Sunday, 28 April 2013

Memories of Underhill

20th April 2013 and Barnet Football Club played their last ever game at Underhill.  Next season they move to a new ground called The Hive, fitting as their nickname is The Bees.  The end of an era, and for me, it brought back some wonderful memories of my childhood.

My uncle and aunty lived in Barnet.  We spent a lot of time with them, spending every other Christmas there.  My Uncle was a season-ticket holder at Underhill and had been going for years.  His seat was right above the players’ tunnel level with the halfway line.  Saturday 26th November 1977 was the first time I set foot in the ground. 

On my first appearance at Underhill, I was one of 5,181 people in the ground.  The occasion?  FA Cup First Round tie against Peterborough United, at the time 3rd in Division Three (now League One).  That season Barnet’s highest attendance had been 1,885 when they met Worcester City in a Southern League match.  Back in those days the familiar pyramid league system wasn’t in place, and one of the feeder divisions for the Football League was the Southern League.  Barnet were lying 4th in the table which meant there were 48 places separated them and Peterborough.  It was Barnet’s 6th match in the Cup that season, having beaten the likes of Camberley Town, Erith & Belvedere, Carshalton Athletic, St. Albans City and Hampton.  They hadn’t appeared in the ‘proper’ section of the Cup since they took QPR to a replay in the 1973 Third Round, and the whole place was alive with anticipation.

But for me, I was there to see one man……………..Jimmy Greaves.

picture courtesy of mailonline website

Greaves is arguably one of the greatest goalscorers English football has ever seen.  In a career which had already spanned 20 years, Greaves held the all-time record of 357 league goals in just 516 matches.  He’d also scored 44 times for England in just 57 internationals, leaving him 2nd in the all-time table for his country.   I grew up as the youngest of 5 boys.  All my brothers were Spurs fans and would go on for ages about how good Spurs were, and the iconic players I’d already missed playing.  What they didn’t tell me about ‘Greavsie’ wasn’t worth telling.  I’d never seen any footage of him, but knew the legend.  At 37 years of age, Greaves wasn’t the frightening striker of old as he’d reverted to a deeper role in midfield.  But he still had a presence on the pitch.  This was his first outing at this stage of the cup and he was quoted in the programme as saying “if we can beat Peterborough and I play in the Second Round as well, I’ll have gone through the card.” 

Despite playing from midfield, Greaves scored 25 goals that season but his place in the cup game was in doubt after he’d being sent-off on the Tuesday in a game at Chelmsford City.  The game was abandoned when the home side were awarded a hotly disputed penalty.  The keeper saved, but when the ref ordered a re-take, Billy Meadows, Barnet’s manager, completely lost it and Greaves refused to walk when the ref showed him the red card.  Barnet managed to hastily arrange a league game with Hillingdon Borough on the Thursday, which Greaves sat out, allowing him to take the field on Saturday.

Greaves wasn’t the only former League player in the Barnet line-up that day.  Former Charlton and Chelsea defender Marvin Hinton and ex-Northampton and Mansfield striker, John Fairbrother, were in the starting eleven.  35 year old Fairbrother had spent three seasons at Peterborough in the late 60’s.  Barnet had use of the services of ex-Arsenal defender, Terry Mancini, earlier in the season but he was injured for this match.

Peterborough too had some notable players.  Alan Slough, who’d played in the 1975 FA Cup Final for Fulham, Barry Butlin, who’d come from Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest Second Division promotion winning side, Ian Ross, who’d spent 4 years at Aston Villa and Steve Earle was at Fulham for 9 years, so there was plenty of experience.

As can often happen when you’re young and going to your first football matches, you don’t take in anywhere near as much as you later wish you did.   I remember the ground being packed and a great atmosphere within the ground, although my uncle had been keen to keep me close to him as we made our way to the ground.

Barnet scored first after 10 minutes.  I’m sorry for those looking for a detailed match report as I don’t remember anything about it.  Derek Brown got the goal and they held the lead until 5 minutes to the break when Alan Slough equalised.  My most vivid memory of the day came at half-time.  Suddenly, from the home end to our right, a group of ‘supporters’ climbed over the barriers and onto the pitch, running towards the Peterborough fans away to our left.  In those days trouble at football grounds was commonplace, and I sensed from my parents’ anxiety prior to the game, that we needed to be wary but not frightened.  This ‘pitch invasion’ soon petered out as the leading protagonist reached the halfway line, only to turn round and find all his ‘mates’ had given up and made their way back to where they came from.  He then made the split-second decision to join them rather than take on the packed away end on his own.

The game remained level until Tommy Robson, who’d spent 3 years at Newcastle United, scored what proved to be the winning goal.  I remember being really disappointed Barnet couldn’t get back into the game, although my uncle didn’t seem too surprised they hadn’t.

I returned to Underhill again later in the season, and was amongst the usual sized crowd for a Southern League match against Dartford.  Mancini was in the team that day and Barnet were much more fluent than they’d been in the cup match.  Barnet won 4-1 that day and Greaves scored a goal I will always remember.  It was either the 3rd or 4th goal and the ball was half cleared from the Dartford area on the right when Greaves struck the ball first time, from about 25yards out, and it flew into the top corner of the net passed the keeper’s right hand.  It was a stunning strike and what made it all the better for me is that it was a goal by Jimmy Greaves that none of my brothers ever saw!!!

After the game I wanted to get the great man’s autograph.  We waited outside the changing rooms for what seemed like ages, until my cousin asked someone she knew from the club whether they’d take me in there.  I was lead into a steamy changing room and there was one of England’s greatest ever players, stark naked, drying himself off from his shower.  Fortunately, I provided the pen and he signed my programme.  I turned, rather embarrassed, and walked back out.

I was 10 years old and had already seen Jimmy Greaves, George Best, Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh play.  Later that year I would get to see Kenny Dalglish, Terry McDermott, Ray Clemence and Stan Bowles.

I’ve been to Underhill a few times since then, although sadly not for many years.  It feels like the end of an era and with the new ground being outside the Borough, it is not free of controversy.  Barnet now having to deal with Conference football from next season will bring an added degree of difficulty.

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