BARNET have always struggled to shake-off the image of a non-league club playing in the Football League, but they surprised most people by returning to the league for a third stint in 2014-15.
The club’s first spell in the Football League, presided over by characters like Stan Flashman and Barry Fry, lasted 10 years before they went down in 2001. They returned in 2005, but were relegated in 2013. Some pundits expected the club to remain in non-league football, but in 2015, they won the Conference again and now they are in their second term in League Two.
Their promotion came in their second season in the new ground, The Hive, which brought to an end the club’s famed sloping stadium of Underhill, which was once described to me by a Football League manager as “the most user-unfriendly ground in the league.”
There’s no doubt that The Hive is a comfortable stadium, surrounded as it is by Barnet’s training complex and sitting alongside the Jubilee Line tube that rattles past the ground every few minutes. It looks to be an excellent site that can act as a springboard for better things.
At the moment, however, the crowds are not flocking to Canons Park, just a few stops along from Wembley Stadium. In 2016-17, Barnet’s attendances are averaging 1,771 which represents a 25% drop on 2015-16 when gates averaged 2,358. The last league campaign at Underhill saw crowds of just under 2,500.
This season, the crowds have been disappointing,making Barnet the worst supported team across the 92 Premier and EFL clubs. There remains, apparently, some protest over the club’s relocation and also the pricing policy for tickets, but things also haven’t been going well for the Bees on the pitch. Before meeting Exeter City, who were strugglers themselves, Barnet had not won for five games. What’s more, there had been some alarmingly low attendances, such as 457 for the visit of Norwich City’s under-21 team in the EFL Trophy, 1,164 for the game with Morecambe and barely 1,500 for clashes with Accrington Stanley and Blackpool.
When we arrived at The Hive, it didn’t look open for business. The East Stand turnstile was not accessible, so no bar code scanning was possible. We had to walk through the gates after being asked if we were sure we had the right tickets. Hardly a soul was in the ground 45 minutes before kick-off.
The ground itself is functional, spacious and provides a good view for all. It does look a little like Easy Jet’s adopted home ground, but them’s the colours as they say. Only three sides are currently in use, the industrial diggers outside suggesting The Hive is still work in progress.
Martin Allen, the Barnet manager, may be using that term to describe his team. They survived an early scare when Exeter’s David Wheeler lobbed over the bar when set clear, but they went ahead on 11 minutes when John Akinde headed home a corner from Ryan Watson.
It was Akinde’s eighth goal of the season, a remarkable statistic when you realise he had now netted eight of Barnet’s 13. Akinde, a tall, powerful striker, was the outlet for most of Barnet’s attacks, predominantly in the form of a long ball up to the 27 year-old South Londoner.
Akinde, in the first half, caused Exeter no end of trouble, winning virtually every ball sent his way. Barnet were on top, but failed to make use of their superiority. They were made to pay for their generosity as four minutes from the interval, Jake Taylor equalised with a spectacular shot from outside the penalty area.
After the break, Barnet looked drained of confidence and their defence seemed to be all at sea. Exeter grew more ambitious and in the 49th minute, Reuben Reid back-heeled to Lee Holmes who finished from close range.
Six minutes later, Exeter scored again, Ollie Watkins’ shot was parried by Barnet keeper Jamie Stephens and Wheeler followed up to push the ball into the net.
It got even worse for Barnet in the 80th minute when Mauro Vilhete tripped Taylor in the area and Reid scored from the penalty spot. At this point, the sight of Barnet fans heading for the exit suggested the locals were not happy. Supporters are clearly voting with their feet and this time, the crowd was only 1,640.
The final score, Barnet 1 Exeter City 4, sent the Bees into the relegation zone in 23rd place. There’s a long way to go yet, but it is already looking like a long season for the Bees – it would be a shame if, after securing a fine new home, Barnet were to return once more to the non-league game.