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FOOTBALL: Fall and rise of North Leigh is a story to savour
12:00pm Wednesday 2nd October 2013 in Sport
Despite being a small village of less than 2,000 inhabitants, North Leigh now hosts one of Oxfordshire’s top non-league sides, writes Matthew Bruce.
Over the past 25 years, North Leigh have become West Oxfordshire’s senior club, rising from the Witney & District League as far as the Calor League Division 1 South & West, which they now head.
And now they have their eyes set on a place in the Premier Division, step three of the non-league pyramid.
“I think we’ve still got another promotion in us,” said manager Mark Gee, who has been with the club for almost 16 years.
“I’ve won three Hellenic League titles and an Oxfordshire Senior Cup, but I think we can still achieve more and that has to be the aim this season.”
Gee is one of several influential figures who have given years of their life to help build the club from scratch.
When current chairman Peter King first got involved with the club in the 1960s, they had fallen out of organised football completely.
After several years of success in the 1950s, a series of retirements had left North Leigh unable to field a regular team.
“We had no ground of our own then and we moved around a lot in the early days,” said King.
“We played on the Common and then spent a while playing on a farmer’s field just across the road from where we are now.”
During the 1980s they moved in with the local cricket club at Eynsham Park, ushering in a new era of success as they won five consecutive Witney & District League titles.
Seeking a higher level of competition, the club was promoted to the Hellenic League in 1990 and saw considerable success at that level, including league titles in 2002 and 2003 before winning promotion to their current level in 2008.
Each promotion has required North Leigh to upgrade their facilities and the club has been blessed with a number of generous benefactors, including landowner David Mason, who allows them to play at Eynsham Park for a peppercorn rent.
King said: “The landowners allowed us extra land and it was that which enabled us to progress into the Hellenic League and onwards from there.
“The Hazell family have also been a really big help to us. George Hazell basically bequeathed us the floodlights and without that we couldn’t have moved up to the Southern League.We really rely on that kind of generosity.”
Despite coming a long way from their humble beginnings, the club still retain a local village identity.
They run a team in the Witney & District League, as well as reserve side, North Leigh United, in the Hellenic , providing football at a range of levels.
“There have always been strong family ties to the club here,” said former chairman and current public relations officer Barry Norton, who played for the club in 1960, aged 14.
“Local people play when they’re younger and then work as volunteers when they’re older.
“The interest is still there now and we still have a lot of volunteers and I think the club is a genuinely positive force in the local community.”
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