Bees seek the land of milk and honey

Barnet are desperate to leave Underhill far behind but poor attendances will not help to lift them off rock bottom

Following Barnet has never been as much fun as in their earliest days as a Football League club, but then how could it be? In the first month of the 1991-92 season they lost the opening game at home to Crewe 7-4, drew 5-5 at Brentford and won 6-0 at Lincoln. All that and Stan Flashman, the country's most famous ticket tout, as chairman. No wonder Barry Fry, the ebullient manager at the time, prone to dashing down the touchline at every goal scored, had heart trouble.

The colourful combination of Flashman, Fry and frequent other F-words is long gone, replaced by Tony Kleanthous, a member of the Football Association Council and International Committee, and Mark Stimson, the former Gillingham manager. Yet two basic problems remain from 20 years ago: the Underhill ground, with its sloping pitch and tiny stands hemmed in among residential streets, is inadequate; and too few people watch games there. Yesterday for the 3-1 victory over Cheltenham Town, the attendance was just 2,082, a figure not helped by having started the day as bottom team in the whole Football League.

Having already gone back down to the Conference once, in 2001, the Bees are keen not be stung again, yet like all clubs at that level they have to fight against the vicious circle of weakening the team by selling their best players out of financial necessity. The solution has been to build from the bottom up, investing in the future with the Hive training centre (Bees, Hive, geddit?), an impressive facility that Fabio Capello opened last December and Bulgaria used before playing at Wembley on Friday.

Planning permission has just been received to upgrade the 3,000-capacity stadium there into one of Football League standard, although it remains the fall-back option rather than the desired one.

Ideally the club would prefer to stay in the borough of Barnet – the Hive is half a mile outside, in Edgware – but they have been searching locally ever since Kleanthous took over.

"I've always said since I came to the club 16 years ago that Barnet Football Club should be in the London Borough of Barnet and I'm trying to get Barnet Borough Council to understand that," Kleanthous said from Portugal, where he was accompanying the England Under-21 squad before rushing back for yesterday's game. "In four years' time, I'll have been there 20 years and there comes a point where you say 'enough'. If the borough can't find a solution, there has to come a point where you draw the line.

"We could probably get away with our ground in League One but there's no way it would be manageable to go up another level," he added. "We've always had this artificial ceiling. It's really frustrating."

It is an ambitious way to think for a club that, like Dagenham & Redbridge, always seemed likely to struggle for support at League level because of such close proximity to a dozen or more London clubs. Links with the bigger ones can sometimes be useful and they helped in the past with recruiting players – Jimmy Greaves, Bob McNab and Tony Cottee among them – and managers including Alan Mullery, Ray Clemence and Peter Shreeves. In general, however, it is the managers with a lesser profile who have done best, and Stimson, who was appointed in June to a team that finished 21st in League Two last season, has to hope that continues.

Arsenal still visit annually for a pre-season friendly and until this season played all their reserve games at Underhill. In common with other top flight clubs, however, they are now switching many of them to their training ground, where no spectators will be allowed to watch. It is an example of what Kleanthous believes strongly to be the Premier League's uncaring attitude to their smaller brethren.

"What do they achieve by that? A lot of smaller clubs were hosting those games. What the Premier League are doing is terrible. Everything they do is about their own growth, they don't mind if it's detrimental to every other club in football. They just don't understand that what they do is having such an effect. The Premier League control everything in this country, not the FA or the Football League, and there's nothing you can do.

"There's more income than we've ever enjoyed, huge amounts come into the game. You'd have thought clubs would have great facilities, prices would be kept low, but we can't get any changes through. And when you speak out against them you get a really hard time."

His willingness to do so endears him to Barnet followers who, apart from an occasional gripe about admission prices or the sale of another striker, appear to be broadly supportive of their chairman. He, in turn, was upset to be asked at a recent supporters' forum if things had improved since he took over, and Kleanthous felt obliged to point out the progress made off the field, if not on it.

"I took over a club nearly £2m in debt, a squad with an average age of 31, no youth set-up, a dilapidated stadium, no assets, no facilities and average support of 1,500," he said. "We didn't meet Conference ground criteria, let alone Football League, and we trained in a park. Yet we endure, thrive and prosper."

In the circumstances, endurance on its own is something to be proud of. Thriving and prospering are a bonus.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz