Over three separate trips to Underhill across a period of 12 years, away days in Barnet have become something of a personal favourite. I’ve missed a few games in that time, but the trio that I have been able to make – each time supporting Plymouth – have been excellent days and reflective, perhaps, of how my life has evolved alongside and around football over these years.
A Personal History
First, in March 2001, came a 1-1 draw between two mediocre basement division teams. Designated as ‘Big at Barnet’, the trip was marked by protests from the away support fed up with odious chairman Dan McCauley. Well over a thousand turned up to watch an early Paul Sturrock era Argyle take on the Bees and amongst the support that day were myself and a couple of mates, wide-eyed Plymothian teenagers chaperoned by one of said friends’ dads.
We drove up, fighting through the traffic of Greater London in our final stages before parking nearby. With the team in transition little happened of note, the only footballing memory provided by captain and leader Paul Wotton thwacking in Argyle’s contribution to the scoreline, his blasted free-kick a foretaste of what was to come over the next few years under Sturrock.
Instead – for three fifteen year olds, at least – the highlights of that day were provided off the pitch as attention was caught by the rowdy behaviour of Argyle’s local bullies, The Central Element, and in particular the one individual who made it on to the pitch. Triggering a thankfully brief Stone Island-fuelled interest in causing trubble, our group’s ill advised tilt towards attempts at looking hard can be directly linked to that day in Barnet.
I digress. Six years later, in January 2007, I’d grown up a little, completed my GCSEs and A-levels, had done a Gap Year and was in my final year at university. Argyle had also made progress and were nearing the half way point of a six year stint in the Championship.
We returned to Barnet for an FA Cup Fourth round tie, the furthest our hosts had ever made it in the competition. Over 5,000 filed into Underhill and the atmosphere was corking across all sides. Packed into the East Terrace, myself and my two companions for the day – my dad’s closest mate and a Kiwi friend who’d moved to London and taken up an interest in Argyle after I returned from my Gap Year in New Zealand – witnessed a professional performance from the Pilgrims. The game was won at a stroll 2-0 and Argyle’s second, created and scored by a pubescent Scott Sinclair, marks the best goal I’ve ever seen live.
Transported this time by train and tube from my student house in Reading, this game – which was followed up by beers and burgers at a swanky Hampstead eatery – signalled a shift in my life. In just a few years, I’d developed into a completely different person with different friends. On reflection, it’s perhaps only through constants such as football that these different stages of growth can be measured.
Five and a half years later, Argyle’s 4-1 win on Saturday brings us right up to date. Returning for the first time with my dad as well as the same friend of dad who joined me on my previous trip, pre and post match conversation was now interspersed with references to work problems and house renovations rather than – in rough biographical sequence – whether an earring in the left or right ear signals homosexuality, anxieties about getting into Plymouth night clubs, student loans and finals.
But in a circular fashion, Argyle are back where we began. On the other hand, in the intervening years Barnet haven’t gone far, a stint in the Conference notwithstanding. In a number of ways, everything’s changed in my life since 2001, yet all seemed so familiar on Saturday as I reacquainted myself with Barnet High Street – this time discovering the wonderful Ye Olde Mitre Inn – as well as Underhill’s surrounding streets; its slope and the closeness between terrace and pitch.
Coming away from the ground afterwards, I relished the thought of another return, wondering where my life will have taken me the next time I make the trip. How sad in a personal sense, then, to have subsequently realised that Saturday’s visit to Underhill was – in all likelihood – my last.
Speculation had crossed my path before, but in reading up on the Bees since Saturday the club’s proposed move to their training ground in Harrow (cutely called ‘The Hive’) now seems likely to happen at the end of the season. Indeed, the path has been set after Harrow Council approved the club’s bid back in July.
While acknowledging that the club find themselves in a difficult situation – so at loggerheads have the Bees been with Barnet Council for a number of years – the noises emanating from the Barnet FC Supporters’ Trust suggest that a permanent move would be highly unpopular. Indeed, the latest statement from the Trust clarifies exactly where its members see Barnet’s long term future, calling for the club to:
- get a clear and time tabled plan in place for the return to Barnet that we can work on together as a shared direction and challenge, including using the collective ability of Barnet supporters and community contacts to influence local politicians to best effect;
- make the temporary move to the Hive the success that we all need it to be as an enabler to ensuring that the Club is flourishing when it returns to Barnet and the minimum number of existing supporters as possible have been lost on the journey (my italics).
Unfortunately, it would appear that the Trust’s position isn’t shared by some of the main players involved. Firstly, in citing the “tremendous social and economic benefits to the community” which Barnet’s move would yield, Harrow Council’s statement upon agreeing a 10-year lease seemed to anticipate a greater commitment than a mere temporary stop gap.
More significantly, so too does the communication from the club’s chairman Anthony Kleanthous, whose pandering towards Harrow Council is matched only by his clear and public disregard for their colleagues in Barnet. What’s more, Kleanthous – who’s also a director of the Football League and Football Association – has underlined the level of investment that is being made in The Hive, casting further doubt on the possibility of a return to Barnet:
“We have nearly completed the £4million second phase of renovations and improvements to the site this summer, which includes the fitness centre, conferencing facilities, restaurant and bar. These are now all open and available for use by the local community. By including the completion of the stadium to this, it will bring investment at The Hive up to £20million by this time next year.”
Neutrals might suggest that a move from unfashionable Barnet to prosperous Harrow may not necessarily be such a bad thing; it’s got a very nice school, after all. But on closer inspection The Hive’s location in Edgware, a dull residential area 10 minutes’ drive or so from the centre of Harrow exposes the true, life-sapping experience that supporters will face when the club moves; this is unlikely to be the type of place I want to refer to in order to help me join up the dots of my life.
If The Sun is to believed, however, a knight is on the horizon. Uncritically reporting the news of Edgar Davids’ attention-grabbing arrival at Underhill, the headline that alerted readers to the news in Saturday’s paper – “Davids: I could have gone to any club in the world but I chose Barnet” – seemed to suggest that all will be fine now that Davids is in situ.
An Orange Knight?
However, reading between the lines, as well as through the postings on Barnet FC forum OnlyBarnet.com, that implication couldn’t be further from the truth. Having survived by the skin last season following a whirlwind fling with Martin Allen, results have been roundly terrible from the very beginning of the new term under new head coach Mark Robson.
Yet this appointment was linked to a wider restructuring of the club’s football set up as Barnet seek to sustain EPPP Category B status. Instead of sniffing around the scrapheap of London’s bigger clubs for quick fixes, this move signalled a vision which would establish the Bees as one of the most progressive, foremost developers of youth outside of the Premier League. Robson – a respected and well-qualified coach who’d served time at Charlton, Gillingham and Peterborough – therefore seemed like a sensible candidate for heading up the first team.
How strange, then, that just two months into the new season this setup would appear to have been scrapped, ‘joint head coach’ Edgar Davids coming in alongside new assistant coach and fellow Dutchman Ulrich Landvreugd to work – apparently alongside – the existing team. Exactly the type of quick fix, one might suggest, that Barnet’s laudable intention of developing their youth system was in effect trying to avoid.
And this transience is reflected in the current playing side; epitomized by summer signing Collins John’s all too brief appearance before leaving the field injured, Saturday’s squad included next to no long-serving players and just two individuals – Jamal Lowe and Elliott Johnson – who have come through the ranks.
Just this week, chairman Kleanthous claimed that Barnet “are not a dying football club, we are a club that is going places”. Yet, while his development of Barnet’s Academy could – if managed in the right way – help to make Barnet more financially secure, his apparent lack of empathy with supporters regarding the location of the club’s home ground and his worryingly dim conviction that bringing in a showman such as Davids fits with a long-term vision suggests that the Bees will continue to struggle as a Football League club. And at that, one without a ground that I can continue to attach my personal own narrative to.