In blustering gusts I reluctantly left the house ahead of a hastily arranged day trip to Barnet. It had been a long week, the weather was atrocious and all I wanted was a short, stress free outing to a new ground. Little did I know that thanks to an unhealthy concoction bad weather, train failures and my inability to turn down a night out I would only return home late the next day. Oh, and I’d also head over to Wembley to watch my first ever NFL game.
Seven years ago I had made the trip to Barnet’s old ground, Underhill. It was an iconic and historic venue, famed for it’s sloping pitch and old stands. With it’s days numbered, I had managed to get there when there were only a handful of matches left. An ongoing row between the football club and the council showed no signs of abating. It was a shame that Barnet felt they had to move but nobody could argue with the reasoning.
Dated infrastructure doesn’t exactly lend itself to maximising profit. Relations with the council were at risk of becoming permanently frayed. A move was always going to happen but it became a little more complicated when the the club’s favoured site for a new stadium, at Barnet Copthall, was awarded to rugby union club Saracens for their Allianz Park stadium.
The football club had been quite clever though. If ever they didn’t receive the support or assurances they wanted from the council, they already had another site ready to move to – in another borough. In 2003, when construction initially started on what would later become The Hive, it was going to be the new home of non-league side Wealdstone FC.
However, months into the building work on Prince Edward Playing Fields in Edgware, Weladstone ran into financial problems. Their investment partner went into liquidation and the partially built ground lay untouched for years.
Growing tired, Harrow Council decided to put the site up for tender in 2006. So, even seven years before they would eventually leave Underhill, Barnet FC bought the right to occupy the site. To consolidate their position on the land, they built a training facility there in 2009 but always maintained that their priority would be to work with their own local council and build a 10,000 seater stadium nearer home.
By the time Barnet were ready to host their first match at The Hive in July 2013, a lot had changed. I remember keenly checking up on a weekly basis to read the latest in a long series of bizarre episodes that involved former Barcelona, Juventus and Inter Milan midfielder Edgar Davids who had been persuaded to come out of retirement once again and had been appointed player-manager of the Bees.
It was a strange decision as Davids had only played six competitive matches in the past four years. His short spell at Crystal Palace proved unsuccessful and the midfielder went back to playing Sunday league football in Brixton, where even then, he would often find himself on the sidelines.
Nevertheless, Barnet held great faith in the former Dutch international to bring some excitement to the club. The relationship started off promisingly, but a relegation from League Two on the last day of the season 2012/13 season was an unwelcome step backwards to say the least.
A new era for the club, in non-league, would start with a 3-0 victory over Chester at The Hive. Prior to the match, Davids who wasn’t content with just being player-manager, also made himself club-captain and announced that he would be wearing the number 1 shirt, traditionally reserved for goalkeepers, explaining that he wanted to “set a trend” for midfielders.
On the pitch, he was booked in the first eight matches of that season and was sent off in three of them. He refused to travel to away matches which required an overnight stay and by January of that season, he had resigned. The Hive was only a matter of months old but it was hard to imagine that it would ever see a more colourful character than Edgar Davids.
Three days before this National League match against basement club Chorley, I’d received a message from my mate Faye who was no longer needing a train ticket for a journey down to London. She knew, for a fact, that if anybody could make use of a random train ticket at such short notice, it would be me.
Over previous years, I had done quite well at ticking off the bigger grounds in and around London and so now found myself left with National League grounds. A glance at the fixtures showed that Barnet, my highest ranked ‘missing club’ – were at home. This, I foolishly hoped, would be a cheap opportunity at ticking off what looked to be a rather uninspiring ground.
As I alluded to at the start, I had no idea when I woke up on the day of the match that a stop over in London would follow. With no change of clothes and only a phone charger in my possession, by the time I got to Euston I had found myself coerced into having a night out in Islington and a trip to Wembley the following afternoon.
Other than agreeing to a daft night out, the journey from Atherton to Barnet would prove to be completely shambolic from start to finish, eventually leading to me missing the start of the match. It was unlike me, but I considered defeat on a number of occasions and in all honesty, if I hadn’t have already purchased my ticket for this unappealing league match then I would have given up and just spent the afternoon in a pub.
The journey was meant to be straight forward and it is one that I had done numerous times. Atherton to London Euston, via Wigan North Western and a brief stop at the famous Galloways Pie Shop opposite. But less than a minute into my journey and my plans were in disarray as the Northern Rail train I was on ground to shuddering a halt. Eventually, after an hour of being stranded, we reversed back through the station from where we had started and rattled all the way through to Manchester on the other end of the line.
As much as I love Manchester, it wasn’t where I wanted to be at all. Even worse, I now knew that if I battled on and made it to London, I would be pushed for time upon arrival in the capital. Typically, as I made it to Piccadilly I had just missed the next train as I watched it pull out of the platform as I ran for it. By the time I managed to escape the North West, it was just after midday and there was now less than three hours until kick-off.
Further up the line in Stockport, albeit not by much, we were stopped once again, this time due to a fault on the train. It now dawned on me that this could be a complete and utter waste of a day.
My phone buzzed. Fellow Bolton fans – and good mates – Lee, Gaz and Ste had worked out that they were on the same train as me. Camped out at the end of the next carriage, there they were, behind a pile of alcohol which was accompanied by a portable speaker. Requests from other passengers flooded in as I resorted to standing up in the aisle for the duration of the journey.
They weren’t bothering with football this weekend. Bolton were “only” hosting Fleetwood Town in the latest of a long line of inexplicably dull matches in League One. Instead, they were ready for their annual NFL weekend. Within moments of me being with them, they had somehow persuaded me to stay over with them and go along to the match between Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. I would go on to buy a Texans bobble hat.
Only an hour before, I had been on the phone to my Dad where I discussed binning the whole day off and suddenly it had turned into just the spontaneous kind of nonsense that I craved. Upon arriving at Euston, I left my mates behind and sprinted up the ramp through the station and down into the Underground. Racing down the escalators I made my way on to the Northern Line and arrived at Edgware station just as the match was due to kick-off.
In true cinematic style I flagged down the nearest taxi and we fought our way through the high street traffic. The floodlights of The Hive could be seen in the distance; I was checking match updates on Twitter. My driver, who sensed I was in a rush, dumped me as close to the ground as she could, next to the pitch where her son trains. I didn’t have time for small talk, the scoreboard in the ground already showed that I had missed 12 minutes and I still needed to pick up my ticket.
Typical of the day so far, the woman at the Ticket Office couldn’t find my booking and disappeared, without saying anything, to find a colleague who could help. It was almost as if somebody didn’t want me to watch any football on this miserably cold and blustery afternoon. With no urgency whatsoever, I was handed my ticket and with the flick of a hand was shown the rough, general direction in which to head.
My ticket was for the catchily titled Bees Terrace but one glance at this empty and rain soaked end of the ground showed that it wasn’t even open. Down a set of steep steps, I walked through the Legends Entrance and asked a steward where to head. I assumed I wouldn’t have to stand behind the goal completely on my own. My northern accent obviously proved to him, beyond any doubts, that I was a Chorley fan and that I shouldn’t be in the home end. After an unsuccessful attempt at trying to make me go and sit with the away supporters, I walked away from him and found a seat where I wanted.
Underneath the scoreboard, which now showed that I had missed the first 20 minutes, I found a place at the back of the Legends Stand. From this vantage point I was able to make sense of just how ridiculous this whole ground really was. Under foot, it was clear that no expense had been spared with flimsy slats of wood fastened together and faded orange seats had been plonked on top. It was like the away end at Blackpool but without the seagull excrement that sits like a thick layer of plaster on everything.
The large stand to my left, named Stand ’66 had a grand total of five people sat in it. But the bizareness of the stadium was completed by the Hive Stand opposite. Supporters were scattered along the length of the pitch but none appeared daft enough to sit towards the ends where, for some reason, there was no roof. On further inspection, the club’s Family Zone was actually in the uncovered section.
Nothing quite appeals to the youngest and most impressionable generation of football supporter like sitting in a wet seat watching Barnet take on the likes of Solihull Moors and Ebbsfleet United. It’s not like Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal are on the doorstep, waiting to snatch them, is it?
On the pitch, both sides needed a victory. Chorley travelled down south in search of their first league win in two months, finding themselves rock bottom and already looking like they were in for an immediate return to the National League North. Barnet meanwhile were mid-table, hoping to mount a challenge for an elusive play-off spot.
Chorley took the lead on 31 minutes in spectacular fashion. Jake Cottrell placed the ball down for a corner, in front of two stewards who were sheltering from the rain filled gusts on the Bees Terrace. He swung in his delivery and after a spate of head tennis, Marcus Carver shocked everybody in attendance by attempting an audacious overhead kick which found the far corner of the goal. The couple of hundred visiting supporters really enjoyed that one, shaking the wooden stand with their jubilant celebrations.
Half-time arrived with The Magpies clinging on to a fragile lead. A fitter Barnet side would give them more of a test in the second half, especially with the wind behind them. An underground train rattled above us on the embankment outside the Legends Bar, which was tucked away underneath the stand.
Bright orange walls and darker orange seats made the bar feel like an EasyJet departures lounge. A healthy crowd was forming at the bar where a couple of workers ran around tirelessly and efficiently in attempt to serve everybody their half-time pints. As a former worker on the bar in the Stanley Matthews Suite at Stoke City, I was impressed by how quickly and calmly they got on with it, even when some Barnet fans tried to look more important than they actually were by paying with £50 notes. They made sure everybody noticed. It was only the second time in my life that I had seen a £50 note; the last time being on a Friday night at Sporting Club Thamesmead. Perhaps these things only exist in London?
With my pint in hand, I studied the murals on the wall and was horrified to see former Bolton manager Dougie Freedman listed amongst the Legends of Underhill. His monotonous, rambling excuses after every defeat didn’t go down well with Wanderers fans but here at Barnet, he was obviously held in higher regard with the display explaining; “Despite only being a Barnet player for a little over 18 months, Dougie excited the Underhill crowds week in, week out.”
The second half had already kicked off by the time I finished my pint. I’d already missed 20 minutes, another five wouldn’t hurt. Rather reluctantly, I headed out of the warmth and orange comfort of the Legends Bar and back into the bitter cold and damp of the Legends Stand where I decided to sit on the segregation line next to the Chorley fans. Despite being 1-0 up, they knew better than to get their hopes up.
Barnet found a route back into the game on 62 minutes from the spot, although Chorley defender Matt Challoner didn’t even touch Medy Elito. The winger threw himself to the floor on the very edge of the box and didn’t even appeal for the penalty himself. Jack Taylor hammered the ball just past the finger tips of Matt Urwin.
If that wasn’t enough of a sucker punch to the visitors, it would get worse ten minutes from time. Barnet’s earlier goal had put them in the ascendancy and they went on to lay siege on the Chorley goal, fighting through the gale force winds and rain that were now working against them. Mauro Vilhete, who was now in his tenth year at the club, was on hand to blast the ball into the roof of the net to claim all three points.
With standing water forming on the pitch, the referee brought an entertaining match to an end. Supporters charged out of the ground in an attempt to get away as quickly as they could. Who could blame them? A couple of younger lads made the split-second-decision to steal a few bottles of Fanta that were on a catering trolley close to the exit. An older gentleman, told them in no uncertain terms to return the items or he would report them for stealing from the club. They laughed at him, thought about it and then wisely put the items back.
While the youths of Barnet stole soft drinks, I caught the bus back to Edgware tube station. My next stop was the Maple Leaf Bar in Covent Garden where the others were having a few drinks. It was the start of what would be a great night out, finishing at another of our favourite places, Slim Jim’s Liquor Store up in Islington where the hotel was. The last time I had been in there, before the FA Vase final between North Shields and Glossop North End, a local girl had thrown her bra at me.
There would be no such scenes on this occasion. As the live band played in Slim Jim’s, I supped on yet another pint of Camden Brewery ale. I reflected on how I should have been home hours ago. I could be tucked up in bed after a long day in the rain.. but I wasn’t and I wouldn’t have changed my decisions at all. It had been a true groundhopping adventure and I was now looking forward to the NFL the following day… just as long as I remembered to get a ticket in the morning!