The newly relegated Minstermen are struggling to acclimatise – not just to Conference football, but to the diabolical weather: it's grim up north London, as Taylor Parkes reports
Barnet might be seen as a London club, but apart from the red double-deckers that roll past the ground, there’s nothing metropolitan about the place. Where London fades into Hertfordshire, it’s an odd mix of capital and Home County, Burberry and grime. And High Barnet station isn’t just called that for a laugh – perched way above London, it’s the first place round here to know when it’s raining, and my God is it raining. The wide open space between the station and the ground has become a car wash; the usually pleasant walk downhill is like strolling through a phalanx of water cannons. There’s a bussed-in party of kids with free seats at Underhill today, but they’re at the south end of the ground, in the tiny, uncovered stand. They cower beneath parental umbrellas. Settling into my unfamiliar place in the grandstand (not really very grand, but impressively dry), I watch these kids’ love of football begin to be literally washed away. This is a day that could test your patience with life, never mind semi-professional football. By a quarter to five, I’m just hoping to God they haven’t been bussed in from York. Me, I have a wonderful afternoon.
I used to spend quite a bit of time up here, watching Barnet, simply because they were in those days the second-nearest League club to me (the nearest was Arsenal, and bugger that). It wasn’t just me: you’d hear a variety of accents lauding Darren Currie or laughing at Marlon King and you would spot contrasting expressions when the half-time Premiership scores came through. Priced-out fans of Spurs and Arsenal, or those of us who have moved too far from the clubs we grew up with, or grew up too far from our favourite clubs. We would never claim parity with the Barnet hardcore, the strapping Audi boys and their tanned-and-aerobicised girlfriends with ponytails poking through the hole at the back of their Nike baseball caps (plus the odd nutter), but for us, teams such as Barnet aren’t a stop-gap, they’re a lifeline.
Coming here isn’t slumming it – there’s no perverse thrill in seeing Nike, Pepsi, Vodafone and Carling lose the sponsorship race to Bill Boyne Interiors and a sign-writing company, nor in being reminded of how hard it really is to pass a ball accurately over more than ten yards. It’s more a way of expressing the understanding that football – watching, playing, supporting football – is an experience entirely distinct from the remote circus of the Premiership, or the Champions League’s glassy, high-priced majesty. Many of the Bees’ faithful claim you can live on Conference meat and potatoes alone; whatever, few can stomach a non-stop TV dinner of Alice bands and ankle-tape.
We might have grown up pretending to be Zico, but we did it while getting muddy on a municipal recreation ground and it’s that part of the magic that has gone missing from our experience of the game – so the bonds made with Barnet, or whoever else we might descend on like refugees from glory, are equally important and become in some ways stronger than those that remain with whichever Big Red, White or Blue Club we now follow like a soap opera, maybe drinking tea from a mug emblazoned with their crest. When I showed up for the game that sealed Barnet’s relegation to the Conference, I couldn’t get in; the queue snaked through the 1940s streets for nearly a mile. And through the general gloom, for the first time as a fan, I got to feel that marvellous smug indignation: “Where were you when we were slightly less shit?”
Whatever the weather, the mood is brighter today than when I had to drift away (benefits once more having failed to increase in line with inflation). Barnet are still in the Conference, but they’re top of the Conference and on good days they’re playing proper football again. Old enemies are still old enemies: all afternoon the Tannoy reminds crestfallen punters that the following night’s “music event” – the Boss sounds of a local E-Street Band tribute act – has been cancelled by the local council, ever the Bees’ nemesis (“They claim we don’t have the correct licence to hold events of that nature here, or something”). The current Barnet side are 40 per cent stern-faced brick shithouses, 60 per cent kids who look like they’re starring in some TV series about famous footballers, so there’s a reasonable balance between balletic trapping and laying-off the ball on one hand and old-school muscle, useful when the ball starts getting stuck in the rain that pools down one end of the sloping pitch. No idea why they warm up with a sack full of Mitre balls that are packed away and replaced with Umbro balls for the match proper, but if that’s as far as the twisted logic of sponsorship has spread at Conference level, that’s not too bad.
It has to be said that the first 15 minutes of the game are just appalling. Ben Strevens, the Barnet No 10 who looks like a first-time homeowner in a bank ad, attempts some artistry of sorts, but it’s too wet and too early, and York – already setting out their stall as crap – manage to snuff him out, just. You know when it’s not just you and a game really is that bad when the old fella with the lip-mic three seats down is gazing back up the hill and slowly intoning: “And there’s a Tube train up there. Going from right to left...” And this is after Barnet have scored.
Defender Ismail Yakubu knocks in a simple one from a badly defended cross after three minutes; it must say something about York’s state of mind that this proves the turning point. A lone seagull circles the centre spot, but in the monsoon it could easily be a vulture. On 17 minutes, Barnet’s Nicky Bailey throws himself at a cross, the ball pings off a Yorkshire thigh and it’s 2-0. In the remaining hour and a quarter, York muster something like three shots on goal, all of which look like a fat man attempting the high jump.
Ian Hendon – the Bees’ glowering skipper – begins to own the right side, striding out from full-back with shoulders spread, York players scattering. At this level, that “maturity and toughness” and “economy of passing” that so excites English managers is genuinely invaluable and it’s these traits in Hendon, and in Dean Sinclair in midfield, that do for York.
Dwayne Lee, then, is Barnet’s enigma. On the form shown in the first 35 minutes, he would be ignored for a park game. Then as the terrace grumblings reach a crescendo, he steps back from a loose ball 30 yards out, adjusts his body-shape and hits a howling volley that soars over the keeper, dips at the last minute, scrapes under the bar and bounces up and down four times in the back of the net. It’s one of the best goals I’ve seen for years, even on TV; Dwayne celebrates by switching back to being lazy and clumsy again for the remainder of the match, until he’s subbed 15 minutes from time.
The fans under the corrugated iron in the East Terrace run through a version of Twist & Shout that even a dead John Lennon won’t be losing too much sleep over and it’s half time. I didn’t want to stand around outside the snack bar with rain falling into a pie, but I got a hot chocolate and a reminder of how far we are from the Barclays Premiership when I managed to squirt half the contents of the cup out of the blow-hole in the lid when trying to pick it up and was fussed over by the bloke behind the counter who appeared at once with a cloth and a replacement cup of hot chocolate. This is at least partly why the campaign to Keep Barnet Alive attracts such sympathy.
Half-time entertainment, happily, consists only of a DJ like Ray Von from Phoenix Nights (playing Tina Turner’s Simply the Best at half-time in a non-League match as though it were the most natural thing in the world) and the glorious view over the top of the uncovered stand full of kids getting pissed on with rain, where one can survey the rolling hills of Hertfordshire getting pissed on with rain.
The second half is just a stroll in the mud. Even meek-looking Simon Clist, the man with the least impressive name in football, starts crossing the halfway line. Of course, no one actually scores another goal until ten minutes from time, when man-of-the-match Sinclair takes advantage of the City defence’s visible longing for a hot shower, at which point Barnet throw on a pair of superfast black kids with corn-row hairstyles and no fear, of whom the improbably-named Warren McBean is the eye-catcher (only a too-keen desire to be the fifth goalscorer lets down his play).
Nothing is ever like they tell you and we can probably assume that the “Golden age of football” is just another British myth because, like the Sixties, most of it happened off-camera. I’d imagine many of those fag-card faces would still have behaved like obnoxious jerks in nightclubs (just in flannel suits and thin ties) and I’m certain that when Sir Stan wasn’t jinking across the Pathe newsreel, most of the football was grim, violent and one-dimensional. But everything good from those times that has since been sluiced from top-flight football survives here in miniature: town where there’s nothing to do versus city full of dirt, old-fashioned winger versus old-fashioned thug, in front of a crowd that are more than an audience. Real Madrid fans recently chided their distant heroes with a banner at the training ground that read: “For you, whores and money – for us, repression and indignation.” It’s fair to say no one will ever daub these words on whichever dogshit-peppered playing field Barnet train, although if they did, it would be pretty funny.
As though anything could be better, just before the end a York player runs up to take a corner, slides in the quagmire and goes down flat on his face like one of the Chuckle Brothers when it isn’t supposed to be funny. That even seemed to cheer up the few kids in the free seats who hadn’t already gone back to sit in the bus, so I suppose they didn’t come from York after all.
From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month