…Busy Bees: The Relatively Dark Backstory (Part One)

This is a two-part piece on another one of my footballing loves: Barnet FC. I appreciate most of you won’t know much about the club so I’ve spent a lot longer than is excusable to go into considerable depth. In this first part, I explain the recent history of the club, the stink surrounding it and the inevitable doom we face unless changes are made.

London isn’t in particularly short supply of professional football clubs. In the 2012-2013 season there will be 14 of them strewn across the top four divisions of English football. As a result, a child born in any part of London has a selection of at least two teams they can call “local” teams. Ultimately, this can lead to them choosing a Premier League team and a lower-league team to follow. On the odd occassion, a non-league team as well. While this might come across as beneficial to the lower-league teams — something it surely has the capacity to be, given the correct circumtances — it’s also a great hindrance.

Something any Barnet fan will tell you.

Wedged into North London alongside Premier League ever-presents Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, Barnet are an oft-forgotten League Two side. Not only do they occupy the same space as two of the biggest clubs in the country — one of which has a genuine claim to one of England’s richest footballing histories — but their competition also includes the second-oldest league club in London; Leyton Orient.

Sadly, football is a realm where illustrious neighbours are detrimental to the value of your property. Recently, even local (and historically inferior) rivals Stevenage have surpassed Barnet, almost achieving a second consecutive promotion before failing at the play-off stage. All of this while Barnet scrap for league survival for the umpteenth time in a row.

How much of a scrap? Their past five league finishes read as follows: 12th (07/08), 17th (08/09), 21st (09/10), 22nd (10/11), 22nd (11/12). Somehow, Barnet are getting progressively worse. It also is worth bearing in mind that 23rd place means relegation, not only from League Two, but from professional football.

Indeed, Barnet only pop up on the football radar once every year, during their end-of-season relegation battle. Barnet’s plight hangs in the balance at a time when regional sports media are looking to cover games with meaning. A perfect marriage, in a perverse way.

Chairman Tony Kleanthous has stabilised the club and invested wisely in its future. The problem has always been balancing future investment against whatever’s needed to maintain league status for yet another year. According to a newspaper article published last season, Barnet had two players earning roughly £50,000 p/a, with the rest earning around £30,000 p/a. It is no secret that Barnet usually have one of the lowest playing budgets in League Two. This has lead to imbalanced squads in terms of ability, experience and positional cover.

The trend over the past couple of seasons has been a 15-17 man squad consisting of: one or two flair players with great ability; at least two decent League Two players who are gambles due to their record with injury; four or five reliable League Two players and an unfortunate mish-mash of non-league prospects — although “gambles” might be more adequate here — & young players with potential. Notably, this is someway short of a respectable League Two XI.

Admittedly then, it is no surprise to find Barnet languishing near the bottom of the class, flirting with the potential of being offloaded to the set below. The small playing budget, its effect on the squad and further ramifications (ie. playing style) have also led to producing a set of war-torn fans. Fans who would take a season of mid-table mediocrity in a heartbeat. Fans who, more than ever, are starting to grow weary with the club. While Kleanthous has done well to maintain a family-friendly, affordable football experience, attendances are desperately low.

Ultimately, it is time for change. Last season the plan was to bring in a high-profile manager in an attempt to change the club’s fortunes. Lawrie Sanchez ended up leaving the club under a cloud. The fans hated his brand of football, his attitude was poor to the point where he may struggle to find future employment in the game and he’d almost got the club relegated despite two fantastic months over the season. The season before saw Mark Stimson, then respected for his attacking football, given charge. His season ended at the midway point with the team playing in an ineffective, weak style and the majority of his signings sinking as opposed to swimming.

There have been many false dawns with Barnet and this may yet prove to be another but the new regime has unquestionable potential. Kleanthous has entrusted the responsibility for all football decisions to Paul Fairclough, a loyal servant to the club for many years who also happens to be England ‘C’ manager. Fairclough has decided to rapidly change the approach the club is taking. He is now the Director of Football and he began searching not for a manager but for a Head Coach with the ability to develop players.

Part Two, assuming any of you made it this far, will autopost at roughly the same time tomorrow. Until then, enjoy the end of the week!