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

 

Calling in on….Exeter City – mixing with the Grecian 3,000

Fly me to the moon....ok, Accrington will do nicely...
Fly me to the moon….OK, Accrington will do nicely….

League two has played host to Game of the People on a number of occasions this season and with the exception of Fleetwood, we’re still waiting to be entertained. Admittedly, we shouldn’t have high expectations of a rip-roaring contest of world-class football because if you watch the game at the low end of the 92, you get what you pay for. Exeter City v Accrington Stanley were in 16th and 18th place respectively and with one or two teams picking up points in recent weeks below them, this was poised to be a scrappy, possibly nervous contest between teams starting to stare anxiously at the non-league pyramid.

Conference calls

Not that either are strangers to the Conference. Accrington are one of the unlikeliest Football League clubs, but this is their eighth season in League Two after winning promotion in 2006. Three years earlier, they had been Northern Premier League champions. Anyone visiting Accrington’s Crown Ground will be aware that the club has a distinctly homely, non-league feel to it. You get the impression that they are only temporary residents at this level, but they keep defying the odds. Incidentally, does anyone ever say “Accrington Stanley” without apeing a northern accent? It really is a name that brings out the black pudding in everyone!

Exeter City, the Grecians, fell into the Conference in 2003 and spent four years threatening to return before succeeding in 2008. They’ve spent three years in League One since but were relegated in 2012. Their performance this season suggests that a club now owned by the fans is struggling once more to maintain a position in the Football League.

Back in the day

The biggest event in Exeter...
The biggest event in Exeter…

It’s a long trek to Devon, some three and half hours out of London, so it’s a mission to endure. Our trip was lightened by encountering a life-long Exeter fan from Sussex who spoke with affection about players like Tony Kellow, Alan Banks, Dermot Curtis (Exeter’s only capped player) and Alan Pinkney. We recalled the famous meeting between Exeter City and Manchester United in the FA Cup in 1968-69, a game which the aforementioned Banks scored Exeter’s solitary goal [Final score, City 1 United 3]. We also spoke about wages at this level of the game, but resisted the urge to roll-out the old Morecambe and Wise crack about “what’s a Grecian earn?”. This pleasant interlude highlighted – once more – the highly liquid currency that is football and how it acts as an ice-breaker between people. We would bump into our friend from Sussex three times throughout the day.

With Exeter rugby club at home, the Grecians had competition, but the game would still attract 3,300-plus people, their best gate in half a dozen. But there was also another attraction that made more noise than the game at St. James’ Park (note the difference in spelling to Newcastle’s home) – an anti-Badger cull march. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my shaving brush is made from the finest badger hair, courtesy of Mr Trumper of Jermyn Street, but I have no issue with Mr Brock and his pals.

P1040236 (250x154)Form-wise, Exeter had picked-up in recent weeks, winning their last two games, the previous one a morale-boosting and satisfying victory at Plymouth, affectionately known as “the scum” by Exeter fans. Their previous home fixture saw them win 3-0 against Fleetwood, a highly credible victory.
Exeter’s manager, Paul Tisdale, was familiar to me. I recalled his time at Team Bath and he struck me as an articulate football person. He’s sponsored by comedian, actor and singer Adrian Edmondson of Young Ones fame, an Exeter season ticket holder.

Accrington, who went into the game with just one defeat in six games, are managed by James Beattie the former England striker. Beattie has been in the job less than a year and he’s adopted the “Mafia Boss” approach of smart dark suit on the touchline. Whispers heard before the game suggested he is doing a relatively good job.

Grim down south

P1040250 (141x250)Certainly, the way the game started, Accrington had a little more to offer than the home team. The Exeter fans groaned their way through a first half that was really quite awful, a litany of dreadful passing, long balls into oblivion and mis-timed tackles. It was quite simply, the worst 45 minutes I had seen all season.

Accrington went close in the 20th minute when Exeter’s Polish keeper, Artur Krysiak, made a mess of a Lee Molyneux free kick and Danny Butterfield came to the rescue. Exeter’s best chance fell to Danny Coles, who should have done better with a header that was aimed at Marcus Bettinelli.

But just before the interval, Accrington scored through Kayode Odejayi, who tapped the ball home from literally six inches after Lee Molyneux’s corner was headed down by Peter Murphy onto the sticky six-yard box. It was a scruffy goal for an untidy game.

Strangely, given the recent weather, Exeter decided to have sprinklers on the pitch before the game and at the interval, when they decided to spray the kids taking part in a penalty shoot-out competition. “Water…the pitch needs more water,” shouted one Grecian wag as the jets competed with the balls being fired at the half-pint goalkeepers.

Could the second half get any worse? It was comparable, but Exeter did, at least, start to threaten Accrington with Jordan Moore-Taylor heading wide from a Butterfield cross. The arrival of Sam Parkin made some difference up front, but it wasn’t until the final seconds that a free-kick from Liam Sercombe worried Accrington.

The solitary goal was enough to send Exeter to their 10th home defeat of the season and may be enough to save Accrington. Exeter will have a few nervous weeks to endure, but they may not need many more points to survive – I hope they do. Our friend from Sussex was downcast on the journey home – the trouble with long trips to see your favourite team is that considerable journeys give you too long to contemplate.

As for our own trip, that was enhanced by bumping into a trio of travelling Romanian butchers from Yeovil (yes, really!). Tales of Steaua Bucharest, Gheorghe Hagi and Florea Dumitrache proved to be more entertaining than Exeter v Accrington….but that’s a story for another day.

The line-ups were:

Exeter City: Krysiak; Butterfield, Coles, Moore-Taylor, Woodman; Bennett, Gill (Grimes 60); Sercombe, Oakley (Parkin 69), Richards; Nichols (O’Flynn 69)

Accrington Stanley: Bettinelli; Hunt, Winnard, Aldred, Buxton (Liddle ht); Hatfield (Mingoia 54), Joyce, Murphy, Molyneux; Odejayi (Windass 84), Gray.