Speaking to a couple of Barnet supporters on a recent trip to the Hive, the era of Edgar Davids at the club came up in conversation. On first mention of his name, their faces contorted into half-smiles, half-grimaces, before a burst of long-suffering laughter filled the air. "It was a crazy time," said one. "It was very, very different to what came before, and quite frustrating in the end. When we were in the Football League, Davids was a good manager, and he nearly saved us from relegation. When we went down, he seemed to lose his head a little bit, and he ended up being more of a celebrity than a football coach, more interested in clothes lines, sponsorships and the like than in the actual team."
Frustration is probably the prevalent theme when Barnet fans discuss Edgar Davids' time at the club, though his legacy on the peripheries of North London is certainly up for interpretation. The facts are these: in October 2012, with Barnet early front-runners for relegation from the Football League, Davids was convinced to join the club as a player-manager alongside the struggling Mark Robson, and so he set about marshalling a side which had not won a game since the season began. Having promptly made himself captain, he inspired a significant upturn in form amongst his teammates through his dogged performances, motivational presence and the force of his formidable personality, soon taking sole charge of the team in light of Robson's inevitable departure after a couple of months. The team hit a decent run of form but, in a cruel twist of fate, Barnet were relegated on the last day of the season after a loss against Northampton Town and a win for fellow strugglers Wimbledon. In the end, it was the Bees' early deficit which doomed them to the drop, with their final total of 51 points the highest ever for a side relegated from League Two.
When Davids first arrived at Underhill, with Barnet in their last ever season at their historical ground, the excitement amongst the supporters was palpable. Barnet fans would be the first to admit that the club is one of the least fashionable in London and – caught as it is between the catchment zones of illustrious neighbours in the form of Arsenal and Tottenham – it's not often that the Bees grab the headlines or draw the attention of the national press. Davids had been turning out for Spurs only a few years previous and, with distinguished spells at Ajax, Juventus and Barcelona under his belt, was perhaps the most high-profile player ever to arrive at Barnet, even if he was nearing 40 years of age. While the fans had seen several fading stars pass through over the years, it wasn't every day they hosted a Champions League winner at Underhill, especially not one wearing their orange-and-black strip while tearing up and down the notorious sloping pitch.
Back then, when he first joined the club, it was hard to see a downside to Davids' decision. Having volunteered his services because he wanted "to help English football", it seemed like an admirable move all round. As is the cultural norm in Holland, he was starting his coaching career at a modest club, looking to work his way up on merit while helping a lower-league team to improve. Davids had lived locally for several years and, as such, working with Barnet on a volunteer basis felt like a contribution to the community as much as anything. His arrival gave the club a national platform, and a chance to capitalise psychologically and financially on the presence of a world-renowned name.
Unfortunately, there appeared to be something of a superiority complex with Davids, perhaps partly understandable given his vast experience at the pinnacle of the game. So, in an interview on Goals on Sunday, he famously described sitting on the Barnet bench and thinking: "You know what? I'm fucking Edgar Davids!" Coming to the end of their time at Underhill, Barnet were a shabby side getting poor results to the backdrop of a conspicuously run-down stadium. While Davids was careful not to condescend or patronise once he had taken over full time, he was undoubtedly aware he was doing the club a favour. Still, Champions League medal or no Champions League medal, his glorious past only had so much bearing when it came to the realities of that doomed campaign.
When Barnet's relegation was confirmed in the cruellest of circumstances, Davids did what seemed to be the decent thing and declared that he would stick around regardless. Falling out of the Football League was especially traumatic given that it was Barnet's final season at Underhill, and Davids ultimately resolved to stand by the club at an extremely difficult time. Their new ground, the Hive, was considerably further away for Davids, and it's possible that he didn't take to their surrogate home in the same way he had to the ramshackle surroundings of EN5. Likewise, he may well have found his enthusiasm waning at the prospect of managing and playing in the Conference, with matches against the likes of Wrexham, Salisbury and Gateshead on the schedule. Either way, from the start of the 2013/14 season, his relationship with the club became uneasy and soon began to strain at the seams.
Just before the campaign kicked off, Davids announced his intention to sport the Number 1 shirt for the upcoming season, wearing the traditional goalkeeper's number instead of his man between the sticks, Graham Stack. Speaking to Graham over the phone, he tells me he had no problems with the decision, even if he can see how it sent out the wrong message. "I'd just come off the back of a great season, and I only had a squad number," he says. "I couldn't tell you what it was, it might have been 21. Edgar brought me into the canteen one morning, and asked me what number I wanted to wear. I told him I really didn't mind, and he asked: 'Do you mind if I wear Number 1?' I told him he was the manager, he could wear what he liked.
"That was that, and he obviously ended up wearing Number 1. In the end, it probably didn't reflect well on him, though I don't know whether it was an ego thing so much as him wanting to do things differently," Graham adds. "It doesn't make him a bad person, but I think he wanted the limelight to be on him a hell of a lot. It definitely got people talking, but I think it probably got people saying the wrong things."
Davids' choice of shirt number was certainly seen as a peculiar preference by supporters, with many taking it as a sign of self-aggrandisement. In fairness to Davids, it should be noted that the precedent for midfielders wearing Number 1 had been set by fellow Dutchman Ruud Geels as far back as the 1974 World Cup. The feeling that Davids was losing his way was strengthened by his increasingly erratic performances, and the fact that he was booked in the first eight games of the new season, a run that included three red cards. He also struck a deal with the club that he would not travel to away games in distant parts of the country, this despite him being a first-team starter and deploying himself across the pitch as he pleased.
Unsurprisingly, this behaviour alienated many Barnet fans and threatened to eat through his personal capital. While they were pleased to have such a high-profile player at the club, their gratitude did not extend to allowing Davids to expose them to ridicule with his temperamental impulses and whims. His national profile began to count against him in what were ever-more farcical circumstances, with Barnet briefly becoming a national talking point for all the wrong reasons. There were reports of tension within the squad as well as rumours of Davids' own disaffection, while some suggested he was neglecting the Barnet job for other, more glamorous commitments. To the majority of the fans' relief, Davids realised the way the wind was blowing come January. Barnet looked unlikely to maintain a play-off push, let alone achieve promotion, and so he did the honourable thing and decided to offer his resignation.
While it would be easy to characterise Davids' time at Barnet as a foolish foray into lower-league football by an arrogant and egocentric former superstar, that would perhaps be a touch uncharitable to a man who was expressing himself the only way he knew how. His spell with the Bees was strange, surreal and seems barely believable in hindsight, but Davids was always an eccentric character who trod the thin line between genius and madness – that was a characteristic part of his appeal as a player, and he was never going to tone himself down. Now, there are a significant number of Barnet fans who remember his reign fondly, with the passing of time and the club's subsequent successes smoothing over his more exasperating behaviour. Though things didn't work out for Davids at Barnet, nobody could claim that his time at the helm was predictable, or that his spell at the club was one which supporters will forget any time soon.
Speaking to fans via the popular Only Barnet forum, it becomes apparent that there is still much admiration for Davids, and some nostalgia for his bullish approach to management if not for the indiscipline and volatility which came with it. In reply to a query on their lasting memories of the Pitbull, one supporter wrote: "It was simply amazing to begin with. I remember my grandfather calling me from Italy when the news broke over there and saying: 'Edgar must have big money problems to join a team like Barnet. I think he must be on drugs.'" Whatever his failings, Davids was not motivated by money – nor, indeed, drugs – when he joined the club. Fans still admire him for volunteering his experience, and at least trying to make a difference. "What a time for the club, and he wasn't picking up a salary either," another fan wrote. "Some will talk about his strict regime and him expecting too much from League Two and non-league players, but it was a great thrill seeing Edgar at Barnet, and he nearly saved us from an impossible position, too."
While there is considerable criticism of Davids, it is almost always qualified with affectionate memories, telling caveats and warm recollections. "In his first season, there were many games where he was Man of the Match and a joy to watch," one fan added. "For a brief period we had more Champions League winners than Spurs and Arsenal combined, played some great tiki-taka football, and almost pulled off the greatest of escapes. In his first season, it was special. That said, the season afterwards was a farce."
There are also several personal anecdotes about Davids' decency behind the scenes, ranging from his happiness to sign autographs and speak to fans after matches to his encouragement of young players, not to mention his decision to save a group of stranded away fans whose bus broke down on the way back from Accrington Stanley. Having spotted the supporters huddled by the roadside, Davids sent the team coach to ferry them to the nearest service station, delaying himself and the players in the meantime before buying the fans a round of coffees. Though he gained a reputation for selfishness on the pitch and in the dugout, his appropriation of the Number 1 shirt wasn't entirely a metaphor for his time at the club. Indeed, looking back, one suspects he might have been trying to instil a greater sense of discipline in the team with his seemingly outlandish displays of authority. It feels like he had the best of intentions and was trying to make a positive difference, albeit in a misjudged and misguided manner which rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way.
Davids may have been mercurial and capricious in his methods, but he was not the sort of man to compromise on his ideals. In terms of his approach to the game, his uncompromising attitude was perhaps his undoing. He wanted to inspire an immediate turnaround at the club and, as such, was probably guilty of doing too much too soon. Still, while they were relieved to see him depart when he did, there are many fans who still wonder what could have been had Barnet survived that first season with Davids. For the rest of us, the outside observers, the Dutchman's spell in the fourth and fifth tiers was a bizarre and brilliant chapter in the history of English football. While it was chaotic, unreal and at times a complete debacle, it still seems a shame that it ended so soon.
Some quotes from fans have been lightly edited for sake of clarity.