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A Barnet Story
Eric indulges himself in a long story about how he came to support Barnet, the journey, and the future. By: Eric Hitchmo 07/06/2024




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Indulge me for a moment. I have a story.

Barnet and I have a love-hate relationship. We have both let each other down and been unfaithful to each other. There is blame on both sides, but I think now we are ready to put those troubles behind us and build a better future together via a long-distance relationship after my move to Ireland.

The Beginning

I first attended Barnet at the age of 14 in April 2001. In the interests of full disclosure, this was not my first footballing experience. My father supports Manchester United and much of my youth was spent following them. From Hertfordshire. In the 1990s. On the TV. Tough start.

He did however see the merit in watching live, local football. At the time, the nearest club to him was Watford so we went along there every other weekend when I was staying with him (the rest of my days were spent in Potters Bar). This was at a time where The Hornets achieved back-to-back promotions from League One (Division Two) to the Premier League in the late 1990s. Tough start.

While this may paint the picture of a perennial glory-hunter, I did by this point have a taste for live football on a more regular basis.

Barnet was a club I was very much aware of but had not shown much interest in. In truth it was more a source of ridicule. I was a regular attendee at the Furzefield Centre in Potters Bar when the team trained there, and that ridicule peaked when Barnet lost 9-1 to Peterborough in September 1998. Muttering “9-1” under your breath when the players walked past probably seems funnier when you’re barely a teenager.

Several lads who I went to secondary school with went to Barnet every so often and would come in on a Monday talking up the experience, even with the 9-1 considered. The seed was being planted, but it took me some time before I decided to take the plunge and attend a game on a Saturday where I wasn’t sitting on the PlayStation or watching Soccer Saturday.

In the 2000-2001 season, Barnet had started strongly before declining sharply under Tony Cottee. It was odd then that it was during this decline that I’d decided that this was the time to take in a game. Perhaps this was some accurate foreshadowing for what was to come. By this point, John Still had been brought back in to arrest what was a rapidly worsening situation.

I remember walking down to Underhill from my friends’ house on Manor Road. Tickets were attractively priced for kids/teenagers in those days, so it wasn’t much to get in. We opted to stand on the uncovered North Terrace and entered the ground just as the gates had opened. Barnet were playing Cheltenham Town, and I was ready for it.

Now it would be difficult for a 14-year-old to convey strong, genuine emotions, and it certainly would be generous to call it “love at first sight” but I remember distinctly looking around and being fascinated by it all. Bear in mind by this point my live football experience had almost exclusively been large, all-seater stadia (Old Trafford, Wembley, Vicarage Road, etc), this was something completely out of left field.

There was interesting stuff going on everywhere. What is this beautiful chaos?

The North Terrace got shallower from one end to the other. The East Terrace with its weird roof in the middle. The South Stand with its jagged green (?!) seats which also got shallower towards one end. The West side with its three stands, the “imposing” Main Stand with blue (?!!?) seats leaving the little Family Stand and the North-West Terrace in its shadow. And of course, the pièce de résistance, the very obvious slope from North to South.

This was great. Youngsters of a similar age to me would hang over the barrier at the front hoping for, and getting, an autograph from the players. Cheeky chaps would ask for the goalkeeper’s gloves and sometimes they’d get them too. You were just so close to it all, not stuck up in some faraway corner, shuffling awkwardly to find your designated seat and needing binoculars to see what was going on.

The game itself was pretty entertaining. Ben Strevens scored a late goal to put Barnet 2-1 up and celebrated in front of where we were stood on the North Terrace. All three of us bundled to the front to get close to him. Moments later, Grant McCann equalised with a free kick and the away supporters themselves celebrated in a manner I’d not seen before. They ran around the South Stand gleefully, celebrating a goal that would prove fatal in Barnet’s season.

Undeterred by the lack of victory, two weeks later we fancied it again, this time against Rochdale. A few more of us were on the terrace for this one as we watched a 3-0 victory which relieved some of those relegation fears. An away supporter crawled around the pitch with a ladder on his back as part of a fundraising campaign. What is going here?

Another fortnight passed, and it was the winner-takes-all encounter with Torquay United. Having heard that there were queues outside the ground at midday, we sprinted down the hill from the club shop on the hill to get in the ground and make sure we didn’t miss out. We were in very early. Many others were locked out. The ground had a vastly different atmosphere. Not only was it very tense, but it was evident that many non-regulars and neutrals were in attendance to see what was a huge game. Bear in mind this was a time where only one team was relegated from the Football League. Season ticket holders were locked out in what was an omnishambles arrangement, but we were in, at least.

We all know how the game went. We were amused by the streakers and enjoyed the end of season pitch invasion. This all going on despite relegation, of course. Obviously three games in I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of what had happened or remotely feel the sadness that was palpable amongst the genuine supporters in the ground.

On my way home, I picked up the away shirt from that season from the club shop. And there he was, the Man Utd/Watford/Barnet fan. Football purists will wonder what the hell that’s all about, you shouldn’t support two clubs let alone three, but the fact is that a large percentage of our fanbase has gone on a similar journey.

Hooked

In the season that followed, I first stood on the North-West Terrace, colloquially known as Moaners Corner, as we joined another group of friends in attending. What caught my eyes and ears though, was the East Terrace. I distinctly remember watching the celebrations for a disallowed Ben Strevens overhead kick against Arsenal in pre-season and thinking, “that’s where we need to be.” One of the lads came back from an FA Cup tie at Havant and Waterlooville waxing lyrical about the experience, and so when Wayne Purser scored one of the FA Cup’s fastest ever hat-tricks in the replay that followed, and we were there on the East Terrace to experience it, that was it. We jumped around in pure joy, bodies everywhere, ending up standing in a different place to where we started, and I was locked in. I was hooked.

This was cemented by my first away game at Forest Green Rovers. The coach, the fact you were away from home with your mates, Robbie Sawyers curling in a beauty from 20 yards out and celebrating it wildly. This to me was football as it was meant to be. Live, in person, going along and getting involved. Suddenly, there I was with my little OBFCSA (remember when there was an “official” one versus the one chaired by Steve Percy) membership book getting my discount, hat and scarf as a fully-fledged Barnet fan trying to bring others along with me.

In truth, the football that followed wasn’t great for the next year or so, but still I went. That was until Martin Allen took the reins in 2003. I was now attending games home and away every week and was absolutely captured by Mad Dog. The playoff season was a glorious year to be a Barnet fan and although it ended in tears when firstly he left, and we were defeated by Shrewsbury in the semis, the pain was not to last too long.

Suddenly at school I had gone from ridiculing people about Barnet to being the one being ridiculed. It just so happened that my tearful episode on the terrace at Gay Meadow was broadcast to one and all on Sky Sports. Cry on the telly indeed. At that point I didn’t really care, it was a coming-of-age season where new friendships were being made on the terraces. This was my home; I didn’t care what people thought.

Tears would flow again for the right reasons the following season. Paul Fairclough gave us a season we will never forget, winning the Conference by a landslide. I turned 18 during this season, so you throw alcohol and public transport into the away day mix and suddenly your entire life is revolving around where Barnet are playing on a Saturday, or a Tuesday.

This was becoming an obsession. My choice of university was determined by the fact that Barnet were playing in the Football League again and I wasn’t going to move away now. I missed a home FA Cup game for work purposes, the last home game I would miss for over eight years (between November 2004-March 2013). Between August 2003 and December 2009, I missed six games home and away. You know how much I love a stat, so I just thought I’d throw that in there.

The Messy Breakup

For much of that time, it was a lot of fun. Our now extended friendship group were doing train trips and weekends away around the football. We made a lot of special, happy memories and have a boatload of stories from trips here there and everywhere. It had started to become less about the football and more about the day out with your mates. With good reason too, by the end of the 2009, the football just wasn’t fun anymore. By this point I’d long migrated away from the East Terrace to the Main Stand. It felt like the atmosphere had changed for the worse, and a lot of us moved away for a better view/access to the bar.

Eventually, I started to question whether it was worth all the hassle, particularly away games. Everyone was getting older and had different priorities in life. Where 15-20 people would go on a train somewhere, this soon became four sad men in car quietly sitting in misery after a 5-1 midweek defeat at Cheltenham. That’s one example, there were many more. Leaving games early became a regular thing.

When I eventually moved out of home in 2010 my hand was forced. I didn’t have the money to go and watch us lose, again. I’d been to Rochdale, Accrington and Bury far more times than is healthy. Between 2009 and 2013 we were barely existing as a Football League team. For four years in a row, we were going into the final day needing something on the final day to stay up.

There was some strength in adversity. Those relegation escapes produced some outrageous highs, some of them highlights of my entire Barnet supporting life (Burton Away 2012), but the truth is that for the vast majority of that time it was miserable. Wave upon wave of apathy swept over Underhill and the place had really lost its sparkle.

Was it a surprise then that during the 2012-2013 season when the move away from Underhill, which had often been rumoured was confirmed with little over two months of the season still to go, no one really seemed to care that much? The Hive was sold to us as a golden ticket to prosperity. Our magnificent training base will now become our home and all will be well again.

I’m not sure how I went along with that line of thought. I guess by that point I thought that something, anything needed to happen to get us out of this horror cycle on the pitch. Initially I was fairly warm to the idea, but as the time got closer and we ended up relegated again after years of threatening to, I just shrugged my shoulders and went with it.

Others didn’t accept it, others were more vocal. This rift in the fanbase caused a ripple effect that we still feel to this day. The Back2Barnet campaign in truth never really got going and that was it, 106 years at Underhill for Barnet FC were over.

Suddenly, regulars who were there week in week out were not there anymore. I went along to The Hive to give it a try, hopeful that maybe this was a fresh new start. It wasn’t. I didn’t take to it at all. The facilities were decent, but the ground just didn’t sit well with me. The location certainly didn’t sit well with me, and the fact it took so long to get there from just about everywhere meant that quite quickly I decided I couldn’t keep backing it. It felt like a different club to the one that I’d fallen for.

Fickle

From here, what you will read is the story of an archetypal fair-weather, fickle fan.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the football. We actually started the season quite well, but we threw away a two-goal lead against Hyde United, one of the worst teams I’ve ever seen us play, and that was that. After the previous years of apathy, enough was enough. We of course went on to win that game, but in my stubborn mind, the decision had been made.

Attendances dipped at The Hive. When comparing like-for-like seasons, numbers had dropped markedly. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one feeling completely detached from it all. Even with a return to the Football League two seasons later, my attendance in that season was very low. Of course, I was at the decider against Gateshead, but I’d gone from going every single week to once or twice a month at a push.

Once back in the Football League, I started to take an interest again but not close to the levels of ten years prior. However, by the end of that first season back, I had started to make my peace with it and was prepared to swallow my pride and come back into the fold by buying a season ticket (or a monthly membership, as it was then).

The chairman then put out a statement called ‘The Dilemma’, an attempted rationale for sharp price increases. We were given a binary choice, cough up and invest in the team or keep the prices as they were and do our best. This really riled me. Responsibility for progress on the pitch seemed to be put on our doorstep, not his. You pay or we struggle. With that, I threw my toys out of the pram and my attendance was again paused save for a couple of away games where I could tick off a new ground.

The ticket prices did go up and within two years we were relegated. Again. Another one of those Barnet FC omnishambles. Numerous managerial disasters that even Martin Allen couldn’t fix. We were directionless. We were just as bad off the field with the setup at The Hive getting worse with each passing season. The so-called temporary 10-year stay was now permanent. I just couldn’t see what the future held for the club, so I resolved at this point to not attend The Hive again.

John Still was in charge for the start of the National League return before handing over to Darren Currie. He led us on a memorable FA Cup journey which involved a win at Sheffield United and a 3-3 draw against Championship Brentford in front of a full house at The Hive. Over 1600 went to the replay defeat.

When I think about this period, I often wonder what I have missed by being so stubborn. It’s fair to say that life had moved on from my teenage years that involved Barnet every Saturday, but even so there were some great away trips and moments that I missed. I went to the odd local game, but declined the big occasions (e.g. Sheffield United, Brentford) and home games out of ‘principle’ because I didn’t want to turn up out of nowhere and go back on my word. Foolish really, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

COVID soon hit and no one was going to games. I think it’s fair to say that this time caused a re-evaluation in a lot of people’s thinking and attitude towards life, and to some extent, Barnet FC. I remember a large group of us meeting in The Railway Tavern for the playoffs in 2020. These people who I was seeing all the time, suddenly I had not seen for years because of my own choices. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

Even more randomly during this time, the decision was made to bring the website back as a front for a podcast. Initially, this started out as the three of us who were behind DSH to start talking about Underhill, but when opportunities arose to speak to old Barnet players from our time attending, we grabbed it. We were very lucky to get access to the address books and interviewed people over this time who are club legends. Looking back, this must have been what stoked the Barnet FC fire again. Talking about Barnet, not only amongst ourselves, but with people we grew up considering our heroes was quite the privilege and perhaps got me thinking that maybe it’s time to move on from all this nonsense and get behind the team.

The COVID playoffs ended in disappointment of course, but what followed on the pitch in the next season was nothing short of ridiculous. Behind closed doors, we were firmly bottom of the watching a shambolic on-field demise through various streaming services. We only avoided relegation because the leagues below us were declared null and void. When the doors opened back up the following year, it didn’t get much better as we finished 18th but a man named Dean Brennan was named as manager and under him at least there appeared to be green shoots of a revival.

Long Distance Relationship

For me, life had fully changed. At the start of 2021 I moved to Ireland, making good on my promise to not go to The Hive again. However, when the 2022-2023 season started positively, and friends of mine had started to return to The Hive having been tempted by a buy-one-get-one-free Season Ticket offer, my mindset again pivoted to one of fear of missing out. There I was watching the newly inaugurated National League TV streaming service getting more and more emotionally involved with each passing week, albeit from a distance.

After three COVID affected years of not going to a single game, I came back home one weekend and there I was at Wealdstone for that 2-0 win, and I absolutely loved it. Just like riding a bike, the boozy away day and the sing song were back. Isn’t it amazing how quickly your so-called principles go out the window when the team are doing well.

A seed was planted. The following week we were away at Gateshead in the FA Trophy Semi-Final. One game away from Wembley. Slightly influenced by booze and three points, I started to look into how feasible it was to fly there and back in a day. There I was, waking up at 0330 to get to Dublin Airport for a flight to Newcastle on April Fool’s Day. It was a new method of travel, but it was still some day, meeting the boys for beers and having a bloody good time. We lost on penalties, of course but my love for Barnet FC was being re-ignited. Now who’s the fool?

This has been the story in the last season too. Trips back to Boreham Wood, Dorking and Woking have been enjoyed in full throttle. National League streams have been followed intently. It’s a different kind of “support” from what it was twenty (!!) years ago, if you can even call it support. If I were still in the UK, I’d almost certainly have a season ticket and be going to some (not all) away games. The full circle of the fair-weather supporter.

Though the season may have ended in disaster with another Playoff nightmare, the prospects for the future on the pitch remain strong. Unfortunately, the away day prospects aren’t exactly jumping off the page with the names of the teams who have come up and down, but who knows, maybe I’ll break my Hive hiatus as and when the responsibility of fatherhood allows.

As I have said before, there are those out there who have stuck with it throughout all these years, and I have an awful lot of respect for them. If medals were being handed out for loyalty, I wouldn’t make it past the extra preliminary round.

Future

It’s highly likely I will be in Ireland for the rest of my days. This means a season ticket is a bit unlikely. That’s even with the prospect of the return to South Underhill in mind.

The announcement in February that the club intended to move back blindsided all of us, not least me. I, alongside several others including BFCSA committee members and Beespod, have been involved in setting up the Bring Barnet Back campaign. There is a long road to travel of course, but if the club can pull this off, I believe it is the catalyst to great things for Barnet FC.

Even objectively speaking, even the most ardent loyalist would accept that the move to The Hive has not reaped anywhere near the rewards some may have anticipated. The fanbase has not grown in line with other clubs at our level (it has gone backwards), we have not gone forward on the pitch, and the location is never going to match what Barnet was.

It might be easy for me to pontificate from the sidelines with my Underhill-tinted glasses on, but I am absolutely certain that Barnet Football Club needs this move back home to be sustainable in the long run. I know a lot of people who have similarly dropped their attendance over the years who would be very keen on going back if it is at South Underhill.

I can’t change what has gone. I can’t change the decisions I made in the last ten years to not attend. If that makes me less of a fan to some people, then so be it.

None of that is particularly important now, nor are any of the moans, groans and gripes I’ve gone through before. What we need to focus on is the future and continuing to drive awareness and positive noise around the proposed return to Barnet. We know the benefits, we know what it will do for the club, the community and the town.

I have not seen Barnet fans so united on a single topic before. Of course, we will always bicker and argue about certain things, but the campaign transcends that. We all want the same thing, for Barnet FC to be successful. To do that, we must collectively throw our weight behind the Bring Barnet Back campaign in a positive, collaborative way.

I have a son now here in Ireland and I want him to be able to share in this as much as he can. I can’t imagine that we’ll be flying back and forth every other week, but I think it would be good for him to know that football is not a TV show. The League of Ireland will provide a level of interest, but the poor kid is going to have to be a Barnet fan too.

There will be ups and downs and bumps in the road, but if the past 23 years have taught me anything, it’s to enjoy the good times while they last. My troubled past with Barnet FC is on good terms for now, and I’d like to think that whatever the future holds, I’ll at least be able to stick with it from afar more now that my interest and love for the club is very much rekindled. Bringing Barnet Back would fully seal the deal.





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All Articles By This Author:

Date 
07/06/2024 A Barnet Story
24/05/2024 LEGENDS - John Akinde
17/03/2024 Card Bored
20/01/2024 Barnet Rivalries
08/10/2023 Take On Me
03/09/2023 Wood You Watch That Every Week?
01/04/2023 It’ll Have To Be The Playoffs
26/03/2023 Home Away From Home
13/02/2022 The View From Afar
19/04/2013 Underhill
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07/06/2024 A Barnet Story
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10/04/2024 Nearly There
25/03/2024 "A Game Of F*****g Demolition"
20/03/2024 Another Step Closer
17/03/2024 Card Bored
09/03/2024 Tepid
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