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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