Hivemind: The Slump of Barnet Football Club
At the exact time of writing, it seems likely that crowds will be present when next season starts, and this is an eventuality upon which many – perhaps most, plausibly all – non-league football clubs are basing their hopes of pulling through the current pandemic unscathed. There is absolutely no question whatsoever that the last fifteen months have been financially ruinous for the whole of football, and it is little short of a miracle that there haven’t been more casualties than there have been. But this is the last chance saloon. The 2021/22 season cannot afford no fans.
Clubs’ reactions to lockdown football have been varied, though. West Ham United, for example, have had a very good lockdown and are on course for their highest league position since they finished 5th in the Premier League in 1999. At the other end of that spectrum, though, other clubs have sufferered both on and off the pitch, and at the sharp end of this end is Barnet, who until 2018 were an EFL club, but who are now rock bottom of the National League and who will only be spared relegation at the end of this season by the fact that there is no promotion and relegation between the National League and its two regional divisions this season.
So, how did it come to this? Well, in the case of Barnet FC, the answer to what question is well, how long have you got? You could go back to Stan Flashman, the King of the Touts, and Barry Fry, or further, to the clubs several financial close shaves before. But under owner Tony Kleanthous, Barnet did at least manage to stabilise themselves financially, and carved themselves a tidy little niche, bouncing between the National League and League Two. In the first place, it took them a while to get up from the Conference into the Football League. It came in 1991 after several failed attempts, but this turned out to be the first of three promotions and relegations over the next thirty years.
Barnet moved from Underhill to The Hive in the summer of 2013, claiming to have been driven out by an intransigent and hostile council. Their average home attendance for the 2012/13 season, their last at their former home, was 2,440. If The Hive was supposed to draw in a new generation of fans from different parts of quite a large London borough, though, Kleanthous would appear to have severely miscalculated. Barnet’s crowds haven’t grown at all. If anything, the club has struggled to maintain the support that it had when it played at Underhill.
Barnet’s attendances have undulated in recent years, correlated closely to the team’s league performance. Since moving to The Hive coincided with one of their periodic relegations from the EFL, though, attendances did drop the following season to 1,705. They increased a little the following season, to 1,960, a championship-winning season, and then got back to 2,358 at the end of their first season back in the EFL.
But when relegation hit the club in 2018, it hit them hard. Their average attendance at the end of their first season back fell to just 1,338. At the point of the pandemic breaking out, that number had fallen still further, to 1,224. To put it another way, Barnet are exactly a division lower now than they were when Kleanthous moved them out of Underhill, and crowds since halved between 2013 and 2020, though this does come with the caveat that league position has been a factor in the past. The two matches for which they were allowed to admit fans this season, against Wealdstone and Stockport County in December, were watched by 717 and 792 people respectively.
The problem here is, of course, that Barnet’s league form has been in freefall. The club’s declining attendances between 2013 and 2020 came against a background of the club operating as one might have expected. Promotion back to the EFL, a couple of seasons in a lower mid-table position, and then relegation back in 2018. But since then, Barnet have only really flirted with getting back into the League. Their 13th place in 2019 was their lowest league finish since 1986, and their recovery to make the play-offs last season – where they were beaten in the semi-finals by Notts County – came from a final league table calculated by points per game.
Since the lockdowns started in March 2020, though, Barnet have been amongst the most seriously affected in the non-league game. Almost as soon as the first lockdown began last year, the club announced that it would be making all of its non-playing staff – around 60 people – redundant, with a club statement saying that:
Since relegation, we have seen a general drop in crowd attendances of 50%, whilst general costs have increased resulting in operational losses of approximately £100,000 per month.
The club budgeted for this cost in the hope of promotion but of course, at the end of April, all of our parachute funding will cease and we need to therefore make savings accordingly.
The extent to which this may have been considered jumping the gun was demonstrated just eight days later, with the news of the government’s furlough scheme. None of this, however, prevent Kleanthous from warning that the club could be forced to go part-time if support packages coming through from elsewhere weren’t sufficient: “I get very concerned when people band numbers around because when you say £17m, well that might help for two or three months, but what happens if this goes on for six, 12 months?”
Fourteen months on, we now know. The Hive isn’t just a football ground. It has a gym and football pitches for hire, and with that income source suddenly strangled, the club’s financial position worsened more than most. By August, parachute payments from the EFL and their sponsorship deal with Cannon Medical Systems had ended. Kleanthous, however, remained fixated at this point on the new season starting with supporters in attendance, saying that, “If we open with a crowd in October, we are going to be on a limited capacity. Let’s assume we are limited to 1,500 people, our income will be around £15,000. Take out your stadium expenses, it does not leave a lot to run a team with. But you do what you can with what you have got. So there is no doom and gloom here. Nothing but optimism. We will take what we have got and do the best we can with it.”
Within a few weeks of the start of the new season, though, doom and gloom was everywhere. The National League didn’t start with crowds present after the virus surged into its second wave, and Barnet started their new season about as dismally as they could have done anyway, losing 5-1 at home to Eastleigh on the opening day. That said, early season form wasn’t on the whole too bad to start with, but it fell off a cliff after the middle of November, with the team winning just one of their next 26 league matches, including losing 4-1 at Woking, 5-2 at Halifax, 6-0 at Chesterfield, 5-1 at King’s Lynn and 5-1 at local rivals Wealdstone.
After the Wealdstone defeat Kleanthous cracked, with a Q&A on the club’s website which resulted in him saying that, “Sadly, there are some who no longer follow us but just because they attended Underhill ten or more years ago think they have the right to abuse the good name of Barnet FC, the players, staff and management who are giving everything they can for our Club”, and that, “I’m only interested in hearing from those that do turn up and do invest in the Football Club, not the twittering idiots whose sole intent is to reinvent the past and try and divide us”, all of which resulted in considerable unhappiness from the club’s support and an apology, two days later.
Events elsewhere have, at least, ensured that Barnet will not suffer the indignity of relegation come the end of this season. This has been a calamitous league season for the club – at the time of writing, they are 22nd out of 22 with four games to play and were there four relegation places this season as there normally are, they’d be 15 points from safety – but it doesn’t seem particularly wise to be criticising those who don’t attend at the moment, when the club was known to be struggling for attendances prior to the start of the lockdowns. The club has been criticised in some quarters for not having done enough to attract new supporters to the club since moving to The Hive. Getting involved in online spats doesn’t seem like the best way to change that.
And there is one further area in which Barnet probably do need to change things. The managerial position has, including caretakers, changed hands 36 times over the last twenty years, four more times than over the entire remainder of the club’s 132 year history. Of these 36 changes, Martin Allen and Paul Fairclough been in that position five times each, while others to have chosen to take on this particular poisoned chalice over the previous two decades have included Edgar Davids, Mark McGhee, Peter Shreeves, Graham Westley, John Still, Tim Flowers and Lawrie Sanchez.
Barnet have, including caretakers, burned their way through six managers since the first lockdown started. After failing to agree a new contract, Darren Currie left in August last year. He was replaced by Peter Beadle, formerly of Newport County and Hereford (amongst others), but he was sacked after their 6-0 defeat at Chesterfield in December and replaced by Tim Flowers, who lost 11 out of his 12 matches in charge before being fired himself. There were then brief spells caretaker spells for repeat offender Paul Fairclough and Gary Anderson, before the club appointed Simon Bassey in April. With three wins from nine matches at the time of writing, Bassey is already statistically by far their most successful manager of the season.
Perhaps if Kleanthous could fix Barnet’s apparent revolving door policy towards managers, there would be a little more of the stability that would allow a new team to be built. Current incumbent Bassey has been in charge of the club for six weeks, but how much longer will he last? And is there a plan to ensure that this season’s disasters aren’t repeated next time around, by which time the spectre of relegation will have returned? And what possible horrors could lurk within the company accounts, which are due to be lodged for to the year to the end of June 2020 in six weeks time?
Surviving relegation because no-one is going down is very fortuitous for Barnet, but the team still needs major surgery if it is not to merely repeat the misery of this season next time around. This team, it is perfectly evident, is not fit for purpose, at this level of the game, and replacing what needs to be replaced is likely to take time and cost money that it is unlikely the club has. This is why it’s so important that crowds are back next season. If Barnet are in a position to be able overhaul their first team this summer, they will have to enter into contracts with players which depend on fans being allowed back into matches, and Barnet in particular will be also be depending on fans returning to their club more than most, in view of the decline in crowds that has taken place there in recent years. The non-league is unlikely to be able to withstand any further lockdowns. Football without fans is nothing, but football with fans, at this level of the game and below, is everything.