Since my favorite team Tottenham Hotspur were away to Southampton this weekend, I decided to look elsewhere for my weekend soccer adventure. Since the two promotion chasing Championship sides (Watford and Brentford) were playing away from home, I decided to think outside the box. As it turned out, the team that is geographically closest to where I live in London, Barnet F.C., were at home for their final match of the season in the Vanarama Conference, the fifth tier of English football. Barnet were one point clear of Bristol Rovers atop the Conference and a win would ensure promotion back into the Football League.
Enticed by the possibility of a promotion party, I headed out to the London Borough of Edgware at the end of the Jubilee line to watch the Bees (as Barnet are known) take on mid-table Gateshead, a team that might be familiar to some Premier League supporters as they lost 7-0 at the Hawthorns to West Brom in this year’s FA Cup third round.
Barnet have an interesting history. Despite being founded in 1907, they did not reach the Football League until 1991. In 1993, they were promoted to the old Second Division (third tier) but almost went out of existence when the club went bankrupt and the players were unpaid throughout much of the season. They were relegated the next season and then relegated from the Football League altogether in 2001. They were promoted again in 2005 but relegated back to the Conference in 2013.
After the 2013 season, the borough of Barnet did not extend the club’s lease on the Underhill Stadium, which the Bees had called home for their entire 106 year history.
Despite the protests of the team’s small but fervently loyal fan base, the team moved six miles west to a new stadium in Edgware called The Hive. The team also shares close links with Arsenal as Arsenal used to use Underhill for reserve matches and the two clubs often met for preseason friendlies.
After exiting the Jubilee line at Queensbury, I could just barely make out the Wembley arch that towers over the 90,000 seat national stadium, which was quite a beautiful sight. Walking from Queensbury to the stadium, I noticed that unlike all of the other matches I had been to in England, it was not readily apparent that there was a major sporting occasion about to take place in the area. Every time I have been to Tottenham (or any other Premier League ground for that matter), the mile surrounding the stadium would be full of street vendors selling team merchandise, food and matchday scarves. Here, there were no signs of any of that and the people in Edgware seemed to be doing what they would normally be doing at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon.
The Hive is located in the middle of a large complex of football pitches that doubles as Barnet’s training complex. This was also a major difference from the other stadiums I have been to as all the Premier League stadiums in London are packed into residential areas with housing in the immediate vicinity of the stadium. Not so at The Hive.
My ticket for the match was on the unallocated South Terrace, which meant that I was forced to stand for the entire match. Soccer fans who have been going to matches since before Hillsborough would be very familiar with this arrangement, but this was the first time I have watched a match from a terrace and my only chance to experience what it was like back in the “good old days” (depending on who you ask).
The stadium was so small that three out of the four sides of the pitch only had about five or six rows of seating (or standing). There were many instances throughout the match where the ball went out of the entire stadium, which is not something that I see at the bigger grounds. In the backdrop of my view of the pitch was the Jubilee Line train tracks where trains came by every five minutes or so, which was a really pretty sight that reminded me of Shea Stadium in New York. The PA system also was not really functional as the speaker nearest to where I was standing kept cutting in and out so I did not hear any of the pre match announcements.
The atmosphere was palpable before the match as the fans were ready for a party. After a minute’s silence before the match to honor the 56 fans who died in the Bradford City fire of 1985, the fans let out a huge roar. But when the match kicked off, reality started to set in that Barnet would need to get the three points or hope that Bristol Rovers failed to win in order for that party to happen. And as a result, the opening exchanges were very nervy and there was not much singing on my terrace and most of the noise came from the seats in the stand to my left. Another nice addition to the atmosphere was a drum which basically dictated what was being sung by the fans and kept them all on tune.
Barnet were the better side in the beginning but besides a golden chance off a poor clearance by the Gateshead keeper, they failed to create much. The quality was obviously much lower than what I have been accustomed to watching but it was still quite interesting as the players had extremely unique skill sets. Some players were big, overweight and dynamos in the air while others were small but extremely skillful. These were the type of players that would make Billy Beane glee with delight (those who fail the eye test but can be very effective in their own way).
Many of the supporters around me were cheering constantly for “Big John” (John Akinde), a career journeyman in the lower leagues who has scored 31 goals for Barnet this year and who overpowered defenders with his size throughout the match. With that being said, there were some moments of sublime quality, whether it was some nice skill or a perfectly placed thirty yard cross field pass.
The supporter next to me spent most of the first 20 minutes refreshing his phone as his friends asked him what seemed like every 30 seconds “what’s the score in Bristol?” to the reply of “Nil Nil” And 25 minutes in, he turned to his group of friend “1-0 to Bristol Rovers.” It was the last I would hear of Bristol Rovers for quite a while as about a minute later as Mauro Vilhete headed Barnet to a 1-0 lead and the crowd awoke again. The rest of the first half on the pitch was somewhat boring as Barnet continued to be on the front foot without creating much. And in the 42nd minute, I decided to beat the halftime rush for refreshments and had to say “excuse me” to about 10 people who were standing in the aisles of the terraces. While waiting in line for food, I heard many little kids around me discussing amongst themselves how excited they were for the post-match pitch invasion if/when Barnet won.
The second half began with Barnet attacked the goal in front of my terrace, and the ultras to my left greeted the Gateshead keeper with a ton of fresh unprintable abuse.
Four minutes in, Vilhete put Barnet two up and that is when the real promotion party started to begin. The celebrations for the second goal were so wild that the terrace underneath me began to shake from all of the supporters jumping up and down. I looked over to the stand to my right and realized that almost all the seats were empty as all the fans rushed towards the perimeter of the pitch at the second goal but soon they were back in their seats. Songs about “running away to the Football League,” “E-I-E-E-I-O, up the Football League we go!” and “if Barnet win, we’re on the pitch,” as well as an adaption of Millwall’s famous chant of “No one likes us, we don’t care,” which did not really make sense to me. Another chant that I found interesting was their version of “We are Barnet, Super Barnet” which ended with “from Underhill” which to me showed a resentment of the team’s current location and a yearning to move back to their home of Barnet.
The rest of the match on the pitch was a somewhat dull affair as Gateshead never really looked like getting back into it. Despite attaining more possession, they never really looked like scoring and I was more interested in the songs that the Barnet fans were singing.
The second half seemed to take forever. And around the 80th minute, the fans started singing the tune of the song “Final Countdown” to Barnet’s promotion. In the 85th minute, one of the guys around me pulled out his phone and laughed before announcing that Bristol Rovers were 6-0 up (they went on to win 7-0) but it was irrelevant now as Barnet were on their way into the Football League.
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