Hot-Take Tuesday: Barnet Fare
On the one hand, the statement issued yesterday by Tony Kleanthous, the chairman of National League club Barnet, regarding the state of affairs at The Hive for their first home match of the season against Notts County last Saturday has been positively received as a cri de couer against a world in which nothing seems to be going your way, or at least as a refreshingly honest peek behind the curtains of the trials and tribulations of those charged with the thankless task of running a non-league football club.
Barnet supporters, however, may have been forgiven giving all this sympathy for Kleanthous a degree of side-eye. According to the wesbite of Unite, the trade union, Heineken wasn’t on strike last week, as had been claimed in the club’s statement. Rather, there were plans for a 24 hour strike today, with a further one on the 2nd September, to be supplemented by a work to rule which will last until the middle of November, but these were called off at the end of last week when a pay deal was agreed. And regardless, if there was going to be an issue with supply from the brewery (it’s entirely plausible that fears of imminent strike actions pushed Barnet FC down the queue of those to be supplied), what was stopping the club using a wholesaler instead?
And then there’s the small matter of the failure of the club’s kit supplier to provide shirts for the new season, with Kleanthous saying that, “After weeks of chasing, our new team kit finally arrived, only for us to discover that the manufacturer had not put the Club badges on the garments and the sponsor logo on the front of the shirt was too small.” Well no, that’s not good. Supporters are at their most optimistic at this time of the year; it’s definitely the best time to be selling replica shirts.
It is, however, notable that Kleanthous doesn’t mention who the shirt manufacturers are, and this can’t be established from the post on the club website announcing this season’s shirts, where the space that would usually be reserved for the manufacturers logo is taken up with the club’s year of formation. It actually takes a bit of digging to establish that this kit appears to have been designed by a company called Infinity Apparel, who designed this kit for Bolton Wanderers in 2019.
Whoever did make it, we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that it wasn’t made by Jako, the German sportswear manufacturers – they also provide kits to, amongst many others, Bayer Leverkusen, VfB Stuttgart and Ruben Kazan – who’d previously been Barnet’s kit supplier since 2014 (they were even their shirt sponsors for the 2017/18 season). Such details are pretty unimportant in the overall scheme of things, but considering that there have been such issues with the new supplier, it’s worth asking the question of why an agreement with a kit supplier which had lasted for seven years should end.
The matter becomes all the more confusing when we consider Jako Living Sports, who described themselves on their Facebook and Twitter pages as “Official Benchwear Partner of the Vanarama National League” and who likely are (or were) a UK licensee or subsiduary for Jako. Neither of these pages have been updated for almost a year and a half and there was no answer on the telephone number given for them when I tried it this morning, while Jako Living Sports’ own website no longer exists. Considering the state of its accounts for the year to June 2020 (PDF), perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising. It may or may not be worth noting that one of the directors of Jako Living Sports remains one Anthony Andrew Kleanthous.
Supporters of the club have already pointed out that talking about all of this as though it was just huge but short-term series of misunderstandings may be somewhat disingenuous. Beer shortages have been widely reported elsewhere), so it’s possible that somebody within the club has got their messaging about strike action mixed up with something else, but even allowing for this, if everything listed in the club’s statement was going wrong at the same time, why was none of it communicated to supporters before the match?
Notts County are, by the standards of the National League, a big club with a large travelling support, and Barnet had all summer to prepare for the new season. What is a professional football club doing, booking weddings for its facilities for the first weekend of their league season? With last weekend being the first weekend when every level of the game was back playing, there were hundreds of matches going on the length and breadth of the country. Why were Barnet apparently so much more badly affected than anybody else? If anything, Kleanthous’s statement reads as blaming everybody except for Tony Kleanthous for what happened at The Hive on Saturday.
Furthermore, none of this really excuses what happened on the pitch at The Hive on Saturday afternoon. Notts County cruised to a 5-0 win, and remarkably this is the second season in a row that Barnet have shipped five goals at home on the opening day of the season. Barnet finished in 22nd place in the National League last season, winning just eight of their 42 league matches, and were only spared relegation by the fact that there was no relegation from this division at all at the end of last season. There were few signs at The Hive on Saturday that this season is going to be any easier for Barnet supporters than last season was, either on or off the pitch.
We noted the club’s revolving door policy on managers when we last had a look at Barnet, in May. At that time, Simon Bassey had been in charge of the club for six weeks and had become their most successful manager of the season with three wins from his nine matches in charge of the club at the time. It will come as little surprise to learn that Bassey left the club in June to take up a position with Portsmouth, and his replacement was Harry Kewell. Kewell was extrenely unsuccessful in his first two managerial roles at Crawley Town and Notts County and a little unsuccessful in his last position at Oldham Athletic.
So Barnet need to improve on the pitch, and the evidence of last weekend would seem to indicate that they need to improve off it, too. Staff shortages are being experienced across the board at the moment, and with thousands having left the hospitality business over the last few months it seems likely that employers are simply going to have to revise their going rates in an upward direction if they want staff. But at a club at which attendances have long been an issue – all the more so following a move to a ground six miles from the old one – the whys and wherefores won’t bother most people.
No-one is going to claim that the last year and a half hasn’t been extremely challenging for all football clubs, but Barnet haven’t been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, despite Tony Kleanthous’s list of grievances. And as ever, the question of most importance at this stage of the season is, where are the signs that improvement is coming? Because for Barnet Football Club, who ended last season in their lowest league position in decades at the end of last season and who occupy that exact same place after the first match of the new season, that is the question that needs answering more urgently than any other, if the club is to pull out of a tailspin that is threatening to send them into regional non-league football.