by Tom Furnival-Adams
When Edgar Davids reflects upon his football career, his 36-game spell at Barnet will surely be one of the most memorable periods – not, albeit, for the same reasons as his Champions League-winning stint with Ajax, or his contribution to three Serie A titles while at Juventus.
For Barnet fans, his emergence as their saviour-elect in October injected a genuine sense of hope following three consecutive bottom-four finishes. At the time of his appointment as player-coach they floundered in 23rd in the League Two table, having failed to win a single game in any competition. As they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat to Northampton Town on the final day of the season to seal relegation with a 23rd-place finish, Davids and the Barnet supporters alike must have wondered what all the effort and anguish was for.
Regular frequenters of Underhill may have become familiar with destitution since their return to the football league in 2005, but this season was more profoundly tainted with disappointment than any other in recent memory.
A week before their non-league fate was determined, they played their final game at Underhill, a stadium that they have called home since 1907. Their 1-0 victory against Wycombe, which was sealed by a late Graham Stack penalty save, was almost magical in quality. It seemed to reflect the desire amongst the majority of fans to stay put in the face of an impending move to ‘The Hive’ in their neighbouring London Borough of Harrow, an arrangement which is anticipated to last ten years (pending the establishment of a more long-term solution in Barnet).
Underhill’s sloping pitch and shades of a bygone era are not pretty – not necessarily even functional – but they hold deeply ingrained memories for fans of the club. After 106 years, Underhill is not just a place to play football, it’s a significant component of Barnet’s identity.
As is increasingly the case in a sport dominated by free-market capitalist ideals, the decision to relocate to an entirely different part of London does not seem to have been at all informed by the wishes of the fans.
The limitations of Underhill are clear to see, but the fact that the club has been unable to secure an alternative venue in the local area is absurd – a fact that has been magnified by their relegation. A return to the Conference will inevitably lead to weakened attendances. To have this compounded by decamping six miles away may be fatal.
On the move to the Hive, Derek Rocholl, the director of the Barnet FC Supporters Trust, said in April that “provided we retain our league status everything should be on the up and up”. It is hard not to conclude that the retention of the club’s league status was crucial for the move to be a success, and that their failure to do so will be extremely difficult to overcome.
Echoing the situation at Coventry City, where the club’s future is dependent on the consequences of a messy dispute between their owners and the local council (who have a stake in the Ricoh Arena), Barnet’s position has come about largely as a result of a strained relationship with the Tory-led Barnet council, who have seemed intent not to support Barnet FC’s cause.
Many feel aggrieved that the council revoked planning permission for the football club to erect a new stadium on the nearby Copthall athletics stadium site, only to later pave the way for Saracens RFC to relocate there.
Given that the London Borough of Barnet contains a population of over 350,000, it is a travesty that an arrangement could not be agreed with the council whereby the club could at least find a temporary solution to sustain local football, but that the traditionally more middle-class sport of rugby appears to have been accommodated plentifully.
Lack of consideration
While Barnet may eventually acquire fresh supporters from their new home in Harrow, it is far from a foregone conclusion. London is saturated with football clubs, several of which offer fans the chance to watch Premier League football on a regular basis. The prospect of watching their new squatters play the likes of Braintree and Dartford is unlikely to attract enough new fans in Harrow to compensate for those lost on principle as a result of the move.
Financially, the outlook is bleak, and it is impossible to say what lies ahead. Seasons concluding in the depths of League Two may eventually be viewed retrospectively with wistful fondness by those associated with the club.
It is the lack of consideration for a loyal and long-suffering fan-base that grates most. When supporters are rendered helpless and disenfranchised, the entire purpose of a football club is cast in doubt.
If its actions are motivated to the detriment of fans, a club becomes a mere corporate entity, acting solely in the interest of market-defined success. Making it so abuses the position of fans that support their team because of an emotional attachment, or as a link to their hometown. Remove this and you are left with a consumerist model whereby supporters may as well choose their football club on the basis of its ability to compete with the elite.
When Barnet are moved away from their birthplace next season, against the will of their fans, it will beg troubling questions about their identity. What constitutes the make up of a football club? When decisions are made at boardroom level by financial investors with no emotional investment in the heritage of the club, does it lose its authenticity as a community asset?
There is a frustrating irony to Barnet’s situation when placed side by side with that of Wimbledon, whose traumatic journey culminated in league survival last weekend at Barnet’s expense. Whilst not quite as grave as the chain of events that resulted in the original Wimbledon FC’s extinction, Barnet’s current plight is of genuine concern – and will continue to be until reassurances can be offered that the club will be able to return home at some stage.
Champions League glory seems comparatively straightforward compared to the factors informing Edgar Davids’ thoughts as he considers whether or not he will remain in charge of the Bees as they embark on next season in a foreign abode.
Tom Furnival-Adams is a new contributor to Just Football.
(photo credit: Barnet FC via Twitter)