100 Owners: No.99 – Stan Flashman (Barnet)
There was always something inherently contradictory about Stan Flashman. He is, perhaps, best remembered as the “King Of The Touts” (often with the prefix “Self-Styled” attached to it), but when he craved respectability he would rebrand himself as a “Ticket Broker.” Ultimately, though, he himself stated that he didn’t care what he was called as long as the money was right. As the owner of Barnet Football Club, he was at first the man that saved a club that had been sinking into a quicksand of doldrums over the years prior to his arrival at the club. He would also, however, go on to become the man that nearly killed the club after it had achieved its holy grail of arriving in the Football League for the first time.
In the mid-1980s, many of the crises that afflicted the top end of professional football were mirrored in miniature in the non-league game. Hooliganism had become a risk and crowds were down. The formation of the Alliance Premier League in 1979 had been with intention of unifying the top of the non-league game with the aim of securing an automatic promotion and relegation place with the Football League. It’s early years, however, had only been a mixed success. Crowds had fallen as elsewhere and the league itself seemed overly concerned with gimmicks, such as introducing a “no offside from free kicks” rule and introducing three points for an away win and two points for a home win.
The APL had initially taken its teams from the Southern League and the Northern Premier League and Barnet, from one of the leafier suburbs of North London, were its only team in the capital until Isthmian League clubs Enfield and Dagenham were invited to join in 1982. Yet Barnet were amongst the makeweights of the division during its formative years, occasionally dragged towards a relegation battle without ever getting relegated but also unlikely to trouble the teams at the top of the table too much. Playing at the cramped Underhill with its near-vertiginous slope, the balance of non-league football power in non-league football laid very firmly six miles or so to the east with Enfield, who had won the league title in only their second season in the division and seemed perennial giant-killers in the early rounds of the FA Cup.
Yet the times were a-changing, and from the 1986/87 season on the Football League finally allowed one automatic promotion and relegation place between its Fourth Division and the freshly rebranded GM Vauxhall Conference. It was into this fulcrum of change into which Stan Flashman had stepped in 1985. An imposing figure weighing twenty-one stone, Flashman was out of kilter even with the other lower division chairmen of the time. He loved money and hated the press (and frequently, it seemed, his own players and manager), but also saw the potential benefits in getting Barnet promoted into the Football League and paid £50,000 to rescue the club from a threat of receivership under which it hung at the time.
Flashman’s relationship with Barnet FC would come to be seen through the prism of his relationship with one man: manager Barry Fry. As much of a force of personality as Flashman, Fry had first arrived at Underhill in 1979 after spells with Dunstable, Hillingdon Borough and Bedford Town but left the club to take over at Maidstone United in December 1984, not long before Flashman’s arrival at the club. In what could be interpreted as the start of something of a trend – Fry would later claim that he was sacked and reinstated by Flashman eight times over the next eight years – he was back at Underhill by May of the following year, in time to oversee a change of fortunes that would change the face of the club forever, after the resolution of a dispute between the two men over a loan that Fry had taken out to help to rescue the club before Flashman’s arrival.
For several years, it seemed as if Barnet might become the perpetual bridesmaids of the GM Vauxhall Conference promotion race. In 1987 they lost out narrowly to Scarborough and the following season they repeated the trick against the first club to automatically relegated into the division, Lincoln City. A season that started as a relegation battle but eventually solidified into a mid-table finish came in 1989 and in 1990 the team finished in second place in the table for the third time in four years, this time to Darlington. With crowds having risen to over 3,000 the club should have been financially sound, but occasional glimpses of a more complex situation occasionally reared their head, such as when the club sold striker and talisman Nicky Evans to Wycombe Wanderers for £32,000 in 1989 or Flashman ruminating, “Would we be happy as a mid-table Fourth Division side?”, shortly after losing out to Lincoln in 1988.
Further rumours of financial disquiet even followed the club through its 1990/91 promotion season. Defender Phil Gridelet was sold to Barnsley for £175,000 and striker Andy Clarke followed him out of the door to Wimbledon for a massive £350,000. Meanwhile, at the turn of the year the clubhouse, paid for by the Barnet FC Supporters Association in the early 1960s, burned down and there was speculation was that this had not been all that it might have seemed. Still, though, the team kept winning and travelled to Bermondsey to play Fisher Athletic needing a point to lift the championship and finally earn that long-awaited promotion. A crowd of 4,283 – mostly Barnet supporters – turned out for a game which the team nearly threw away again, falling behind twice before rallying to win by four goals to two with two goals in the final five minutes. One hundred and three years after its formation in the same year as the introduction of the Football League, Barnet FC was itself a Football League club for the first time.
For all the delight within the club at having won this promotion, however, concerns over finances continued to grow. The cost of updating the ramshackle Underhill for the Football League had been high and a £150,000 bond had to be paid over while work was being completed on the new clubhouse. Such concerns were put on the back burner once the new season began, and Barnet started in a crazy fashion with results that included a 7-4 reversal against Crewe Alexandra in their first ever Football League match, a 5-5 draw against Brentford in the League Cup and a 6-0 win against Lincoln City. As the season settled down, however, the club established itself as possible candidates for promotion and in the new year it was rumoured that the club had turned down a £1m offer from Aston Villa for the services of Gary Bull and Roger Willis.
Still, though, Barnet remained in a position to challenge for promotion at the end of the season and they finished the season with a place in the play-off places. At home in the first leg against Blackpool, they won by a single goal in a match that they might have won by a far greater margin. After the match, an increasingly erratically-behaving Flashman burst into the home dressing room, castigated the players for not having won by more and, yet again, sacked Fry. Fry was reinstated again, of course, but the damage had been done and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Blackpool won the second leg by two goals to nil to knock Barnet out. By this time, though, Flashman’s popularity was declining rapidly. Rumours of financial difficulties and irregularities were becoming increasingly commonplace, and the following season the club’s stability would unravel in a spectacular fashion.
On the pitch, the 1992/93 season should have been one for more celebration for the supporters of the club as the club was promoted in third place in th newly-renamed Division Three table, but events off the pitch would come to overshadow even this. In November of 1992, the FA fined the club £50,000 for financial irregularities relating to the non-payment of players and of National Insurance contributions. This fine remained unpaid and in March of 1993, Flashman failed to attend a meeting with the club’s players and Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, who had been paying te players wages for the previous three weeks. He then fired Barry Fry and captain Duncan Horton, before resigning as the club’s chairman, although Fry did depart for Southend United with a couple of games left to play. Robert Woolfson, a chartered accountant, was brought in as the new chairman and immediately restored Fry and Horton to their previous positions, but in the summer of 1993 the clubs of the Football League voted on whether to expel Barnet or not.
It might be that Flashman’s resignation saved the club’s Football League place. The vote went narrowly in their favour when it might well not have done had he still been in place and firing on all cylinders, although it was also established by a tribunal that many of the players contracts were invalid and nullified them, leaving to a mass departure and the break-up of the promotion side of the year before. Still, Barnet FC survived and it would have to said that, in spite of Flashman’s resignation (which could be interpreted as falling on his sword or getting out before the trail got too close to him), the club would surely not have found itself had it not been for his actions in the first place. A court case against Flashman was dropped on account of his ill-health, but he was subsequently declared bankrupt and died from a heart attack in Ilford shortly before Christmas 1999, the mansion in Totteridge and the Mercedes Benz with personalised number plates but a distant memory. Described by The Sun at the height of the club’s 1993 crisis as “The ugly face of football”, Stan Flashman’s life ended in stark contrast with the manner in which he spent most of his adult life – out of the spotlight, and in humble surroundings. He once said that, “The supporters do not matter as far as I’m concerned.” Those very supporters kept the club going throughout that difficult summer of 1993, and Barnet FC is still with us, no thanks to the man that saved and then almost killed the club.
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