Amos Murphy is a writer and lover of sport – mainly football
Amos Murphy is a writer and lover of sport – mainly football
By Scott Lanza
Haringey Borough's rise up the football pyramid, alongside their constantly growing fanbase, means that the Boro are definitely going places. Having spent most of the season camped near the top of the table, even leading the Bostik Premier Division at one point, the North London-based club are now getting ready for their second play-off in two seasons. Last season they won the Bostik North play-off; a mere three years after winning the Essex Senior League they were now in the Bostik Premier. The last time they had played in the Bostik (Isthmian) League was in 1988, and they just about saw out the season after a mass walk-out between committee, management and players.
Dropping down into the Spartan South Midland League, the club soldiered on for a few years, playing to small crowds with little or no success. When current Chairman Aki Achillea was invited to help the club in 1995 there had still been little in the way of success and the club was on a downward spiral. The committee at the time were looking to move the club across the road to the New River Stadium. When that fell through, the committee decided to call it a day, meaning that Aki was left controlling a club that at the time was playing at a ground that had a bad pitch, a dilapidated clubhouse and old floodlights. Previous Chairman Peter Crowther had put a lot of time in trying to move the club; that fell though and he walked, feeling that the club was unable to continue.
Over the ensuing years, Aki has overseen the facilities that now include a 4G pitch, a homely clubhouse, a seated stand, and now covered standing. The club did pick up a Division One title in the Spartan South Midland League, but a move across the pyramid to the Essex Senior League saw them finish runners-up, before going one better and winning the ESL title in 2014/15. Then after a first season consolidating in the Bostik North, where the club finished 15th, the Boro went and reached the play-offs in 2016/17, but lost a semi-final thriller with Maldon & Tiptree 5-4. Last season, though, the club again reached the play-offs, and this time capped it off with a final win over Canvey Island that saw them start the 2018/19 in the Bostik Premier.
More importantly, Haringey Borough have tapped into their local community, with the Free Season Ticket having been a major success. Aki told me that this will continue next season, no matter what league the club are playing in, and that the idea behind the Free Season Ticket was not so much to do with business, although there is no denying that having people come in for free means they then spend money in the club on food, drink and merchandise.
But as Aki told me: “We had put down a 4G pitch, re-wired the floodlights, laid walkways, basically made it a much better facility to watch football, but we had no supporters. People may put money into the club but the plan was to get people knowing about the club and then to keep coming back.
"It is a nice facility and the fans do spend money at the club, but initially we just wanted to get a fan base.”
The average attendances of 80 last season have grown to 150 at the start of this campaign, which continued to rise through the 400 and 500 mark, with the 875 for their game against Enfield Town being their biggest league attendance this season. The FA Cup run may have raised the club’s profile, as their game against AFC Wimbledon in the first round was shown live on BBC TV, where the team gave a good account of themselves, causing the League outfit all kinds of problems before finally succumbing to a last-minute goal. More importantly, the fans they have picked up have stayed and their best attendances of the season came after the cup run. Normally, teams drop fans once the glory of a cup run has ended and it's back to the routine bread and butter of league football, but Boro seem to have bucked that trend.
The feel-good factor is largely down to winning games, but Aki believes there is something else brewing down at the CVS Van Hire Stadium.
“What has pleased me more has been fans getting behind the team, even when we have been losing games. That means they are true supporters who are behind the club.
"We have started taking a fan base to away games now. So our fans pay to watch the team away, they drink in the clubhouse, so all clubs have benefited in a way from our increased support.”
Aki describes himself as a fan more than a chairman, saying he prefers to watch games amongst the supporters rather than from the director’s box. Perhaps it takes a fan to make a fan, as Aki and his committee have made a complete overhaul of the stadium, club and team and now they have made a ground worth visiting, a team worth watching and the local community have got behind them.
Another important part of the Boro success has been down to manager Tom Loizou, who has known Aki for years, having at one time played in the same Sunday League team. Tom, who had previously worked at Leyton Orient under John Sitton, as well as managing Cheshunt, Enfield, Boreham Wood and Leyton, was initially drafted in to steer the club through a relegation battle. Having succeeded with that quest, it was then Tom’s duty to try and re-build the club.
"When I first came in, the club was in a right state. The pitch was a state but so was the club.
"The club had rarely been successful and as a result, no players wanted to come and play for us. It has been slow but we slowly rebuilt the first team, then the U23s, the U18s and also ladies teams.
"Having laid solid foundations has meant that we have been able to go through successive promotions and compete at that higher level.”
Tom explained that while Aki rarely now says no to him, it took a while for that trust to be built up.
“I’ve had to work for that privilege; I have had to prove to Aki that my plans are for the good of Haringey Borough Football Club. We have a close bond, I talk to him about team affairs and he sees how I work, I see how he works and together we have built a really strong working relationship.”
Tom also told me that after his time at Orient, he was starting to become disillusioned with football, and that when he took the Haringey job on it was likely to be his last job in football, as he had been so badly let down in the past. It’s unlikely that Tom will ever find a chairman as supportive as Aki, whilst Aki as chairman will probably never meet a manager as dedicated and passionate as Tom. Both have Haringey Borough running through their veins and having spoke to them both at length for this interview, I get the impression that we could have had a series of interviews and each and every time their love, passion and commitment towards Haringey Borough would have come shining through.
One thing about non-league football is that it can also be as time-consuming as a full-time job in management. Managers have to think about upcoming games, players, tactics, training, and sometimes also have to do some other job on the side! It can take its toll, and Tom suffered from a heart attack in February that came from the added burden that has come with the club now pushing for a second successive play-off promotion, whilst at the same time seeing the attendances increase significantly. It means the staff at the club have been stretched to their limits - in some ways perhaps a victim of their own success. They have managed to cope with the increased workload that a club with their crowd figures brings, but with the increase in fans and exposure comes higher expectations. The club were not meant to be one of the teams vying for promotion but have been in the mix all season long. The team have picked up results, the football played has been attractive, the atmosphere at games has become much more enthusiastic and people have kept coming back. The club have had to adapt to the increasing number of people coming to their games; in essence Haringey Borough have become one of the bigger outfits in the Bostik Premier overnight!
However, Tom explained that playing in front of a crowd is a real buzz and he remembers the days when the club only had two fans; now they have a crowd which he feels pushes the team over the line.
“How many managers in this league get their name chanted for 60 minutes during games? And I feel that putting something back into the community means that we reach out to people in Tottenham who may not be able to afford to go and watch a game of football.
"We see mums with kids, old people and teenagers at our games, they have not sang one abusive song. In an area that has a reputation for being a bit rough, I think the fact we have made such a friendly club has been a revelation.”
If you think that Aki and Tom are happy to just have made a nice friendly club, then think again, as the intention has been to aim for a promotion every three years. At the moment, that blueprint isn’t being totally followed as Boro are shooting for their second play-off promotion in successive years. How does the club keep punching above its weight, I wondered? After all, they were not tipped as one of the promotion candidates last season, and this season many had tipped the Boro to be amongst the relegation battlers.
“When you have the knowledge you don’t need money,” was how Tom summed up the formula he has used to get his team going through the levels and holding their own once they get to a higher tier of football.
“Once a budget goes, the players go with it. Then the club has debts hanging around, starts dropping down the leagues and then stares extinction in the face.
"Do we want that for Haringey Borough? The answer is no.
"Do I want to be paying big wages to ex-pros looking for a final wage out the game? The answer is no.
"A big budget can be a noose around a club’s neck. It can also entice the wrong type of player to a club; a player only there for the money.
"I don’t want any of that. What I do is go out for younger players; players released by bigger clubs that just need a second chance.”
One such player was Themistoklis Kefalas, who made a few appearances in the yellow and blue of Haringey before QPR came and signed him up. Charley Barker is another young player that came in having been released by Leyton Orient. Tom went on to explain what catches his eye.
“I look for players that are hungry for success, because so is Aki and so am I. The coaching staff around me (David Cumberbatch, Johnny Fitsiou and Tucker O’Donoghue) have been people I have known and worked with for years. They share my philosophy when it comes to football.”
That philosophy involves a fast-paced attacking style of football that is exciting to watch, and one thing is certain: you never see Haringey Borough in a bad game. As a result, none of the other teams will be wanting to face them in the play-offs. They are still gunning for second spot, which would guarantee home advantage, but whether home or away, Borough will be a tough proposition for any team.
It almost seems surreal that the club could be playing in the National League South next season, as they have come so far in such a short space of time. However, the football they have served up this season certainly deserves to see them promoted. But could it be a step too far? Can the club afford to be promoted to Step 2?
I left Tom to have the final word: "We are going to keep the free season ticket if we go up, as we don’t want to penalise our fans, and we can expect to get bigger away followings coming to our games. So that should help balance things out.
"But the honest answer to whether we can afford to go up is no. But then if you had asked if we could afford to go up last season, the answer would have been the same.
"At the start of the season, Aki asked me what I thought would be a successful season, and I said a good FA Cup run and to reach the play-offs. Have we succeeded in that?
"The answer is yes. I have wanted this all my life.
"Everything that we have now has come about due to the hard work put in by Aki and me. We have worked so hard to get where we are and we are prepared to work just a little bit harder to get us to the next level.”
Interviews/article by @lanzasport