Mike Bayly, commercial manager at newly promoted Wingate & Finchley and author of the excellent book Changing Ends, brings us his summary of his Non League season. Mike was also one of the driving forces behind Non League Day last year.
Wingate & Finchley FC – nicknamed The Blues – started the season playing in the Ryman League Division 1 North, four levels below Football League 2. Although their Summers Lane ground is considered one of the finest at this level of football, it would be easy to drive past the stadium without even realising it is there. They, like many other non-league clubs, are a microcosm of the wider semi professional game. Despite the original Finchley FC dating back to the early 1870s, and their imperious art deco stand being over seventy years old, there are many in the borough who are seemingly oblivious to their existence. Not that I can cast a moral die. Despite living in North London since 2005, I only learnt of the club in the spring of 2010 when researching an article on Dudley Town FC. Chris Davies, Dudley’s press officer, held a similar role at Wingate & Finchley before moving away to the Midlands, and it was he who introduced me to The Blues club secretary when I was looking for a side to volunteer with. Twelve months later, I still find my allegiance to the club rather incongruous. Maybe it’s the palm trees, or the garden gnomes, or the avuncular presence of the older committee members, but something drew me in and has refused to let go ever since.
Such unconventional support is in keeping with a lot of the club’s recent history. Although the merger of Wingate FC and Finchley FC happened twenty years ago, the club still appears to be suffering from an identity problem. This is not unusual amongst mergers, but Wingate & Finchley’s scenario is slightly more complex in that Wingate FC was historically a Jewish club, set up to fight anti-Semitism after the second world war. Whilst the Star of David forms part of the club’s badge, there is little else on the playing side to bind to its Jewish heritage. Of the current first team squad, only ex Dagenham & Redbridge midfielder Sam Sloma hails from Jewish descent, although there are a number of Jewish boys who make up the club’s highly successful youth teams.
For fans of the original Finchley FC it must be a sore subject, especially when journalists have been known to remark (rather inaccurately one might add) that the Finchley aspect of the club now exists in name only. Whilst Finchley were never a giant of the amateur game, plying much of their existence in the old Athenian league, it was a club steeped in history. Founded in 1874, it stood as one of the oldest clubs in England, and during their 1950s heyday, Finchley beat Crystal Palace 3-1 in the FA Cup at Summers Lane in front of a capacity crowd (which depending who you speak to could have been anything from 3000 to 8000) Part of this celebrated side was one George Robb, who would latterly play for Tottenham Hotspur and England, his only cap coming during the national side’s 6-3 trouncing against a Ferenc Puskas inspired Hungary. In more recent times, Finchley had the Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher, M.P as their patron, as detailed in a 1987 Vauxhall Opel League programme against Vauxhall Motors (not the Vauxhall Motors who play in the Conference North I might add – this was the old Luton works team who disbanded around 1991. It would have been amusing had they ever played their namesakes from Ellesmere in a cup match; I would have loved to hear James Alexander Gordon read that one out on sports report at 5pm: “FA Cup 1st round – Vauxhall Motors 1 Vauxhall Motors 1″)
Pre-merger, crowds at Summers Lane hovered around the 200 mark; statistics suggest that average gates in recent campaigns have barely reached three figures. Given the club’s proximity to Barnet, Arsenal and Tottenham, this isn’t really surprising, but over the course of a generation it is fair to say that a number of fans have stopped watching football in N12. This may be down to faltering performances on the pitch or a number of other speculative factors, but Wingate & Finchley FC appeared to be a side beset by a lack of interest.
The arrival of loquacious chairman Aron Sharpe in 2007 signalled a change in the club’s fortunes. Under manager Michael stone, The Blues finished a respectable 7th during the Ryman North 2008-09 season, and reached the final qualifying round of the FA Cup. Stone left shortly afterwards to take up a role at Rushden & Diamonds, to eventually be replaced by the young and relatively unknown David Norman. Norman guided the club to a record 3rd place the following season, before losing at home in the play offs to local rivals Enfield Town. Expectations were high for the following campaign; I arrived at Wingate & Finchley on the crest of a wave.
The club were also taking notable scalps in their respective cup outings, beating Wealdstone, Harrow and Bury Town of the Ryman Premier League along the way. Off the pitch however, crowds remained disappointing. Only 34 turned up to watch the London Senior Cup match against Kingsbury London Tigers, and even more alarmingly, just 77 for the top of the table clash against the aforementioned East Thurrock. Admittedly both were midweek matches, competing against the spectre of live (champions league) football on TV, but nonetheless it was depressing to see a club at the pinnacle of their game being so poorly supported.
A 3-2 away defeat to Great Wakering Rovers in February signalled a slump in form which saw the club win just one of its next eight matches and slip down to 8th place in the league. Of these, a 2-2 home draw against Enfield Town provided the most controversial moment of the season, ending in a mass brawl on the pitch and several spectators being asked to leave the ground. However, cup form during this period was nothing short of outstanding. Maldon were beaten 2-1 in the Ryman League cup semi-final, and Premier League Tooting & Mitcham were thrashed 3-0 at the same stage of the London Senior Cup.
The turning point of the season was the Ryman League Cup final victory over Dulwich Hamlet. A 2-0 win in front of a 502 crowd at Metropolitan Police’s Imber Court not only provided the club’s first silverware in sixteen years, but also sparked the impetus to take five wins and one draw from the last six games, including a remarkable 3-2 away win over Brentwood on the final day, meaning the club would once again finish 3rd and gain home advantage in the play offs, this time against Harlow Town.
Although Harlow were the form team going into the play offs (and conspiracy theories were rife that Brentwood were more than happy to be playing Needham Market in the other semi final tie) The Blues came through 4-2 winners in extra time, after the match had finished 1-1. The first fifteen minutes of extra time saw the best football played by the side all season, and they deservedly booked their place in the play off final. Remarkably, Brentwood beat Needham Market 3-1 away to set up an improbable home tie at Summers Lane, which would have seemed unthinkable just a few weeks before.
Unfortunately, the fixture Gods were not kind. The play off final, scheduled for Saturday 7th May, not only clashed with the FA Trophy final, but also Barnet’s massive league game with Port Vale. A crowd of nearly 4500 at Underhill – almost double their average gate – meant a good number of neutrals in the area gravitated towards the must win relegation battle just miles down the road. Although the 528 at Summers Lane was a club record, there is no doubt that had circumstance been different, it could have been nearer 1000.
Despite making numerous changes to the starting line up, Wingate & Finchley beat their Ryman Premier League opponents Hendon 3-1 to secure an astonishing treble. Trying to be objective, it would be hard to think of a non-league club that has had a more successful season; credit must go to the players and backroom staff for doing a quite magnificent job. Yet the last twelve months have been more than a celebration of events on the pitch. The volunteer committee, of which I am a proud member, have gone to extraordinary lengths to promote the club in the wider area. Our football in the community work has seen us deliver a number of school assemblies, as well as attend recruitment fairs aimed at providing young adults with volunteer opportunities.
The club’s disability scheme – which has received patronage from Lord Triesman – continues to develop, with a view to entering an affiliated side in the Camden Step League next season. We have raised thousands of pounds for local charities through our sponsored walk initiative, and will be undertaking a similar event next year. Our school of excellence programme goes from strength to strength, and at youth team level, the U15s secured a quadruple of trophies, generating scouting interest from several professional clubs. Moreover, the experience of being so heavily involved with a club at this level has only strengthened my belief that non-league football is so vital to the health of the national game, something that James Doe and myself are so keen to promote through the non-league day campaign. Non league clubs are genuine hubs of the community and provide opportunities for people from all ages, abilities and backgrounds to be part of something truly special. There are times when you question your sanity, like the London Senior Cup quarter final game away to Erith & Belvedere when just 28 people turned out to watch on a bitterly cold night. Yet this camaraderie is part of what makes non-league football so enchanting; we are all in it together against some very oppressive odds.
I couldn’t have put it better.
You can follow Mike on Twitter here.