Barnet's chairman has big ideas for a swish stadium to secure the club's future. Funnily enough, not everyone is convinced, as John Cosgrove explains
About five years ago a very small story appeared in the London Evening Standard. It mentioned that Barnet FC were in negotiation with the local council with regard to the possibility of a new stadium to be built within the borough of Barnet. No one at the club would admit anything, no one could say where the story had come from. Very strange.
Then along comes a new chairman, Tony Kleanthous. He took over the club and its debts. Within 12 months of arriving at Barnet, Kleanthous started to trumpet the cause of a super duper, 20,000-seater sports arena. The new stadium would be built on the site of Barnet Copthall Stadium, a run-down athletics track in leafy Mill Hill, a well to do area in north-west London, just about in the borough of Barnet.
A model of the proposed development was even shown to supporters at their AGM. And very nice it looked too. It would encompass all sports, including athletics, rugby and football. To accommodate the athletics track and not lose any atmosphere the two stands behind each goal would be on moved around on “tracks”. The cost? A mere £20 million.
Given that the club couldn’t afford to stock its own shop, some Barnet fans were a little doubtful that the plan would get off the ground. Kleanthous, however, assured us all that raising the money would not be a problem.We could only admire his confidence.
So the wheels were in motion. The local Tory party had recently lost control of the council to Labour. The new incumbents made it clear they would support the football club’s plans. They owned the current operation at Barnet Copthall and, as a cost-cutting measure, wanted to farm it out to private hands. Tenders were invited and Barnet FC’s application was approved.
Planning permission would be a problem, however, because the stadium is on Green Belt land. The local residents duly started a vocal campaign to stop the proposed development. Barnet fans were then given an insight into the workings of local politics. The council wards around the stadium were held by the Liberal Democrats. Their pact with Labour was keeping the Tories out of power. All well and good, but with local elections approaching, the Liberal councillors were not going to be seen supporting the football club’s plans.
The planning application was “called in” by the Department of Environment after a four-month delay. They wanted a public enquiry to be held. Funnily enough, the delay allowed the public enquiry to be held in June 1998, a month after the sensitive local elections had taken place.
By now the plans had been scaled down to a 10,000 all-seater stadium. The grand plans for the moving stands had been abandoned. The athletics track and rugby pitch would be built next to the football stadium. The design now looked very similar to Northampton’s Sixfields Stadium. The cost? Now only £15 million.
The enquiry came and went without incident. Barnet had put their case well, we were told. Why, even a Labour MP from Mansfield had lobbied on our behalf. Nothing wrong with that. Not until it came to light that the said MP had enjoyed more than the odd “fact finding” trip to Cyprus. The Sunday Times made great play of the fact that our chairman was of Greek Cypriot descent. The MP, Alan Meale, had written to a planning minister supporting the club’s application for the new stadium and was subsequently cleared of misconduct by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
The enquiry’s conclusions do not seem likely to be announced until January at least. As each month passes, Kleanthous issues his customary prediction of doom. If the stadium is not given the green light he will hand over to someone else to see if they can do better. If the stadium plans fall through, the prospects for Barnet and their fans are bleak. We will not be allowed to stay at Underhill as it falls way short of the criteria demanded by the Football League. Underhill is of a far lower quality than the grounds of Kidderminster, Stevenage and Macclesfield, all refused entry to the League in recent years because their grounds did not come up to scratch.
It has been suggested that Barnet will have to merge with a local non-League club should everything fall apart. Stevenage is one name being bandied about. But now they are challenging for the Conference title again and anticipate no problems with their ground meeting League criteria. Why would they want to merge with poor old Barnet?
From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month