-up in the Premier Division at the end of another four hugely successful seasons between 1964 and 1981. All in all, Enfield spent eighteen unbroken seasons in the Isthmian Premier Division from 1963/1964 to 1980/81 season and were involved in title race 16 times, with seven Championships finding their way to this corner of North London. Quite a remarkable run of success for any football club at any level.

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The title-winning season that will live long in the memory for many Enfield fans, took place under the guidance of manager Ten Hardly who guided the E’s to their third consecutive Isthmian Championship title in 1977/78. A total of 110 points were earned over 42 games with the team winning 35 games, drawing 5 and losing just twice. The team also added 96 goals in the for column whilst letting in just 27. Their nearest challengers, Dagenham, were 31 points behind in second place! After their last title win in 1995, the club were denied promotion back to the Conference due to failing to meet the Conference financial criteria at the time. Since adding their eighth Isthmian League Championship title to their trophy cabinet in 1994/95, Enfield has yet to add a ninth and tenth title to their Isthmian honours list.

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Fast forward just six years to 2001 and the club were now in a real mess off the field and their trophy-laden past was very much just that, a thing of the past. The sale of their Southbury Road ground in 1999 was the start of major power struggle at the club between the chairman, the local council and the supporters, which would eventually end with a group of supporters breaking away to form a new club called Enfield Town after the chairman of Enfield FC failed to hand the club over to the supporters’ trust and £100,000 from the sale of the ground. The club had played at Southbury Road for 63 years, but the chairman, with the help of the council, sold the ground for housing despite strong opposition from other directors, supporters and the general public at the time. On Saturday the 23rd June 2001 the Enfield Supporters trust voted by a margin of 9-1 to form a breakaway club and they haven’t looked back since. Enfield Town has continued winning trophies in the same manner as the original club did with two Essex Senior League titles, two Essex Senior Cups, two Middlesex Charity Cups and a Gordon Brasted Memorial Trophy successes already added to the new club’s honours list. The club also gained promotion back to the Isthmian League North in 2004 and then won the North Championship in 2011/12. After stabilising in the Ryman Isthmian Premier League for three seasons the club was cruelly denied a playoff berth at the end of the 2014/15 season when they were deduced 3 points for fielding an illegible player. The club didn’t take the deduction of three points lying down and the row between the club officials and the authorities keep the playoff semi-finals from being staged for a brief period. Eventually, the punishment stuck and the club ended the season in 7th placed, two points away from finishing in the play-off positions.


However, if the officials and supporters were left feeling sorry for themselves after an admin error cost them a play-off berth in 2014/2015, then the end of last season another cruel twist was about to strike. A final day meeting with Hampton and Richmond became a fixture that would not only determine the outcome of Enfield Town’s season, their hosts Hampton needed at least a draw to win the title and prevent second place Bognor Regis Town snatching the title away. In a dramatic day of action, second place Bognor won by four clear goals in their match which meant a defeat for Hampton against Enfield would hand the trophy to Bognor, consign Hampton to the play-offs but also enable Enfield Town to gain a play-off place. It was a tense and nervous afternoon but Hampton defended for their lives under sustained Enfield pressure and held out for a 0-0 draw which was enough to clinch Hampton the Championship whilst ending Enfield Town’s play-off hopes in the process. The newly formed club eventually finished 6th, which is their highest finished since re-formation in 2001, but it felt very much a case of what if much like the season before.


Saturday 1st April 2017 – Ryman Premier Division – Enfield Town 1 v 0 Bognor Regis Town – Queen Elizabeth Stadium – Att 687

Whilst the supporters of old the Enfield FC and newly formed Enfield Town have Championship successes to look and reflect back on over the years, down in one corner of West Sussex the players, supporters and officials of Bognor Regis Town must wonder if they will ever have their name etched on the Isthmian League Championship honours board. As mentioned above the club couldn’t have come any closer than they did last season when Hampton and Richmond pipped them by a point on the last day of the last season. It almost had echoes of their Ryman League South Division title miss in 2010/11 when just one goal cost them the title that year. The play-offs have also provided yet more heartache with the club losing in the semi-finals in 2010/11 (Ryman south), 2013/14 and 2015/16 in the Ryman Premier. The club did manage to overcome their play-off hoodoo in 2011/2012 with a dramatic penalty shootout semi-final win over Godalming and a tight and nervy single goal win in the final that year against Dulwich Hamlet. Nevertheless, the club is still very much haunted by their play-off demons of 2014 and 2016 when Lowestoft Town and Dulwich ended their hopes of promotion in the semi-final.

  Further reading –  One game too far – Bognor Playoff heartache


The league leaders survive an early scare as Enfield attack from the get go

During the summer Bognor manager Jamie Howell also had his two best strikers snatched away from under his nose when Ryman Premier new boys Havant & Waterlooville swooped to capture club legend Jason Prior and his strike partner in crime Alfie Rutherford. Howell also lost an excellent goalkeeper in Grant Smith as well as utility players Snorre Nilsen and Craig Robson. The spine of the team had essentially been ripped out and a massive re-building job was required. It left many Bognor supporters believing this current campaign would be one of transition. However, it’s been nothing of the sorts. The Sussex club have lead the way at the top of the Ryman Premier League for much of the second half of the season and they stand on the brink of their first ever title-winning season. In a crazy twist of fate going into this game against play-off chasing Enfield Town, only Havant and Waterlooville could now realistically snatch the title away from under Bognor’s nose with the Hampshire club four points adrift with five games left to play this season. If Bognor were the hound chasing the hare of Hampton last season, Bognor has themselves become the hare to be chased down and caught by a hungry Havant.


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In many ways the Bognor squads on 2013/14 and 2015/16 were stronger and much better equipped to gain promotion to step 2, but Howell and his assistant Darin Kilpatrick have worked miracles yet again to put Bognor in a position where just five more wins will guarantee the club promotion to step 2 and a league title to boot. However, football is never as simple as that it is, and their opponents Enfield needed the points as they themselves are in an absorbing play-off race where before kick-off just five points separated 3rd position Leiston and 10th placed Wingate and Finchley. The drama of last season’s final day might yet be eclipsed and then some.



First half action from the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Enfield

The midweek action had seen Bognor keep the gap at the top to four points over second place Havant, and with Havant playing at home to playoff chasing Dulwich, Bognor would be looking towards Dulwich and hoping they could repeat their 3-0 win over Havant just a few weeks earlier. A large crowd had turned up at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium with a coach load of Belgian football supporters adding to the atmosphere and noise. Plenty of Bognor fans had also made the journey up from the coast but they must have had their hearts in their months as the hosts were almost in front immediately. Only three minutes had elapsed on the clock when home striker Dernell Wynter was in on goal with just Bognor keeper Dan Lincoln to beat but his shot was not hard or accurate enough and Lincoln pushed it away to safety. Nevertheless, the warning signs were there for the league leaders that this was possibly their toughest fixture in their run-in.


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The home team were the much better of the two teams in the first period and their pace and width were causing Bognor all manner of problems. In the 20th minute, the Bognor players and support were again thankful for poor finishing as Scott Shulton couldn’t get his feet sorted after a brilliant dummy had presented him with a clear sight of goal. The away side was hanging on in there at this point with the crowd right behind the home team who were putting pressure on the leaders every time they went forward. The goal finally came with half hour of the game gone and it was Shulton who had a hand in it. A wonderful diagonal ball found its way through to Karl Oliyde who controlled the ball and sent a wonderful curling shot beyond the despairing dive of Lincoln. It was just reward for a great opening half hour of high-intensity football from the home team. The noise levels rose further in the stands as the contingent of Belgium supporters contributed to a good atmosphere.


The home team had further chances to add to their one goal but the centre back pair of Sami El Abd and Chad Field were showing just why the leaders had conceded the lowest number of goals in the division. That being said the leaders were struggling to find their rhythm further up the pitch and a half-time dressing down by manager Jamie Howell was needed after a tough half of football.

The second half was a much more tactical affair as the home side looked to protect what they had whilst the leaders probed away but lacked the spark that was needed to ignite them into life. The news wasn’t good from Hampshire either, as Havant were doing the business against Dulwich with their winning goal coming from former Bognor striker and club legend Jason Prior. Meanwhile back in Greater London the current Bognor top scorer James Fraser was struggling to get the better of Enfield centre-half who was using all his size and frame to repelled the Bognor attacks of which there were few. If anything it was the home side that was the more likely to add to the score line in the second half. Their best chance of the second period fell to Tyler Campbell on 73 minutes but he blasted over from close range.


As the final minutes ticked away the game was drifting towards a likely home win but the leaders were not about to throw the towel in just yet. Goalkeeper Dan Lincoln came forward to make himself a nuisance as Bognor threw everyone forward, but they lost possession from the corner and Enfield also broke away to score only to be denied by some great defending. Then with time also up Fraser fired a shot from the edge of the area that had the home keeper Nathan McDonald flying across his goal to turn the ball around the post. It was the leaders last chance to rescue a point but in truth, it would have been harsh on the Enfield players who more than matched the leaders on the day.


No quarter or inch was given by either of these two promotion chasing teams

As for the title race that now looks very open as the gap came down to one point after Havant’s win over Dulwich Hamlet. It’s still Bognor’s to lose as if they win all their remaining games which will include a humdinger of a clash against Havant, the title will be lifted no matter what Havant do in their remaining fixtures. The three points earned by Enfield Town were crucial to their charge for the play-offs. Next up for them was a huge clash against Billericay, another club in the play-off mix, a game neither team dare not lose.

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There is so much still to play for and no matter what happens from here on in for Enfield Town and Bognor this season, surely this is going to be one of the greatest endings to a Ryman Isthmian Premier League season for many a year. For Enfield it will bring back memories of their own final day Championship winning season in 1979/80 when they won the title on the very last day with an amazing comeback against their opponents and their Championship rivals that day Walthamstow, clinching the title after a 3-3 draw. For Bognor, they will be praying they’re not going to end up the bridesmaids yet again.


A full set of match day snaps can be found clicking the link here – Match Photography


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