Paul Newman: 'Mad Dog' Allen puts much-needed bite into Barnet's fight

The Football League Column: With a ground capacity of just over 5,000 and a catchment area dominated by support for Arsenal and Tottenham, Barnet have become accustomed to defying the odds
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The Independent Football

You can defy gravity only for so long. Barnet have been doing so throughout their 16 years in the Football League, but the Hertfordshire club will need to produce one of their best escape acts to date if they are to avoid returning to the Conference this summer.

With just seven matches remaining Barnet are off the bottom of League Two only because their goal difference is superior to Stockport County's. Both clubs in the relegation zone are two points behind third-from-bottom Burton Albion, but the latter have four matches in hand.

The writing has been on the wall for the Bees ever since the third league match of the season, when they lost 7-0 away to Crewe, although they have never lost contact with the teams above them, picking up at least one victory every month since September.

With a ground capacity of just over 5,000 and a catchment area dominated by support for Arsenal and Tottenham, Barnet have become accustomed to defying the odds.

They were first promoted to the League under Barry Fry 20 years ago and have stayed there for all but four seasons. In 2001 a campaign that included a brief spell under Tony Cottee's management ended in relegation back to the Conference, but Paul Fairclough led a return to the League four years later.

Fairclough came back as caretaker manager after the dismissal of Mark Stimson in January, and last week the club turned to another old boy.

Martin "Mad Dog" Allen, who launched his managerial career at Underhill eight seasons ago, is back in charge of a club for the first time since his departure from Cheltenham Town at the end of 2009.

Allen's return began promisingly enough, his team securing a 2-2 draw on Saturday at home to Chesterfield, the leaders, in bizarre circumstances. Trailing 2-1 in injury time, Sam Deering equalised when Tommy Lee, the Chesterfield goalkeeper, appeared to misjudge the substitute's cross from near the right corner flag and the ball flew into the net.

The match marked the debuts of two loan signings: Sam Walker, a 19-year-old goalkeeper from Chelsea, and Jude Stirling, a 28-year-old defender from MK Dons. Allen has also brought in two backroom staff well known to fans: Giuliano Grazioli, a striker he brought to the club in his first spell in charge, and Gary Phillips, a former Barnet goalkeeper and player-manager.

Allen thinks Barnet can still avoid relegation. "They haven't been getting beaten out of sight," he told the BBC. "They've been close to winning games, but haven't quite managed to turn those performances into wins.

"It's not a lot that needs doing. They're a good, young, honest bunch of lads," he added.

Barnet will be hoping Allen can recapture the touch he showed in his first four seasons in management, in each of which his teams reached play-offs: Barnet in the Conference in 2004 (when Allen left for Brentford shortly before the end of the campaign), Brentford in League One in 2005 and 2006 and MK Dons in League Two in 2007.

Allen's career took a rather different turn with his appointment by Leicester City four summers ago. His relationship with Milan Mandaric, the chairman, deteriorated so quickly that he left after only four matches.

His subsequent 15-month reign at Cheltenham ended when he was placed on "gardening leave" following allegations, which he always strenuously denied, that he had racially abused a nightclub bouncer. An internal investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, but the club did not take him back.

Two months ago he was in Burkina Faso on behalf of the League Managers' Association, supporting the "Coaching For Hope" programme, which works with young Africans.

Allen acquired his "Mad Dog" nickname while playing at West Ham, where he shaved his head and quickly established a rapport with the supporters at Upton Park. At Brentford he inspired a fourth-round FA Cup victory at Hartlepool with a pre-match dip in the freezing waters of the Tees and then leapt naked into the Solent before a fifth-round draw at Southampton.

If Barnet are still in with a chance of survival by the time they face Port Vale on the final weekend, a trip down to the Thames could be in order.