The White Hart Lane club ready for action: Haringey living FA Cup dream

Seventh-tier side, whose season tickets are free, host AFC Wimbledon on their debut appearance in the first round

Half an hour before he walks across the car park to oversee training, Tom Loizou is selling tickets behind the bar at Coles Park. A local couple have strolled into, rather than past, Haringey Borough’s facilities for the first time and the scene has become a familiar one: an enthusiastic welcome, an expression of mild regret on the newcomers’ part that they have not stopped by before, the purchase of two places at Friday’s FA Cup first-round match against AFC Wimbledon and a parting promise that they will be back for a league fixture with their nine-year-old son.

Until recently this was a forgotten and unloved outpost of north London’s football scene, but the Bostik Premier League club will be more relevant than ever when a crowd of around 2,500 packs in for an event that will also be televised by the BBC. One of the tie’s selling points to the curious is its location: Haringey’s ground is situated on White Hart Lane and, yes, they will be ready to host the game as scheduled. The new Spurs stadium is just under a mile away, on Tottenham High Road; it will take centre stage soon enough but for now Haringey intend to show they can offer something different.

A White Hart Lane road sign mounted on the wall behind the bar at Coles Park Stadium.
A White Hart Lane road sign mounted on the wall behind the bar at Coles Park Stadium. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Guardian

While their Premier League neighbours’ arena towers above the surrounding area, Loizou and his chairman, Aki Achillea, see no reason to be in its shadow. Haringey is one of London’s most deprived boroughs and is an area of stark, often deeply troubling social contrast. Until earlier this decade the club was in no fit state to make any difference but, staffed by a tiny group of volunteers and, in Loizou, a full-time manager whose role covers anything from team selection to stadium repairs, it has been transformed. This is now a place the local community can call home and one where the many who cannot afford to pay for the privilege of live football can watch it for free.

“We wanted to engage people in the area and let them see what we are doing here rather than just driving past the gates,” says Achillea, a lawyer who was asked in 1995 to help settle some issues with the club’s lease and who, it turned out, would never leave. When Achillea arrived, Haringey were playing to attendances of 20 or 30. For two decades that never really changed and, while the team bobbed around on a quagmire of a home pitch, they found the funds to stay alive only when Achillea persuaded a local market to operate on their premises every Sunday. But the arrival of Loizou nine years ago sparked an upturn in fortunes and in 2016 Achillea decided to throw open the doors: Haringey would make season tickets for league games available for nothing.

Haringey Borough’s chairman, Aki Achillea, making plans in the boardroom.
Haringey Borough’s chairman, Aki Achillea, making plans in the boardroom. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Guardian

“We installed our new 3G pitch in 2016 and had a superb facility but nobody to see it,” he says. “I wanted to create an atmosphere for our players as well. It’s heartwarming for them to play in front of people who sing songs, clap and cheer.”

League attendances this season have averaged around 270. Promotion to the Bostik Premier, England’s seventh tier, in 2017-18, kept the good feeling going and the scenes were delirious last month when Poole Town were beaten 2-1 in the fourth qualifying round to put Haringey in the competition proper for the first time.

“Everybody said to me: ‘You’re mad taking the job, there’s nothing there,’” Loizou says. “But I’ve come in here and been able to build my own environment, with people I know and trust. When we beat Poole the chairman was running up and down like a little kid. Coming out of the hat first and getting Wimbledon in the draw was just perfect. We were fighting a losing battle a few years ago but it’s turning around.”

Loizou presides over a squad of, to use his words, “rough diamonds” in which speed and power are prerequisites. Joel Nouble, brother of the Colchester forward Frank, got the goal that qualified them to face AFC Wimbledon and there is a sprinkling of experience, too, in Derek Asamoah, who scored for Carlisle in a League Cup tie at Anfield.

“I joke with some of the guys and say I was here when we had a grass pitch, no nets in the goals, and you had to walk across the car park to get changed,” says Rakim Richards, a long-serving centre-back whom Loizou plucked from local Sunday football. “We’ve built from nothing, and look where we are now.”

Tom Loizou, Haringey Borough’s manager, talks with his first-team squad in the home dressing room before training.
Tom Loizou, Haringey Borough’s manager, talks with his first-team squad in the home dressing room before training. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/Guardian

Richards works as a community coach at Tottenham and the hope at Haringey is that the relationship between the clubs, traditionally courteous but muted, will become more formal. The Premier League club have expressed an interest in promoting Haringey’s games and Achillea would love to see Spurs’ upwardly mobile women’s team playing at Coles Park. Haringey are on the verge of being self-financing, the 3G pitch a godsend in raising funds from other teams and organisations that wish to use it. The’s ultimate aim is to go full-time and play at National League level; the Cup run will do them little harm in pursuing that goal and Loizou believes they can give AFC Wimbledon’s famous old giantkillers a taste of their own medicine.

“There’s a glimmer of hope,” he says. “They’re four levels above us, we stand no chance according to most people and I understand that. But if we win it we’ve pushed the boundaries; I’ve had no sleep since the draw and I don’t know what’ll happen if we beat them.”

Presumably a few more interested residents might drop in and, if they are lucky, hear a compelling sales pitch from the manager himself. “Sometimes you walk into a non-league club and it’s like you’re being watched or there’s a grey cloud over it,” says Loizou. “You come in here and all you see is smiles.”