Fifth Time’s A Charm: On Barnet’s Familiar Season
It’s international break weekend this weekend, friends, so for the rest of this week we’ll be prying our eyes away from the elite world of VARs, Jose Mourinho’s slow-motion metamorphosis into Alex Jones, and Manchester City’s stately procession to the Premier League title to take a look a little further down the ladder, starting at Barnet, where a familiar place in the League Two table has led to a familiar face returning to the club to try and steady its ship.
Monday, then, turned out to be a busy day for Tony Kleanthous, the long-serving and, it can occasionally feel, long-suffering owner of Barnet Football Club. A two-nil home defeat at the hands of Wycombe Wanderers at the weekend left his club sitting at the bottom of the Football League, seven points adrift of safety with just eight games of the league season left to play. Barnet have been involved in some great escapes at the bottom of this division before, but avoiding the drop at the end of this season is starting to look as though it would be the greatest escape of all. The Bees were promoted into the Football League – after several seasons of near-misses – in 1991, and since then the club has already dropped back into the non-league game twice before bouncing back. It almost feels as times as though there should be a special division between League Two and the National League in which the Bees could live without the ups and downs of relegation and promotion.
Despite the fact that Barnet should perhaps by now be used to trampolining between the Football League and the non-league game, Kleanthous has opted to take one more roll of the dice for this season and replace manager Graham Westley and head coach Mark McGhee. Few tears will be shed for Westley, of course. This is a man whose long history continues to cast a shadow over his reputation. Mark McGhee, meanwhile, could be forgiven for wondering where it all went wrong. There was a time, many years ago, when he was one of this country’s hottest up and coming managers. After having started his managerial career at Reading, though, his moves to Leicester City and then to Wolverhampton Wanderers were not without controversy – his ambition to progress seeming to outstrip much of a sense of loyalty to clubs with which he’d signed contracts – and, although he earned a considerable degree of respect during his first spell in charge of Motherwell over his sensitive handling of the death of Phil O’Donnell during a match against Dundee United at the end of 2007, his coaching successes became increasingly few and far between and he hasn’t managed a win percentage of over 40% as the manager of a club since his time in charge of Millwall, between 2000 and 2003.
McGhee’s overall spell at The Hive has come to last for just four months, and both his arrival and departure could be considered symbolic of a club seemingly struggling to find direction over the course of 2017 and 2018. Rossi Eames had two spells as interim manager of the club, with Kevin Nugent also taking charge for eleven games, during the second half of last season before being given the job on a permanent basis. It did not work out particularly well, though, and Eames was replaced by McGhee in the middle of November. McGhee, however, only lasted a couple of months himself before being shuffled into a “head of technical” role in order to accommodate Westley. With both now being shown the door after little respite from a poor season could be found, their departure from The Hive means that the new manager will be the club’s fourth of the season. And that manager is a name that is already very familiar to supporters of the club. Yes, indeed. Martin Allen is back at Barnet for the fifth time.
There’s probably a romantic comedy to be written about the relationship between Martin Allen and Barnet over the last decade and a half, though what exact form a romantic comedy in which the nickname of one of the main characters is “Mad Dog” might take is just about anybody’s guess. Allen first arrived at Underhill in March 2003, taking the club into the play-off places in the National League before suddenly leaving a year later to take charge of Brentford. Spells at Milton Keynes, four matches at Leicester City, and Cheltenham Town followed before his first return to the club in 2011 on an eight match contract, although he only saw out three of those before leaving to take over at Notts County. Following his sacking by County ten months later he returned to the club for a third spell, which saw him pick up two wins at the end of the 2011/12 season to steer the club just clear of the relegation places before leaving again, this time for to Gillingham. His time at Priestfield would last until October 2013, when he was sacked after a poor run of form. Barnet came a-calling again in March 2014, and this time Allen stayed, taking the club back into the Football League at the end of the 2014/15 season.
Yet again, though, Allen’s head was turned by interest from elsewhere, and his departure from the club for Eastleigh in December 2016 came somewhat of the blue. He would, however, only stay with Eastleigh for three months, getting the sack in February of last year after only winning two of his fourteen games in charge. His return to Barnet yet again seems thus far to have received a mixed reaction from supporters of the club. On the one hand, he is a manager who has delivered results for the club before, most notably that 2014/15 National League title. On the other, however, a lot of water has passed under the bridge between Allen and the club over the years. It might be considered reasonable to have hoped that Tony Kleanthous might have shown a little more imagination in trying to dig the club of the hole in which it currently finds itself, but Kleanthous might well counter this criticism by saying that Allen has delivered before and is a safer option than a shot in the dark at this stage of the season.
In the stands, though, apathy has come to reign at The Hive this season. The club’s average attendance is the third lowest in the Football League, and recent matches against Port Vale, Carlisle United and Morecambe have seen reported attendances of only just over eleven hundred people, numbers that would disappoint many National League clubs. The club moved to The Hive in 2013 following a protracted dispute with Barnet Council, but its new home has not turned out to be a perfect venue for the club. It’s five and a half miles from Underhill, in a different borough of London, and some consider that Barnet has lost at least a part of its identity with this move. When we couple this factor in alongside such poor form in the league, it becomes easier to see why people are staying away. It’s true to say that Barnet have long struggled a little for attendances, but this conflation of poor form and a home some distance from home is important. When a team is performing badly in the league, going to matches can feel like an effort. When that effort is required to be made to an imperfect venue that doesn’t feel like home and it’s going to cost a minimum of £19 to get in… well, that’s the point at which an afternoon in the company of Jeff Stelling may well start to sound more appealing than not.
Barnet may have only won four league matches since the ninth of September, but even now there remains a glimmer of hope that the club can stay up this season. They still have to play Crewe Alexandra, Grimsby Town, Forest Green Rovers, Morecambe and Chesterfield – five of the six clubs immediately above them in the current League Two table – over the course of their remaining eight matches, and with Grimsby Town, who currently sit one place above the relegation places, on a run of form that has seen them fail to win a single league match since the second weekend in December, it remains possible that a great escape of the type seen in 2011/12, when Allen’s two wins from the final three matches of the season kept the club in the Football League by the skin of its teeth, might yet be possible. It’s complicated, and it will certainly be difficult, but Barnet supporters will be the first to remind onlookers that it wouldn’t really be Barnet Football Club if it wasn’t.