Non-League Football

When history weighs you down – a visit to Ilford

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THEY HAVE a big honours board in the Ilford Football Club committee room. “It stops all of a sudden,” said one official after I had acknowledged the “wonderful history” the board portrayed – twice winners of the FA Amateur Cup and three times Isthmian League champions. The current Ilford club’s major achievement was finishing 17th in the Isthmian League Division One North in 2009. They now play in the Essex Senior League.

The fate of the original club, one of the great old names of amateur football in its heyday, illustrates the difficulty non-league clubs have in attracting interest in the metropolis. When you have Tottenham, West Ham United and Arsenal breathing down your neck, and you have a large immigrant population that has little interest in football, it’s hard to survive.

Ilford have a contingent of Anglo-Lithuanians

Ilford has always had a strong cosmopolitan mix. It was always renowned for being a notable Jewish area and Jews account for over 10% of the local population. Today, however, Ilford (north and south) has a wide range of ethnic groups, with a huge Asian and Muslim community, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. You could say that Ilford is a fair representation of inner London’s cultural mix.

At Ilford Football Club, they also have Lithuanian supporters, according to manager Allan Fenn’s pre-match programme notes for the FA Vase match with AFC Kempston Rovers. In fact, Ilford have a Lithuanian in midfield, Karolis Atutis, who has been capped by the Baltic state at under-19 level. The Essex Senior League is a long way from playing Switzerland in a UEFA competition!

If Ilford the club has an interesting heritage, the area also has its features. The Cauliflower pub in the High Road, with which I am vaguely familiar, sells itself as an “original gin palace”. It’s a huge thing and before the game with Kempston, it was gearing up for Halloween.

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Opposite, down to the foot of Clark Road, Ilford’s home, the featureless Cricklefield Stadium, nestles behind the Isaac Newton Academy (wasn’t he “Sir”?). Waltham Forest once played here, and Barkingside are co-residents. It’s not an ideal location for football, but in London, where property prices are ridiculous and non—league football is a footnote, what can you expect?

An anxious man with a bus timetable in his hand approached me and started moaning about the fact the ground is a sports centre. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have come to this game,” he said, twitching nervously. “Que sera, sera,” I replied. “You a groundhopper?”,he asked. “Not exactly, I’m reporting on the game for the Non-League newspaper.” He shuffled off in search of a tea bar and, doubtless, a programme or team sheet to shove into his holdall and catalogue with the collected bounty from ground trips past.

I have nothing against people who call themselves “groundhoppers”, indeed, my own activities could be classified in a similar fashion, but it is the fidgety, hand-wringing behaviour of the obsessive that I cannot abide. “One man’s passion is another’s yawn,” as they say.

“We are Ilford, we are Ilford, super Ilford, Cricklefield”

Inside the ground I am greeted by a straggly-haired man in a Linfield shirt grasping a can of Foster’s lager. “Here’s another bloke,” he says to his turnstile operating pal, almost greeting me with the sort of “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” gesture that suggested he hadn’t seen many people coming through the gate. “You been here before?,” he asks, looking like Rory Gallagher’s wayward brother (obviously, the local character). “I have,” I realised, although I had forgotten I had seen Hitchin crumble to a shock FA Cup defeat at the hands of Waltham Forest at this ground.

Sadly, Rory Gallagher character aside, they don’t have many supporters at Ilford, although that didn’t stop those they have, including a refugee from Liverpool with a strong scouse accent, from singing, “We are Ilford, we are Ilford, super Ilford, Cricklefield” as the game struggled to get going. Ilford’s average attendance this season is 40, but against Kempston it was swelled by a handful of visiting fans, although the Bedfordshire side, from the United Counties League (UCL), barely get 50 to their own home games.

Kempston looked by far the more accomplished of the two sides. Unbeaten in the UCL, they were faster, more physical and had better control of the ball.

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The first half was pretty uneventful, although Ilford started well. One player caught my eye, Elias Armagh-Tackie, who showed he was willing to take on a Kempston defence solidly built around Alex Stoyles.

Kempston continued to look the more threatening side in the second half. Dom Marsala saw a low shot saved by McAnally and then Shane Bush glanced a header wide. Bush went close again when he found space in the area before shooting into the side-netting and then should have scored when he headed wide from five yards.

Kempston’s pressure continued with a low shot across goal by Fuller that just needed the faintest touch to score. Likewise, when Tom Guiney’s header from Bush’s knock-on went inches over the crossbar.

Shane Bush finally found the back of the net

Kempton took the lead with nine minutes to go with a goal that should really have been prevented. The Ilford penalty area was crowded with defenders as Bush tried to weave his way through but nobody was able to get a tackle in as the tall forward prodded the ball home. That was enough to win the game.

“Two good teams near the top of their league,” was how Jimmy Stoyles, co-manager of Kempston, summed up the game. “We showed we are hard to break down and in the second half, we had the belief to go on and win the game.”

I tried to get a quote from the Ilford manager, Allan Fenn, but I was told he had just “stripped off and was in the shower”. Being short of time, I saw Fenn’s assistant, John Moody, skulking around outside the Ilford dressing room. He shook his head, complaining that the team “hadn’t turned up today, but that’s cup football.”

Moody was already looking ahead to Ilford’s next game, at home to Sawbridgeworth Town in the Essex Senior League. “You move on and we go again next week,” he said. Through the positive message, though, you could sense his bitter disappointment. Across the corridor, you could hear the laughing, cheering and banter of a team that felt very different about their afternoon’s work.

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