8 May ~ Barnet's Underhill home may be famous for its sloping pitch, but in footballing terms things have been going downhill for the club or much of the current season. After briefly topping League Two back in September, the subsequent long slide down the table has been disappointing, if not entirely unexpected for the Bees. Another season of mid-table safety seemed on the cards – but all that changed rather suddenly a few weeks ago. A catastrophic run of form in recent weeks has meant that the club are now staring relegation in the face.
The final game of the season, at home to Rochdale today, has become the biggest at Underhill for a decade – the last one being a similar relegation decider in 2001, which saw the club demoted to the Conference after losing to Torquay. Only a month ago the situation looked much brighter for Barnet, with Darlington already relegated and Grimsby 11 points behind the Bees. But a sudden upturn in form has given the Mariners a real chance of avoiding the drop, while Barnet have lost seven of their last eight games. Now the Bees must beat Rochdale tomorrow to guarantee their survival.
It nearly didn't come to this. The penultimate game of the season saw Barnet travel to Blundell Park last Saturday to face Grimsby. The advantage was still with the Bees – a mere point would secure their place in the Football League for another season. Three days before the big match and following yet another defeat – this time away to Accrington – chairman Tony Kleanthous decided that enough was enough and promptly sacked Ian Hendon, the Bees' young manager.
The timing of the decision came as a surprise to fans and players alike – the Barnet players were not told in advance and only heard the news when it was announced on Sky Sports News. But at a fans meeting the following evening, Kleanthous explained to worried supporters that he could simply not see the Bees winning another game this season while Hendon was still in charge. It was a view shared by most supporters – Hendon had done his best but recent performances had shown the team were just not responding. Kleanthous immediately appointed a caretaker manager in Paul Fairclough, the former Bees boss who stepped down midway through last season to take control of the club's youth set-up and who, having guided the Barnet back into the Football League in 2005, is considered a safe pair of hands.
Barnet supporters travelled to Blundell Park feeling tense but relatively confident – surely their team could manage to grind out the single point needed to ensure a calm end to the season? However, despite putting in their best performance for months, the Bees were unable to prevent Grimsby walking out 2-0 winners. As a result, tomorrow's match against Rochdale has taken on a vital importance, while Grimsby travel to Burton for an equally crucial game. Should Grimsby fail to beat Burton, a draw would be enough for the Bees to stay up. And, regardless of the result down in London, if Grimsby lose then they are relegated. But a Grimsby win would mean the Bees must beat Rochdale or else start planning their trips to Barrow and Gateshead next season.
Relegation would, in the words of Tony Kleanthous, have "very serious implications" for Barnet. One of the biggest effects would be the withdrawal of funding for the youth academy, which only opened this season at the club's brand new, state-of-the-art, £11 million training facility. This would result in the academy being shut down and all the youth players released. Some fans even fear for the existence of the club should it lose its Football League status.
The mood around Underhill this week has been one of nervous but determined optimism. Supporters are trying to delay the inevitable post-season autopsy until after 5pm on Saturday, but there remains a great deal of confusion about how Barnet ended up in this mess. Some have questioned the players' level of commitment, while others have blamed a lack of confidence and Ian Hendon has also come in for much criticism. For now, though, most fans are determined to get right behind their team for one last game. Failure to do so could prove fatal for the Bees. Ben Kentish