Football: The minnows to march on Downing Street

Exclusive: As game bends over backward for Man U, the little men are united. By Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
IT IS the march of football's poor. Up to 1,000 fans of lower league teams will march on Downing Street on 17 July to protest against what they feel is a concerted campaign to force England's less moneyed clubs out of the Football League.

The march has been inspired by the fans of Third Division Barnet who decided to campaign after their club's application for a new ground was turned down. What began as one team's sense of grievance has grown into an expression of widespread disquiet as rival supporters read about Barnet's predicament on the club's fanzine website, Twotogether (a title inspired by the days when the club was owned by Stan Flashman).

Barnet fans will be joined by supporters from clubs including Chester City, Portsmouth, Lincoln City, Luton, Brighton, Leyton Orient, Cardiff City, Oxford United, Wycombe Wanderers, Brentford, Northampton, Doncaster Rovers, Barrow, Enfield and Stevenage Borough. Each team will lay a wreath in their club colours at the gates of Downing Street at 3pm.

At the root of the unease is the Taylor Report, which was produced in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in which 95 people died. Any criticism of its efforts to make stadia safer seem churlish, but many supporters now believe the Football League are using the report, which laid down strict criteria on seats and capacity, as a way of getting rid of their down-at-heel members. Those fans contrast the obstacles thrown in their path with the way in which the football authorities have bent over backwards to allow Manchester United to withdraw from the FA Cup.

Barnet, promoted to the Football League in 1991 after they won the Vauxhall Conference, feel particularly aggrieved. Under the Taylor Report, they must upgrade their Underhill ground in north London - capacity 4,100 - or relocate. Three years ago they received planning permission to develop the nearby Copthall Stadium into a multi-sport complex. Residents of the well-heeled London suburb of Mill Hill objected and, following a public inquiry, John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, blocked the scheme, saying it would adversely affect surrounding greenbelt.

The inquiry ruling also said it was impossible for Barnet to upgrade their ground or relocate to any other nearby site. It has left Barnet, last season the worst supported team in the league with an average attendance of 2,100, with no viable alternative. They have been granted an extension to stay at the ramshackle home of Underhill for a further season, but the future is uncertain.

The club are seething. Tony Kleanthous, the Barnet chairman, has vowed he will not let the Government and football authorities "kill off" Barnet and teams like them. Supporters point out that in contrast to their experience with Copthall, Southampton received planning permission to relocate from the Dell to a greenbelt site within three months. Luton and Brighton, have faced similar headaches in trying to move.

"They seem to have closed off every avenue for us," said long-time supporter Michael Edwards, who is co-ordinating the march, which is part of a campaign to save Barnet FC. "We can't develop our own ground, we can't build a new stadium anywhere and we can't ground share outside the borough, even though Brighton were allowed to share with Gillingham. The whole thing stinks. Tony Banks [the sports minister] has made big noises about investing in soccer, but he seems only interested in the big teams. The agenda appears to be to squeeze out the smaller teams to make space for a second Premier League, which will be a closed shop. Millions of pounds are being poured into football and the greedy clubs are snuffling it all up."

But does it matter if another club disappears off the Football League map, like Aldershot, Newport County and Maidstone? Barnet's 2,100 fans may not be missed among the 55,000 that flock to Old Trafford every fortnight, but they care just as much about their team as those of any club great or small, having already persuaded the League not to expel Barnet in 1993 for what were euphem- istically described as "financial irregularities" during the Flashman era.

"It doesn't matter whether you have 2,000 fans or 50,000," said Edwards, who took part in the 1993 campaign. "The size of your gates don't come into it. The grass roots are crucial to the game. The pounds 20m being spent on players won't last forever. Big business is notoriously fickle and will move on from football at some time."

Even Manchester United supporters, furious over the FA Cup decision and mindful of last season's failed takeover by Rupert Murdoch, have said they will join the march. "The idiots who run football think it will still be interesting when there's only six clubs and they all play Juventus," said one United follower.

Kleanthous, who has already spent pounds 1m upgrading Underhill, said he would fight until "he had nothing left financially" to keep Barnet in the league. "The authorities have underestimated the feeling for the club in the community."

Peter Corrigan, page 14