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As the crowd of just over 1,700 filed out of Underhill after a six-three home defeat at the hands of Burton Albion last weekend, supporters of Barnet Football Club had little option but to face up to the prospect of another difficult season in League Two again this year. The club is in second from bottom place in the Football League with only Plymouth Argyle below them, and with Plymouth now having finally exited administration and Barnet having lost seven of their last eight matches, a club which has maintained its League Two status by the skin of its teeth for the last couple of seasons will be looking nervously at the trapdoor which is threatening to open up below it again. It is perhaps unsurprising that the grumbling of the support in the direction of manager Lawrie Sanchez has become louder over the last few weeks as his team has continued to struggle, but Barnet don’t only face issues on the pitch.
This year has seen a souring of the club’s already fractious relationship with its local council to the point of breaking, with recent public statements from the club’s chairman, Tony Kleanthous, effectively accusing the London Borough of Barnet council of no longer wanting the football club on its doorstep. Barnet have played at Underhill since 1907 but in recent years their ground, which sits adjacent to green belt land and a residential area, has come to look less and less appropriate for League football. In 2001, the club obtained planning permission to redevelop the site at Copthall athletics stadium in nearby Mill Hill. This permission, however, was subsequently revoked by a government planning inspector but, to considerable surprise, local rugby club Saracens RFC managed to obtain permission to move in there with plans that would incorporate temporary stands – which would enable Copthall to still be used as an athletics track – earlier this year.
At the time, the local council requested that the football club didn’t oppose the plans and promised to step up its efforts to find the club a new home, but the relationship between the club and its local authority has only soured further since then. The latest issue to hit Barnet relates to access to parts of their current ground. At the end of last month, the club confirmed that the council had refused to guarantee an extension of a licence to access a road which runs behind one of the stands at Underhill, leaving the club with effectively no vehicle access to its offices. The council stated at the time that Kleanthous’ claims that the council wants the club out of the borough were “rubbish” and that the reason for the delay in granting the licence was a completely revised ground plan submitted by the club last month. In what is increasingly looking like a PR battle between the club and the council, though, he-said-she-said allegations are only likely to cloud the matter of whether Barnet FC stays in the borough, in the long term.
Barnet have confirmed that they are to apply to the Football League to groundshare elsewhere, although it has also been reported that they wish use Underhill for at least part if next season, but with their current licence to play there during at the end of next year set to expire, where they might end up after that is anybody’s guess. There are certainly no other venues that spring immediately to mind within the borough of Barnet itself. The alternative might be for the club to leave the borough altogether and relocate to the Prince Edward Playing Fields in neighbouring Harrow. The club bought the site to develop as a training ground and centre of excellence in 2007, and the development received considerable financial support from the Football Foundation and the London Borough of Harrow Council. The initial plans for the site, however, made provision for a 5,000 capacity ground for local non-league club Wealdstone. How, though, would this sit with any plans that Barnet may have to redevelop the site for their own use in the long term?
There has been a recent trend for local authorities be be helpful when dealing with clubs having ground-related issues. In recent weeks, Manchester City Council have approved plans for FC United of Manchester to build a home of their own in the Moston area of the city, while the involvement of Plymouth Council proved vital in assuring the long term security of Plymouth Argyle after their recent brush with death. It isn’t difficult to see how the club has become so frustrated by its local council. It seems unlikely that there are many people in the borough that wouldn’t already be aware of the protracted saga over Copthall Stadium, and the decision to subsequently gift the site to Saracens RFC seems like an eyebrow-raising one. It may also be worth pointing out that this is a council which had, as it were, previous in this respect. Barnet Council ere significantly involved in the lifting of covenants restricting the use of Hendon FC’s Claremont Road a couple years ago when the ground’s owners, a company called Arbiter Ltd, wanted to sell it and use the site for housing. At the time of writing, Claremont Road sits derelict while Hendon FC play their home matches several miles away at Wembley FC.
For all the scepticism that can be thrown at the actions of the council, though, whether the nature of the inflammatory language used by Tony Kleanthous over the last few weeks, days and months is helping the cause of the club us open to question, to say the least. Kleanthous has gone on record as having claimed that the local council has, since turning Conservative, been obstructive in dealing with the club, in saying, “But since they [the Conservative party] took power, they have told us we can’t rebuild and said there is nowhere else in the borough for us”, whilst comments such as (in relation to the cost of a lease that the club has had to pay), “If that isn’t a kick in the face, then I don’t know what is” are confrontational, to say the least. If the council is being intransigent (and, whilst it would be improper to say here whether they definitely have been, there are definitely aspects of the council’s behaviour in recent months which suggest that their attitude towards the football club has not been all that it might have been), whether such language on his part is going to help with future relations would seem doubtful, even if the cause of his frustration is clear.
Football clubs dealing with local councils have had mixed experiences in recent years, though it has been seldom that a club itself has resorted to such harsh language in describing its relationship with the local authority as Kleanthous has. What is perhaps frustrating for football clubs is the lack of consistency between authorities. The local councils in Manchester and Plymouth, for example, have been critical in supporting a new ground for FC United of Manchester and in the saving of Plymouth Argyle, but others haven’t necessarily been so lucky. There is a grim irony in the fact that it was a disastrous ground-share deal with Saracens RFC which precipitated Barnet’s closest local rivals, Enfield FC, losing their ground in 1999 and, whilst the notion of “telling the council where to go” might seem like an appealing one at present, that Enfield Town took a full decade from their 2001 formation to move into a home of their own should be a cause for concern amongst the club’s support. Underhill may appear unsatisfactory, but it is home and it is difficult to imagine a ground-sharing Barnet being able to hold onto as much as the modest status that they hold now.
The loss of smaller football grounds in London over the last thirty years or so has been little short of disastrous for lower division football in the city. The number of grounds now built over or standing derelict is huge, and is perhaps a reflection upon the value of land in the city and its immediate surroundings. Should Barnet leave Underhill, they are likely to find that returning to the borough will prove difficult and moving from the borough altogether may well have a serious affect on the club’s identity, with – in spite of the chairman’s claims that Barnet would pack a new ground – no guarantees that people would flock to see Barnet FC playing in a different part of London. As a borough of London with a population of 350,000 people, there should be no question that a football club there should be supportable regardless of the nearby giants of Tottenham and Arsenal, but whether the people of the borough can be re-engaged to get behind their local team is a matter for conjecture. Whether Barnet FC can be viable in the long-term playing at the level that they are, therefore, will come to depend on a number of variables, but the one thing that we can say for certain is that the loss of Underhill, yet another of North London’s ancestral football homes, would be a crying shame.
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Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Really interesting piece (few typos though!). Excuse my ignorance but is redeveloping Underhill out of the question?
Typos corrected, Neil (most of them, anyway – the majority of this was typed on my mobile phone, which explains that). On the subject of Underhill, the biggest problems that I can think of are access and space. The ground is more or less surrounded by roads and houses on three sides, and South Underhill – immediately to the south of the ground is green belt land. Add in the Underhill slope, and the reasons for the club wanting to leave it are understandable. I am inclined – if you’ll pardon the pun – to think that they will resent a move away from their at leisure, though.
Having lived in Barnet from 1993 until last month, I am not at all surprised as it’s hard to imagine a more inactive and yet obstructive local council. Seeing Claremont Road lying derelict is a real pity and the battle between Kleanthous and the council over Underhill has been a long one now. As an aside, I once took part in an athletics meet at Copthall – plenty of room there and still nearby although like Don Valley, Gateshead and others, not suitable for footy as it is.
Good piece Ian!
Regarding Underhill, my reading of the situation is that BFC don’t really want to move out (why would they?), however, the stadium does not meet current grading requirements, mainly due to the slope of the pitch. TK has managed to stave this off for the time being (being head of the FA grading committee does have it’s advantages after all…hmmm…), so as long as they don’t get religated the issue is on the back burner.
However, should they drop down into the BSP then the ground would have to be regraded by the FA to meet Grade A standards, something that is impossible with the pitch as it is. As all the pitch side facilities (stands/terraces etc) have been built to meet the side of the pitch as it is today, it makes it nigh on impossible due to cost to level the surface to meet grade A standards. The only other alternative would be to completely rebuild the stadium from the ground up to match a level playing surface, which would be totally out of the budget of BFC, especially as they would still need a ground to play at (as you stated, a groundshare…where?) in the interim period. Even that would not be a good solution considering the restraints placed upon access to Underhill by the council, so even if they were to do it, it would be unwise in the long term to do so.
The obvious solution would be for TK to sell the site for redevelopment and seek a new site to build a ground upon to secure the long term future of the club. Copthall was ideal, but as stated, they’ve been gazumped here. Therefore, you have to look a little further afield to find an alternative, and with the development of PEPF you probably have hit the nail on the head.
When the original design was submitted (and planning permission granted) for the devlopment of the site at Canons Park, the stadium facility was to be “of Conference National Standard” as this was envisaged all that would be needed in the medium term for a club of the status of Wealdstone FC at the time. When the original project hit the rails (as has been explained many times in the past) and BFC managed to swipe the site from under the noses of WFC a new set of planning was submitted which included the stadium capacity to be greatly increased. One might ask why TK would want to spend money on increasing the size for no reason, on a facility that didn’t need it, that Barnet were not going to be able to use nor gain any extra revenue from. The obvious explaination (and you don’t need to be a cynical Wealdstone fan or conspiracy theorist to come to the conclusion) was that he saw the stadium as the perfect (perhaps the only) viable alternative to the situation that BFC find themselves in now.
The only question remaining though is how can Barnet move into PEPF when the planning permission explicitly says that the stadium can only be used by Wealdstone? Hmmm…now there is the $64,000 question…
It is interesting to note at this point, that one of the first clauses in the granted planning permission was that the site could not be opened for business until all phases of construction were complete. This seems to have been “convieniently forgotton about” by the looks of things as the stadium is still on the whole derilict and untouched since construction was restarted, yet the money making parts of the site (3G pitches for example) have been finished and are now open to make money.
The whole situation with PEPF and the treatment of Wealdstone FC by TK is something that understandably sticks in the throat of all Stones fans, and it seems as if the “poor relations” of BFC are being given the pointy end of the stick once again. The fact that TK continually acts the victim of the treatment that BFC are getting from Barnet Council whilst on the other hand seems to be happy to steamroller another local club for his own benefit is two faced at the least, yet alone immoral in the eyes of the common football supporter.
This whole sordid affair deserves to be in the public domain, instead of being brushed under the carper by TK. To him, WFC are little more than a spot that needs to be occassionally scratched, or totally ignored for as long as he can. It is blatently obvious that he has plans to move BFC to PEPF, but for that to happen he needs WFC out of the way. To him the ideal scenario is the death of Wealdstone, allowing him free reign to move BFC in without needing to spend a penny. He has made WFC an “monitary offer” for them to give up the sole right to use the stadium, but this figure was derisory considering how much WFC had already invested there, the fact that they still have FF grants outstanding for the site (which won’t be realised until the stadium is complete, therefore constraining WFC from applying for any more funding to improve their current facilties at Grosvenor Vale), and that it would mean WFC giving up their “birth right” for a decent BSP standard stadium.
There is milage in this story Ian, perhaps you should consider doing an expose on it in a future article…
Local council lifts covenant on football stadium? Well I never!
You’d think these bureaucratic bozos would have learned a little from Wimbledon FC and the Plough Lane fiasco.
Or maybe not.
Strange also how neighbouring councils seem more positive and proactive about someone else’s “cherished community asset” too…
All I can say is spot on Micky Bananas. Absolutely. TK is hard done by in some quarters and yet happy to exploit another club to his own ends. Can’t have it both ways Mr K. Well you can try but Wealdstone FC aren’t going away.
The real story behind the development of Prince Edward Playing Fields, now known as the Hive is one of the great hidden scandals within the world of Football Politics but which is a soul destroying tale of hopes and dreams dashed. Pragmatism and a history of diasters has possibly made Wealdstone people almost immune to massive kicks in the nuts like this but as time goes on less people seem to understand or care about what should be Wealdstone’s legacy. A Legacy for 10 years of blood, sweat, political lobbying by the bucket load and hundreds of thousands of pounds expended….only to hand a half built stadium over on a plate to another football club FOR NOTHING and who cant or dont recognise how they got to get into the ‘The Hive’ in the first place. Shocking!
Ah, Mr Kleanthous the property developer, who would have to pay Barnet council 60% of the fee for selling the Underhill land for development unless it was shown that the council forced the club out of the area, and has spent several years going on about how the council are trying to force the club out of the area. He’s played a blinder so far.
perhaps a good point to add this…
an interview with the aforementioned Chairman wherein he basically says he intends to move BFC to PEPF, yet not one mention of Wealdstone anywhere.
Can only whole heartedly agree with the comments of Mr DuGard, he was instrumental in the original project at PEPF and is more qualified than anybody else to pass comment upon it.
It is an utter disgrace the way WFC have been treated in this whole affair, what goes around comes around, and sadly I have to admit I cannot wait to see TK fall flat on his face and get his comeuppance. It is unfortunate that this may result in BFC finding themselves in the same situation that WFC was in 20 odd years ago. Only then perhaps will their supporters realise why we continue to fight this situation with all our hearts.
One would hope that the Bees fans will learn from the mistakes that Stones fans made in trusting what appeared to be “honourable” men that were running our club, and don’t allow their real home to be pulled out from underneath them without so much as a whimper.
If TK thinks he can just walk into PEPF without a fight, then I believe he seriously underestimates the feelings of WFC supporters on the subject, and should prepare himself for a very rough ride if he tries…
[…] the latest instalment in Barnet Football Club’s fractious relationship with its local council at the beginning of last month, but the timing of the resurfacing of this issue and the question of if or why the council is […]
I’ve not seen this anywhere but would a Barnet / Wealdstone grounshare at The Hive not be an option?
[…] Barnet indicated that they would be leaving Underhill at the end of the current season, following a long-running dispute between chairman Tony Kleanthous and the Tory overlords of Barnet Council. However, it remains […]
I’m a Barnet fan who lives close to Wealdstone’s current base in Ruislip. I’d have thought a groundshare between Barnet & Wealdstone would make perfect sense. However one of the things that probably needs to stop to give this a chance of happening is the sanctimonious Barnet bashing by Wealdstone’s supporters ! As I understand it, Wealdstone’s planned development of PEPF went belly up when their commercial partner went bust. This left Harrow Council with a half built facility and no funds to complete it. Wealdstone never moved in or played a game at the site. Barnet stepped in and provided/accessed the funds to complete the project.
Wealdstone currently play at Grosvenor Vale in Ruislip, a ground that previously, for a large number of years, accommodated Ruislip Manor FC. Again, as I understand it, the ground was owned by Ruislip Manor Sports and Social Club who leased the stadium to the football club. The Sports and Social Club went bust, Wealdstone stepped in and bought it and kicked Ruislip Manor FC out.
If I’m factually inaccurate please correct me.If not, how about we accept that football clubs are competitive businesses that will generally do whatever is best for themselves.
Not quite factually correct Dave, as is reported in the link from this site, RMFC were on the verge of going pop, indeed Wealdstone Directors took on all the debts that were left behind by a combination of RMSSC and RMFC
Thanks for the correction. However Wealdstone then took over the ground for their own use ? They may have offered Ruislip Manor FC some terms to stay on for all I know. If they did, they clearly weren’t acceptable to RM FC as they left. Pretty much the same situation as Barnet and Wealdstone at PEPF/ The Hive ?
I don’t think the situation was anything like the current PEPF debate.
RMFC were on the verge of folding before WFC were in the picture. As far as I’m led to believe there had been a lot of in fighting going on in the Boardroom at RMFC as the money ran out.
Indeed RMFC asked WFC if they could pay the officials for the remaining games of the season to enable them to complete their fixtures. All the players also left as they were unable to pay them, and they ended up finishing the season with Youth players turning out.
So Wealdstone came upon a situation where another club had fallen on hard times and did not have the funds to keep their ground. They (perfectly understandably) decided that this wasn’t their problem and took advantage of the situation to secure themselves a home ?
I’m not blaming Wealdstone for doing so and I do sympathise with their misfortune over PEPF, but I really don’t see how Barnet have any obligation to Wealdstone or should feel guilty about stepping in and taking over The Hive. There is, in my eyes, no moral difference between the two situations.
Harrow Council may have let Wealdstone down but Barnet haven’t acted any more selfishly over PEPF than Wealdstone did over Grosvenor Vale.
As I said from my first post I’d have thought a groundshare at the Hive would make a huge amount of sense for Barnet (It would reduce overheads and/or increase revenue). In all honesty I’m less convinced it now makes as much sense for Wealdstone. They have done a a lot of excellent work to put down roots in Ruislip. I doubt there are many lost fans in central Harrow who will suddenly reappear again if the club is aabout a mile closer.
If Wealdstone really do want to move to The Hive (Rather than just trying to get some compensation from someone)I think both sets of supporters need to start finding common cause rather than finger pointing and name calling.
Totally agree about finding a way forward, but a groundshare is a non starter from a WFC point of view, s other than gate receipts then they would have no source of income coming in to the Club.
The fact that Barnet have moved in and taken over the site isn’t really the issue, as the land belongs to the council and as such it’s down to them to secure the best future for it.
The main sticking point is that WFC have invested something in the region of £250k in the site, which includes the stands that currently sit on the stadium piece of land. Despite the fact that the building company went in to liquidation, technically the ground still belongs to WFC as they havent given up their rights on it.
I think that is the main area of concern.
Up to the point Wealdstones investors pulled out, £5 million had been spent on the site. £3 million from investment companies who will never see a return or their money back, £1.8 million of grants and public money that was slowly disappearing as the site reverted back to wasteland and £300k from Wealdstone supporters. Wealdstones Chairman at the time said the cost of the project had risen from £4 million to £9.5 million and that when investors walked away the project was 60% complete.
When Barnet took over the site the costing was that a further £8 million would be required to complete the project and at the point the training complex was opened the total spend stood at £11 million.
Sounds to me like when Wealdstone took on this project they completely underestimated what was required and ended up in the same position as Hayes and Yeading are currently in. I suspect the real issue now is Wealdstone trying to use the Hive as leverage against their current Landlords to obtain the best deal possible in their lease negotiations. Once Wealdstone lost ownership of the site it was always going to be the case that they would struggle to make playing at the Hive financially viable without having access to the off field revenue the site produces.