The Football Neutral: Match Fifty Five – Barnet vs York City

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So this is season three of my adventures, don’t forget you can pick up the ebook of last season on Kindle for less than £3. Do it and support this blog! I’d be very grateful! Loads of games from Dortmund to Clapton. You can also get the first season at Amazon too!

It wasn’t meant to take me this long to get to Barnet.  I’ve wanted to go there since I began this, mainly as I knew they had a new stadium and I’m always driving through the place on my way to London.  When Edgar Davids was there I was desperate to get along to a game, although based on his disciplinary record as player-manager I reckon there was every chance that I would have picked a game where he was suspended.  If the day ended in “y” then that was often the case.

In my first season of being neutral I actually set off to go to a Barnet game.  I left my hotel in Surrey at 11am, planning on picking up my mate and business partner Jon from his place in North London on the way.  I thought I left plenty of time.  I did not allow for something called “London traffic”.  At 3pm I was still somewhere in South London, swearing at the roads.  Not much in this world brings me to tears, but I have learned that traffic often can.

For example, this blog has taken me over a week to write up as I’ve been busy with comedy and wrestling and voiceover, as well as being a little bit poorly.  Nothing major, I’ve just got a cold.  Note that I said “a cold”.  Not the flu.  You can’t tarnish me with all that “man flu” rubbish, because I’ve had flu twice in my life and both times I thought I was going to die.  The last time I had it I hallucinated that Leicester legend Steve Claridge was in my front room trying to sell me fruit and veg like he did when he was playing for Aldershot.

On Friday of this past week I had to drive to London for a last minute voiceover job.  Yes, I had to drive: I had to be there for 11am, so getting a train at the last minute would have cost me my entire fee.  So I got up at 5.30am, left home at 6am, parked at Cockfosters at 10am (you are allowed to laugh, I’m 37 and still do), got the tube to Central London and walked to the studio.  Was there for all of 45 minutes, then walked two miles back to Kings Cross to stretch my legs.  Then back at my car for 1.15pm and set off for my gig that night in Preston.  My sat nav said that journey would take me until 4.30pm.  My sat nav is a big fat ruddy liar.

Seven hours and five minutes later I arrived at my gig with five minutes to spare before I went onstage.  I sat in the sort of traffic that seems to exist purely because nobody is good at driving except me.  No accidents, no roadworks (well, none that closed lanes), just a queue at every single junction to get off the M1 or M6, and then another queue half a mile later as people tried to get onto those godforsaken stretches of tarmac.  I sat behind the same Fiat 500 for four of those hours.  I now weep openly at the sight of those cars.  In short, traffic on Friday was just as frustrating as that aborted trip to Barnet two seasons ago.  Maybe it all happened because I’ve delayed writing this up.

My trusty mate Jon (employee of the Guardian, co-owner of PROGRESS Wrestling, hardest working man I know, speaker of German) would accompany me for this trip, which made sense as I was staying at his house.  With me working at the fabulous Boat Show in London and then us having a PROGRESS show on the Sunday, as always he was gracious enough to put me up.  Even more awesome as he works nights from home, and if he’s doing his thing for the Guardian when I’m staying that means he abandons his comfy workstation in his lounge to perch on a stool all night in his kitchen so I can sleep.  That’s a bloody good mate right there.

While he slept off his night shift on the Saturday morning, I headed to Brixton and our wrestling school.  We’ve got a big class of newbies there at the moment and whilst I can’t teach them to wrestle – I am far too uncoordinated and unskilled to do such a thing – I can help them learn how to talk because it’s been my job for ten years.  Now you’re thinking about ways that I could do that.  What do I do? Give them a chance to put on a rasping, gravelly voice and cut a promo on one of their fellow trainees? Give them a gimmick and get them to run with it?  Nope.  I take my influence from the world of Radio 4.  We play “Just a Minute”.

It’s one of my dreams to be on that show, as I pride myself on being a half decent improviser.  But it is HARD: speak for a whole minute without hesitating, repeating yourself or deviating from your point.  Nobody EVER lasts a minute when we play it at training, regardless of how experienced they are.  I can’t do it, and I’m a gobshite who gets paid to be mouthy.  But it teaches you to think on your feet, slow down when you’re talking (a necessity) and plan what you’re saying under pressure.  Everyone had a good go at it, and I think the best time was a shade over 30 seconds.

I then got a 40 minute tube ride to Canon’s Park, the station which serves The Hive Stadium, home of Barnet since 2013.  If you look at the non-geographically correct tube map it seems to be in the wrong place, far west of High Barnet.  Luckily the tube map is not something you should ever use in order to gauge correct placement.  It just about gets north or south of the river right, everything else is much more loose.

I love public transport, especially in London.  As I live in a village where we have three buses a week, the concept of being able to get pretty much anywhere by a couple of trains or buses blows my mind.  I really needed the train on that Saturday afternoon too, as I had decided to walk 11 miles the previous day.  With me now in marathon training, the hardest part is the boredom when putting in the distances.  I can run 5km pretty comfortably now, but nobody is expecting me to run lots further just yet, not until I’m in better condition.  So walking from North London to Embankment and then back again afterwards is – in theory – good for my legs.  It did not feel it on the Saturday afternoon.

Nothing on the tube feels more awesome than when your train comes out of the underground and you are thrust into daylight and actual scenery.  I’ve been going to London for years and the sensation still gets to me, a change in light, air pressure and noise as a load of you are all symbolically born to the London outskirts in a massive metal tube.  It’s more than just your ears popping, it can’t just be me that feels it.

2015-10-17 14.23.16When you arrive at the station, you can see The Hive in the near distance, with the massive arch of Wembley just off to the South West.  If you squint at the picture above you should be able to do just that.  I left the train alongside a handful of York fans who had made the long journey via train, thinking of fond memories of heading there  couple of seasons ago.  They’re a good club that – like Barnet – have had their ups and downs in recent years.

I met a very tired Jon outside the station and we walked over to the stadium.  This involves crossing a leafy suburban road and then trekking over a path through a field that contains Barnet’s training facilities.  It’s more like walking to a lower league stadium in Germany, and it feels a little strange beings surrounded by so much green when you’re still at a football stadium in Greater London.  A couple of police watched the fans wandering along to the ground, but everything was peaceful and amicable.

As there is the option of standing at The Hive, that is where I wanted to watch the game.  However, it’s not immediately obvious where you need to go, so we wandered around the ground a bit to start with.  There are a couple of club shops – one in a Portakabin, one in the main stand – alongside a cafe that proudly serves Starbucks coffee (this is North London after all).  Then there’s a small ticket office and turnstiles in each corner of the ground.  We eventually found the one we needed, tucked away.  Despite it having the cash price of a ticket on the gate, you can’t buy one there as it’s unmanned.  We instead walked back to the ticket office, got ours and headed onto the small terrace behind the goal.

I remember Barnet being one of the first teams that I was aware of coming from Non League, with the Barry Fry led side of 1991.  This was before he was manager of Birmingham and had a worrying addiction to buying strikers, like me when I’m bored playing Football Manager.  I’ve always been fond of them because of this, and also because of their similarity to my Mum’s maiden name and the fact that they play in orange.  Well, they call it amber, but we know it’s orange.  The first game I ever watched on TV as a kid was Dundee United vs Gothenburg and I loved their orange (fine, “tangerine”) kit, and from that point onwards whenever I played International Soccer on my Commodore 64 I would always have my team wear orange.  It’s just a badass colour for a football kit.

With the ground being called “The Hive” as well, it’s a marketing strategy that not enough other teams have taken up.  My beloved Foxes should play at “The Den”, but that’s kind of already taken.  Manchester United should play in “Hell”, not just when they travel to Galatasaray.  I’m all for a nickname based link, fair play to Barnet for embracing this.

Speaking of Barnet’s kit, it’s pretty nice.  Black and amber hoops for home, white and purple for away.  It’s a striking shirt that I was almost tempted to get and add to my growing collection, but I still think the best hooped shirt around is the amazing Forest Green Rovers away kit for this year.  That is an absolute beauty.  Jon seemed to like the kit as well, although I feel that both of us have forgotten what the other looks like in clothing that isn’t PROGRESS merchandise.

Whilst awaiting kickoff, Jon grabbed a coffee to keep him awake.  I got myself a hot dog and some Rolos (why don’t more stadiums sell Rolos?  They’re amazing.  It’s nearly always no deviation from the standard Snickers and Mars Bars.  I remember back in the 1990s Nottingham Forest sold their own brand of chocolate at games and it was the nastiest, grittiest chocolate that you ever ate.  And for some reason, I really liked it).  I also had my first Bovril of the season, noting how cold it had now become outside.  I’m always too hot when I’m in London so dress accordingly, but now I was starting to feel the chill.  I remain as hopelessly addicted to Bovril as always, and typing about it now makes me want a cup of it.  If they found a way to caffeinate it I would never consume anything else.  I’d be twitchy and beefy constantly.

2015-10-17 14.51.44Whilst The Hive is a nice stadium, like many new complexes it does have (as noted by Jon) an air of Ikea about it.  I mean in terms of construction, not because they serve meatballs and Daim cake there, although that would be pretty awesome.  The teams made their way onto the pitch and the decent number of York fans made some noise.  As the PA announed the York keeper’s name, I found myself saying “stupid sexy Flinders” to a perplexed response from Jon.  I then realised he didn’t know his name (Scott Flinders), nor was he aware of The Simpsons reference that I was referring to.

The first half was not exactly champagne football.  It was punctuated by several utterly rotten set pieces from Aaron McLean.  The former Peterborough striker now plays a lot deeper, which is more suited to his diminutive stature and lack of goalscoring record since his ill-fated move to Hull City in 2011.  Whilst he clearly is a talented footballer, he seems to be one of those lads who feels that he should take every corner and free kick because he’s one of the most senior players, not because he’s good at that part of the game.  He hit a direct free kick and a corner in the first half, both of which now rank as two of the worst set pieces I have ever seen.  His inability to clear even the first man from corners was frustrating for me and every Barnet fan in a half of very few chances.

The fantastically named Bondz N’Gala did miss an utter sitter from a corner (that McLean didn’t take) and Barnet should have been ahead.  York didn’t really test Jamie Stephens in the home goal and they had little to show for their fantastic away support.  The home support is a little strange, with the impression that you get from the small crowd that for many fans Barnet is their second team, like I found when I visited teams like Dagenham and Ebbsfleet in previous seasons.  It’s a tough sell for them as a club with giants like Arsenal and Tottenham on their doorstep, although it is a lot cheaper to watch Barnet.

Going into the half time break the referee was starting to lose control of the game a little, with it descending into a scrappy middle of the park slugfest rather than a flowing game of football.  Me and Jon hoped that the second half would be better, firstly as Barnet would be shooting towards us and secondly because Jon had got out of bed to watch this game.  At this point, he seemed to be regretting his decision.

2015-10-17 14.51.47Luckily, things really did pick up.  At first it was just in terms of our conversation as we noticed two excellent names in the Barnet side.  Most obvious was Michael Gash, who I watched in my first season of my travels when he was playing for Kidderminster Harriers (home of the best pies in the land).  Less easy to make jokes about is Andy Yiadom, with my idea being that he should have his name announced in the same way as the 1980s post-TV-show “Viacom” sting was.  That’s a niche gag, but Jon enjoyed it at least.

The game changed in the 53rd minute.  Luke Gambin and Aaron McLean were replaced by Justin Nwogu and John Akinde.  Nwogu was making his debut on his 19th birthday, having come through the youth system at Barnet after starting his footballing apprenticeship at Dartford.  Akinde is just a massive dude, with spells at 12 clubs under his belt already at the age of 26.  But don’t be fooled into thinking he’s another Trevor Benjamin, he’s had a great couple of years.  19 goals for Alfreton in 2013-14, then 33 for Barnet the next season as they got promoted from the Conference.  His introduction saw a clear reaction from the York defenders.  Their heads visibly dropped out of the fear of being faced by him.  The only striker at this level who is more physically imposing is Adebayo Akinfenwa.  Me and Jon talked briefly about sorting them out training as a tag team.

Within six minutes of his introduction, Akinde was on the scoresheet.  His pace baffled the York defence and he took a through ball well, slotting past Flinders and then running off to celebrate with some young Barnet fans.  As he didn’t start the match, he didn’t sulk and let that show through in his workrate.  As soon as he got onto the pitch he was chasing everything, holding the ball up well for his team-mates and generally making the difference for his side.  You do have to ask why Martin Allen didn’t pick him to start when he made such a difference, but in terms of immediate impact he is right up there with anything that I’ve seen in the past three seasons.

Barnet continued to dominate, but then in the 80th minute were stunned by a York equaliser.  The side on the pitch didn’t deserve it, but their wonderful travelling support and shouted enough to warrant celebrating something. Michael Coulson – who had been a rare good player for York all afternoon – smashed the ball home with aplomb and the finish was so tidy that he drew begrudging applause from some of the home fans.

Two minutes later, Barnet were ahead again as the game really started to pick up.  The impressive youngster Nwogu was fouled 25 yards out, and Gash stepped up to hit a fantastic free kick past Flinders.  You’ll go a long way to see a better free kick than that, and it was probably only because McLean wasn’t on the pitch that Gash got to take it in the first place.  This goal had a clear effect on York, and their heads dropped visibly as Barnet took firm control on the final few minutes.

As we approached full time, one York fan was allowed onto the terrace behind the opposite goal to retrieve his flag.  Jon noticed him and pointed him out to me, just an angry fan trying to convey his rage at his team’s performance via the removal of a banner.  Even though he was well over 100 yards from us, you could tell how cross he was from his body language, and imagine him swearing as he untied his flag and thought about his long journey home.

I hope he had a head start on his travels, as into injury time on-loan Brentford full-back Josh Clarke marked his début with a fine late run into the box and a great finish, a couple of minutes after Akinde should have put the result beyond doubt.  Barnet ended magnificently, and their fans rewarded them with a rendition of “Twist and Shout” that Jon noted was one of the most atonal things that he had ever heard.  In their defence, it’s not the easiest song to sing at the best of times.

The full time whistle sounded, and we all headed back across the field to the station.  Barnet is a friendly, accessible club that deserves bigger crowds than it is pulling in, especially in its first season back in the league.  Credit to the York fans, thanking the home support and the police as they left, dejected after an ineffective performance.  But for the residents of North London, there is an exciting young team under their noses that they really should be paying more attention to.

Summary:

Barnet 3 (Akinde 59, Gash 82, Clarke 90) vs York City 1 (Coulson 80)

Attendance: 1,767

Cost: Ticket £17; Hot dog £4, Bovril £1.80, Rolos £1.50

Fun Factor: 7/10

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