Bees, a hive, but no honey

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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.

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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.

www.gameofthepeople.com

 

Non-leaguers in waiting?

ACCRINGTON
NOBODY will thank you for saying it, but there a number of current Football League clubs that are really non-league clubs just visiting. Likewise, there is a growing band of non-leaguers that may eventually go back to the League – someday.

Today, scrambling near the bottom of the table are Yeovil Town and York City. While York have had a chequered recent history, they certainly look like a non-league club in many ways – although if they move to a new ground, that could make for a more sustainable Football League outfit.

Yeovil Town, however, are a local institution that you thought would make a long-term career out of the Football League. For years, they were one of those clubs you felt were too big and too clever to be outside the 92 for ever. Football students will tell you that, as a non-league club, Yeovil had that famous Sunderland FA Cup giant-killing in their back pocket to underline their credentials. They also had a big catchment area, so if they did get up, they would enjoy good gates – that was the theory.

But Yeovil seem to be on a downward spiral at present. They finished bottom of League One last season and they’re one off the foot of League Two – they are in the drop zone. And they have just sacked manager Paul Sturrock. This is Yeovil’s 13th League campaign, but they have suffered two relegations since arriving in the Championship in 2013-14. What has gone wrong?

Their chairman, John Fry, told the BBC a few weeks ago that climbing into the Championship cost the club dearly. It’s a message to clubs that find themselves promoted out of their depth. Defeat follows defeat and it becomes habit-forming. Yeovil, to quote Fry, have to turn it around or they will be going into the National League. After years trying to move up from non-league that would be heartbreaking for Glovers’ fans.

Dagenham & Redbridge have been written off a few times in their relatively short Football League career. When they won promotion from the Conference, in 2007, not many people felt they would last a second campaign, but they also enjoyed a year in League One.  With London over-clubbed, Dagenham are too close for comfort to West Ham and Leyton Orient and their attendances barely get to 2,000 (current av. 1,800).

Barnet have had something of a yo-yo existence with the Football League – promotion in 2015 was their third to the League. Their old ground, Underhill, was always a hindrance for them, but the Hive has given them a new lease of life. They are now averaging 2,300 at their new ground.

Barnet’s Hertfordshire cousins, Stevenage, may have Teddy Sheringham as they boss, but the former England man is having a tough debut year in charge at the Lamex Stadium. It has always been a question of how long Stevenage can sustain League football on the gates they have, but this is a club that just 20 years ago was playing local derbies with the likes of Hitchin and St.Albans.

Morecambe, when they won promotion to the Football League, were scarcely well supported. Crowds at their functional stadium are just 1,600 at the moment, that’s non-league level and a thousand below their 2008 level.  Having visited Crawley recently, I felt the club was also very much in a non-league mode, the main difference being the enhanced security requirements.

AFC Wimbledon, for all the emotion surrounding their history and divorce from the MK Dons, are a club that was playing at a very low non-league level just a few years ago. They are getting 4,000 through the gate and they have big ambitions of a new ground, boosted by their links with Chelsea. You have to assume they will continue to survive in the Football League.

I am not so sure about Accrington Stanley, although we all love that name. Having visited them recently, I sensed that they are really in a non-league club punching above their weight. Good for them, but with gates of 1,500 it is really unsustainable.

In League One, there’s a couple of clubs who you feel may find their wings start to drip a little as they fly higher. Fleetwood Town, with an excellent ground and set-up, and Burton Albion, may fall into this category. I hope not, because I have visited both and got a good feeling from my trip.

Conversely, there are some National League clubs that are just biding their time to get back: Cheltenham, Grimsby, Wrexham, Lincoln City and Tranmere will all be hoping that their exile from the Football League is temporary.

Of course, the rise of the minnows is nothing but a tribute to the clubs that manage to outreach their potential. We are seeing a lot of this at the moment, and it is good for the game, but there’s also a message for those that live beyond their means, either by design or by accident. Caution should be the watchword.

I fear for Yeovil and in the longer-term, Dagenham, Morecambe and Accrington. But the National League, despite its trapdoor effect, does provide a way back, too. The boundaries between League Two and National League seem to be blurring at a rapid pace.

  10 years ago 20 years ago 30 years ago
Accrington Stanley Conference National -1st Northern Premier League Premier – 7th NW Counties Division One – 11th
Barnet League Two – 18th League Three – 9th Alliance Premier – 14th
Burton Albion Conference National  – 9th Southern League Premier – 16th Northern Premier League – 5th
Crawley Town Conference National – 12th Southern League Premier – 9th Southern League Premier –  6th
Dagenham & Redbridge Conference National – 10th Conference – 22nd n/a
Fleetwood Northern Premier League One – 2nd Northern Premier League One – 20th NW Counties League One – 5th
Morecambe Conference National – 5th Conference – 9th Northern Premier League – 3rd
Stevenage Conference National  – 6th Conference – 1st Isthmian Division 2 North – 1st
Wimbledon Isthmian Premier – 4th n/a n/a
Yeovil Town League One- 15th Isthmian Premier – 4th Isthmian Premier – 2nd