One of the least desirable effects of the Football League’s absurdly disproportionate points deductions in League Two has been the comparative lack of competition at the bottom of the table. With Luton Town, Rotherham United and AFC Bournemouth having been deducted a massive amount of points between them over their recent financial difficulties, several clubs seem to be taking the opportunity to use this season as the chance for a break from having to try very hard, safe in the knowledge that they are unlikely to find themselves pulled into a serious relegation battle for this season at least. One such club is Barnet.
When Sir John Betjeman wrote lovingly of the outer surburbs of London in “Metroland”, he was writing about the Metropolitan Line, but he could just as easily have been writing about the outer stretches of the Northern Line instead. As the London Underground pulls away from the centre of the city, the gaps between the stations get larger and the trains head out from the tunnels and into the open air and through Suburbia before coming to rest at High Barnet underground station. Barely two hundred yards from the station is Underhill, the less than palatial home of Barnet Football club.
Barnet is a strange place – not quite London, yet not quite the Home Counties, which lie a handful of miles to the north. Sometimes it feels as if the only reminder of being at the northern-most outskirt of London are the red buses, the shops with London telephone codes and the underground station. In much the same way, Barnet Football Club have never been completely sure whether they are a Football League club or not. They were members of the Southern League until the formation of what would become the Football Conference in 1978, where they stayed until their promotion into the Football League in 1991. The last few seasons prior to promotion had been particularly heartbreaking for the club as title challenges were lost in the spring heat, and for a while it seemed as if they would be perennially condemned to finishing no higher than second in the Conference.
Their life in the League started eventfully – a 7-4 home defeat on the opening day of the season at the hands of Crewe Alexandra was followed up with a 5-5 draw against Brentford in the League Cup – and they were promoted again in 1993. From thereon in, however, they had a difficult time of it. They were almost expelled from the League in the summer of 1993 over their financial difficulties, and they have had constant difficulties in getting permission to either move from or substantially improve Underhill, which is penned in by housing on both sides and by a main road at one end. They were relegated from the Football League on the last day of the 2000/01 season, and stayed in the Conference for four years before being promoted back again in 2005.
This season has started disastrously for Barnet. With five straight defeats and eighteen goals conceded on top of a first round League Cup defeat, under normal circumstances they would be in the midst of a crisis. The distorted effect on the League brought about by the points deductions against Bournemouth, Rotherham and Luton has staved off the worst of that, and they go into this afternoon’s match still waiting for their first point of the season, yet curiously unconcerned by thoughts of relegation. Below them, the gap that was there at the start of the season is starting to shrink. Rotherham United are already up to -6 points and Bournemouth are on -14. They still need to start picking up a few points to secure that safety buffer again. This afternoon’s match is against Morecambe, who are a handful of places above them after a less than inspiring start to the season themselves.
The match hasn’t exactly caught the imagination of the local public, and less than 1,800 hardy souls have turned out this afternoon. The mood around the ground is darkened further by news of the death of Oliver Kingonzilla, an 18 year old youth team player last night spreading around the ground. The team, however, start brightly and Adam Birchall’s header is pushed around the post by the Morecambe goalkeeper. Both teams take pot shots at each other until Barnet take the advantage. Albert Adomah picks the ball up on the right hand side and carries the ball into the penalty area before driving the ball past Roche. It’s a moment of inspiration from Adomah, but Barnet’s confidence is still clearly low, and they fail to push home the advantage. Cliff Akurang has a goal disallowed for offside and Ismail Yakubu hasa header cleared off the line, but just before half-time, Diarmuid O’Carroll controls the ball on his chest and volleys the ball past the Barnet goalkeeper Ashley Harrison.
The second half is, comparatively, a let down. As the half wears on, Barnet press forward more and more in pursuit of a first win of the season, and start to create chances as the Morecambe defence starts to tire. Neal Bishop has a shot deflected wide, and Kenny Gillet shoots narrowly wide. The big chance comes as the clock ticks over ninety minutes. Substitute Luke Medley has been on the pitch for half an hour, but has a chance to win all three points for the home side as he breaks through and rounds Roche. Having run wide to get around the goalkeeper, however, he is at a tight angle and slightly off balance, and his tame shot is comfortably cleared. The point that Barnet have picked up doesn’t make a massive amount of difference to the bottom of the table. Rotherham United score an equaliser five minutes into injury time against Rochdale, and Bournemouth slip a point further away with a 1-0 home defeat against Macclesfield Town. More ominously, Luton Town’s 3-1 win against Aldershot Town cuts the gap between Barnet and Luton to twenty points. Luton could yet pull this one back if they can improve their consistency.
For now, though, Barnet appear to be comfortable, though this may not be the an indefinite position for them. The club may yet have cause to be more grateful than most that the Football League have been so harsh in their punishment of financial misfortune, although the club’s supporters may wish to offer a small prayer of thanks for the fact that these rules were not brought in a decade earlier. If they had been, it is unlikely that Barnet would have been playing here today as a Football League club. Given the precarious financial standing of so many lower division clubs these days, it’s a sobering thought for the crowd that disperses through the traffic on Barnet Hill at five o’clock this afternoon.