It always used to be one of English football’s more idiosyncratic, an underground train on the Northern Line, emerging from the darkness and speeding through the identikit suburbia of North London to High Barnet. Once alighted from the train, you are thrust into a world of curious angles. The steep hill into the town centre to one side, and the curiously vertiginous sloping pitch of Underhill straight ahead. In the days before a permanent seated was but behind the goal at the far end of this slope, standing on the top steps at the North Terrace felt like standing at the top of world, looking down on all there was. Behind you was a high netting to protect the houses tucked in behind it. For the supporters of Barnet Football Club, this was home. Over the last two decades, though, Underhill has changed. The slope was lessened in severity in 1991 in order to meet Football League regulations, and the terrace at the foot of the hill was replaced, first by temporary open seating and then by a small seated stand. Everywhere you look, there is amber and black paint, which, when combined with the yellow, striped paint which adorns the ashpalt at the front of the terrace and acts as a reminder not to stand directly behind the barriers, can create a rather hypnotic effect on a sunny day. It has been patched up to meet changing regulations on numerous occasions, but Underhill remained one of the Football League’s more modest venues to its very end, even if it had started to look a little like a relic from another era.
At least, however, it went out in dramatic circumstances. Barnet went into their final home league match at Underhill against Wycombe Wanderers in League Two’s bottom two places. Their visitors may have been excused having one eye on their summer holidays, being in a comfortable mid-table position and unable to challenge either the play-off or relegation places, but with seven clubs still scrambling to avoid dropping into the Blue Square Bet Premier with just two matches of the season left to play, there are no easy games for anybody at this stage, no point at which a stomach might twist itself into a knot and the utterly unexpected might happen. With nine minutes left to play, fingernails shredded, and the nervous energy of the crowd hanging over the ground like a haze, Barnet broke through when Jake Hyde scored from close range. There was still, however, time for one final twist in the ground’s one hundred and six year history. In the final seconds of the game, Tom Flanagan fouled Wycombe’s Bruno Andrade inside the penalty area. With hearts in mouths, Joel Grant stepped up to take this one, final kick for Wycombe, but the Barnet goalkeeper Graham Stack, who started his career with five matches in the League Cup for Arsenal nine years ago, dived across his goal to the right and pushed the ball around his post and wide.
At the full-time whistle came the inevitable pitch invasion, a final chance to salute a ground which has come to weigh heavily around the club’s neck in recent years. This result didn’t ensure survival in the Football League. Far from it. It lifted Barnet only to twenty-second place in the table, seperated by just one point from another spell in non-league football next season. It did, however, leave their fate in their own hands. A win at Northampton Town next weekend will mean survival in the Football League, no matter what. But in some respects, even the drama on the pitch wasn’t the most important thing that happened to Barnet Football Club yesterday. A new home, called The Hive for now, should be ready for the start of next season, but this is not a move that many at the club have wanted. The Hive is is not even in the London Borough of Barnet. It’s in neighbouring Harrow, in something of a public transport wasteland that it is estimated may take more than an hour to get to from the centre of Barnet itself. It would be a stretch to call this “franchising”, but there must be questions to be asked, even considering that the club has stated that it will be running subsidised transport from Barnet to the new ground, over how this might affect a club which has struggled with its attendances in recent years.
Most supporters hold the local council responsible for this state of affairs having come to pass. It is a dispute over access to the ground and the lease for a cricket club that sits behind one of the stands there. Barnet Council have already overseen the removal of one of the area’s clubs, Hendon, from its ground whilst offering little support to the stricken club. Barnet seem to have received little help, either, and the impression has taken hold in recent times that the local council simply is not interested in having professional football on their patch. If that is the case, then they have got what they wanted. Whether this is for the good of the borough or not is, of course, a different matter altogether. Yesterday afternoon, the public turned out in force to say goodbye to Underhill. There were 6,000 people there yesterday, buy how many of them – even taking into account the impressive away following that Wycombe Wanderers took with them yesterday afternoon – will be making that trip across North London next season? No-one knows at the moment, really. Perhaps enough people will continue to make that journey week in week out next season, through the wet and windy nights of the winter, and the club will be able to engage with a new community in which it finds itself and will be able to make the most of it whilst trying to arrange a return to the borough.
If there is a little uncertainty over the club’s long-term future, then at least Underhill floated from the present tense to the past on a high. If Barnet can cling on for this season, then it may be easier for the club to entice people to make that journey to the new home, and in the anticipated chaos of next weekend, then at least Edgar Davids and his players will make their journey to Northamptonshire next weekend with the adrenaline rush that came with yesterday’s win still fresh in their minds. The longer-term challenges for the club, however, remain unclear. With a ground a ten minute walk from the town centre, Barnet Football Club were unable to attract many more than a couple of thousand people to Underhill for League Two football. At it says goodbye to Underhill and to a new beginning, the club is taking one of the greatest risks in its 125 year history. It is, however, a risk that doesn’t seem to have been lightly. Only time will tell how it will all play out.
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