Football: Another day, another disaster: Tough luck and hard times have visited the beleaguered men of Barnet. Simon O'Hagan samples life at the bottom

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The Independent Online
A WET Tuesday night in deepest Buckinghamshire and the team with the worst record in the Football League is consoling itself over pints of lager in the home club's bar.

'Let's face it, we were the better side.'

'When your luck's against you, that's the sort of thing that happens.'

'There's no way we deserved to lose.'

'That's just typical of so many of our games this season.'

'Fancy another one?'

These are the players of Barnet Football Club talking, and their litany of lamentation is one that always seems to accompany any team down on its luck. Only Barnet are rather worse off than that. They are like a player who has broken one leg in a tackle, only for the other to fall off the stretcher. Yet when players say that they played the better football, created more chances, should never have let that bloke through for the other lot's goal, there is one thing of which you can be pretty sure: the players are absolutely right.

Away to Wycombe Wanderers in the first round of the Autoglass Trophy (Southern Section) is not exactly the stuff of footballing dreams, but for Barnet the match assumes rather more importance than it might otherwise have done. It is a chance for them to win - something they have only done once all season, in a Coca-Cola Cup match at Southend. After yesterday's 2-1 defeat at home to Bristol Rovers, their record in the Football League Second Division - what really matters - reads: played 10, lost 10, points none. The record for successive defeats at the start of a season - 12, by Manchester United of all people, in 1930-31 - is in sight. The second-to-bottom team, Fulham, have eight points from their 10 games and are already disappearing over the horizon. Indeed, no team in League history has avoided relegation after making as bad a start as Barnet have. One player, in time-honoured football-speak, says that staying up 'would be a bonus'. A miracle, more like.

A win at Wycombe would have been nice, but it doesn't happen, in spite of their playing a lot of good football and nearly scoring on a number of occasions. There's also a cock-up in defence, and Wycombe go through for a soft goal, the only one of the game. Cue the bouts of anguish.

Barnet's is an extraordinary situation, but the club's circumstances are extraordinary, too. Never mind that they came up from the Third Division last season. This summer Barnet came close to extinction; and in a sense the team that won promotion is extinct. Only two players - the goalkeeper, now player-manager, Gary Phillips, and defender Dave Barnett - survive from last season's regular starting XI. The rest of them left in the wake of what looked like the certain demise of a club that was over pounds 1 million in debt and reeling from the effects of the - how shall we say - somewhat eccentric ways of the football chairman of every player's worst nightmare, Stan Flashman.

Flashman's running of the club - the way he would repeatedly sack and then reinstate Barry Fry, the manager who had taken Barnet out of the GM Vauxhall Conference and into the League in 1991, and the non-payment of the players' wages - drew the wrath of the FA and an investigation by the Inland Revenue. Banned from the transfer market, and with their players getting out as fast as they could, Barnet looked as though their days were over until the supporters raised pounds 130,000 to try to keep the club going, and, crucially, helped swing the vote when the Football League held an emergency meeting to decide the club's fate.

'Without the supporters, we'd be nothing,' says Barnet's right-back, Paul Wilson, nursing a black eye as he settles into his seat on the team coach. He and the other players have something else to feel sore about: earlier that day Phillips has told the lot of them that they are available for transfer. No more hard-luck stories for Phillips. Yes, he had to assemble the squad in only three weeks leading up to the start of the season. Yes, they were all free transfers because the club couldn't afford to pay a fee for anybody. Yes, the players had no chance to train together, and, as Wilson says, will never be able make up for it. But 10 defeats in 10 Second Division matches won't do.

'It's not so much people telling us we're rubbish that gets to me,' says Phillips, a younger- looking version of Graham Gooch, with the pride and decency to match. 'It's when they start to feel sorry for you. We've had one or two patronising comments, and I know people mean well, but when that happens I just can't take it. We've been unlucky this season. We were drawing 2-2 at Leyton Orient going into injury time and lost 4-2. But we've been rubbish as well, and I hope this will buck a few people up.'

Sitting opposite Wilson on the coach is Carl Hoddle, younger brother of Glenn, and rather in his mould as a midfield player. 'I think some of us probably do need a bollocking,' he says. 'It's difficult for Gary, because he's had to go from being one of the lads to being the boss, and we've got to respect that.' Might the club have benefited from a more experienced man at the top? 'Definitely not,' says Hoddle. 'Gary's absolutely the right man for the job. He's been through it all here, and he knows the players. The fact is that it's a big step up from the Third Division to the Second.'

The present Barnet side do have some advantages over their predecessors. At least they are being paid. Barry Fry may have gone, but so has Stan Flashman, and that is something Barnet are grateful for. The finances are beginning to sort themselves out. 'We may be in debt, but there are plenty of clubs more in debt than us,' says one official. The trouble is, there aren't many worse off in terms of points.

'I dunno. It could easily have gone the other way . . .'

(Photograph omitted)

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