This article is part of our Neutral's Guide series. You can read previous entries here.
Of all the football clubs in London currently playing in the top four tiers, Barnet are probably the least glamorous. The Bees' highest ever league finish came in the 1993/94 season, when they ended up rock bottom of the old Second Division. Their trophy cabinet includes three Conference titles and some FA Trophy runners-up medals from the seventies, though in fairness they are seven-time champions of the Hertfordshire Senior Challenge Cup. What's more, as a North London club, they share a catchment zone with Arsenal and Tottenham, with the magnetic pull of their illustrious neighbours attracting the vast majority of fans in the area. It takes some character to plump for Barnet in these circumstances, and perhaps a mild contrarian streak.
Glory hunters Barnet fans are not, and this seems to be a considerable part of the club's appeal. In fairness, the club have had some memorable seasons, not least during their rise up the leagues in the early nineties when they were spearheaded by manager Barry Fry and controversial chairman Stan Flashman. Historically an amateur club which spent 53 years in the Athenian League, the nineties were an exciting time to be a fan, even if their foray into the Second Division coincided with disastrous financial troubles. Barnet survived, and are currently going strong in the midst of one of their best seasons in quite some time. They could well reach the League Two play-offs this term, which for a team promoted as National League champions only a season and a half ago would represent a major success.
Barnet fan John Kennedy and his dad, Lee, talk about their association with the club
Barnet have had some big names pass through the club in the past, not least the ageing talents of Jimmy Greaves, Alan Pardew and Edgar Davids. The latter had a fairly eccentric spell as manager of the side, which resulted in a narrow relegation at the end of 2012/13, followed by a spate of bizarre antics too surreal to fully detail here. In a sense, the Davids era was a continuation for the fans, with those who remembered Flashman's ownership well accustomed to unorthodox goings-on at the club. Still, if owners, managers and players have often been erratic, the club's tight-knit community culture has been a comforting constant down the years.
That culture has changed somewhat in recent times, what with Barnet moving away from Underhill, their traditional home in the midst of the borough which lends the club its name. Built in 1907, it was a charmingly ramshackle Edwardian stadium, with its covered roofs sagging slightly with age and its terraces sprouting the odd patch of weeds. Regardless of its timeworn appearance, it was beloved of the area, even among those who only went a handful of times a season. While most local supporters had declared for one of Arsenal and Tottenham, Underhill somehow served as a bridge between those clearly demarcated fanbases. Barnet always was – and still is – many North Londoners' second team.
Now, however, Underhill stands empty, its pitch overgrown and its stands abandoned. The club left their old ground in 2013, after a bitter wrangle between present chairman Tony Kleanthous and the local council over land lease issues. Barnet now play at the Hive, with their former training ground on the borders of Harrow converted into a 6,400 capacity stadium. It couldn't be much more different to Underhill, which not everyone would agree is a good thing.
While the Hive is no doubt infinitely more suited to the demands of modern football, it lacks the same storied aura that was such a distinct feature of Underhill. Where the old ground had knackered turnstiles, a notorious sloping pitch and moss on its corrugated facade, the Hive has an on-site Starbucks, which for a lower-league side feels a bit unreal. If Underhill was a colourful stately residence with dodgy plumbing and a faded exterior, the Hive is a state-of-the-art new build on a glossy developmental estate. Sure, it has great amenities, a fantastic energy rating and a wide variety of convenient features, but it doesn't quite have that same homey feel.
Having grown up in nearby Finchley, my own experiences of Underhill are admittedly fond. Going to the odd mid-season game with mates, we would overhear grizzled Barnet veterans grumbling good-naturedly about the fairweather fans who turned up for promotion and relegation, but were never around to watch Morecambe on a Tuesday night in the biting sleet and driving rain. We were those fairweather fans, with most of us holding allegiances to one or the other of North London's Premier League titans as opposed to a full-time commitment to Barnet. Nonetheless, for the last match of the season, we were often part of a bumper crowd hoping to see the Bees avoid the drop, gripping the gaudy orange railings of the East Terrace and checking our phones for scores elsewhere. Throughout the late noughties, the team just about managed to survive relegation, with a celebratory pitch invasion sometimes thrown in for good measure.
While Barnet might have switched ground since then, the core support haven't changed too radically. As is to be expected, with the Hive a good six miles away from Underhill, a few fans have stopped going so regularly even if matches still tend to draw decent crowds. There are some supporters who have taken a stance against the club playing outside its home borough, and who refuse to watch them at the Hive, preferring to maintain an informal boycott. The majority of fans based in Barnet still travel over to watch the team, however, with many of those one might have seen at Underhill still to be spotted on matchday in Harrow.
So, in accordance with Barnet's history and identity as a traditional community club, the support on which the football team was founded seems to have migrated to the Hive largely intact. That's not to say that the move has been easy, with fans still adapting to their new surroundings. Talking to supporters at the Hive ahead of their goalless draw against Newport in January, many say that the atmosphere still has some way to go to match that of Underhill. While their former home wasn't always full during the colder stretches of the season, the noise of the old East Terrace especially belied the size and status of the club.
Naturally, there are some who have adapted to the move away from Underhill better than others. Speaking to Howard Gunstock, a longstanding Barnet fan who has the uncanny ability to reel off the club's greatest ever players by rote, it's clear that some supporters think the change of scenery has had some broadly positive effects. "I think it's been a really big step forward," Howard says of the transition from Underhill to the Hive. "Underhill had a lot of character, was a really great place and gave us a lot of great memories, but it wasn't fit for purpose anymore and it ended up being an anchor around our ankles."
It's certainly true that the club were thwarted on multiple occasions in their efforts to expand and modernise the facilities at Underhill, while the old ground lacked the space for commercial outlets which the Hive seems to have in abundance. That said, while the Hive has a built-in bar, shop and restaurant, these give the club a more corporate feel than many of its counterparts in the lower tiers. While many will accept this as a symptom of the inevitable onward march of modern football, others will doubtlessly feel it diminishes the romance of the place a touch. Seemingly somewhere in the middle of those two viewpoints is Hugo Greally, another fan who we met at the Hive ahead of the Newport game.
"For me personally [the move] has been pretty difficult," Hugo tells us. "I used to live a stone's throw from the old ground, and could literally get to the ground without crossing the road. I could walk up there with a group of mates, no problem, but the move to the new ground has made it a lot more challenging to travel to home games." While Hugo appreciates that the facilities are far better at the Hive, the impression he gives is that – in an ideal world – he would swap it for the old-school atmosphere of Underhill without undue hesitation. In reality, though, the Hive is home now, with the club hierarchy seemingly content to stay in Harrow. "We're kicking on, attracting better players, so you can see the reasons behind [their position]. It's not something you begrudge the club really," Hugo adds.
Whatever Barnet fans' view of the Hive, there is still plenty going for the club. Whether one feels good, bad or indifferent towards the new ground, the community which serves as its beating heart is still effectively alive and well. "When we won the Conference, we had a lot of success, and you saw a lot of old faces coming back who you hadn't seen as much since we moved to the new ground," Hugo says. "With time, you get the people who do drop away, but I think more and more people are starting to come back." Howard seems to concur, and adds that the club still broadly welcomes neutrals, newcomers and those with rather more grandiose allegiances. "It's a pretty good culture here, and a pretty positive place to be."
Though Barnet are no longer as emblematic of lovable lower-league scruffiness as they once were, they are also a club with broadened horizons who have considerably more potential to progress and be ambitious. Should they find success at the Hive, the atmosphere will doubtlessly develop and improve. Barnet haven't lost their community spirit, while they have become no more faddish or fashionable for having moved to a stadium with modern fittings. They are still perennial underdogs in North London, and should still appeal to those who shun their Premier League neighbours in search of a more esoteric experience. They occupy a reconciliatory niche in North London's tribal and divided football scene, and that lends an enduring distinctiveness to the fans, the club and the black-and-orange shirt that adorns the team.