Farewell to Underhill
Andy Cairns, Executive Editor of Sky Sports News, looks at the unique charm of Underhill as Barnet prepare to play their final game at the stadium.
Last Updated: 19/04/13 2:50pm
It's certainly not pretty but Underhill with its slope, its ramshackle collection of ill-fitting stands and its traditional half-time raffle is going to be missed by players and fans. Why?
Let's start with the slope. It's baffled many visiting teams. You'd see the look on their faces as they came through the gate at the top of the ground. It used to be worse, almost a hill, as the pitch dropped 11 feet from the top end to the bottom.
There have been other great football slopes. At Yeovil and Wycombe, before they built new grounds, the pitch sloped from side to side, meaning wingers on the top part of the pitch rarely saw the ball.
The Underhill slope from end to end caused different problems. Visiting teams struggled to adjust and struggled with the gradient. Kicking downhill shots that would, on a level pitch, fly into the top corner would sail high over the bar.
One non-league manager tried to prepare his side for a trip to Underhill with a tactics talk on how they'd play going up the hill. He laid out his formation on his Subbuteo table and, to make it realistic, put a pile of books under one end to demonstrate the slope. As he did this, his carefully set out Subbuteo players slid down to the bottom of the pitch before dropping on to the floor. That was the end of the tactics talk as the players dissolved into giggles.
Barnet players were never really sure how big a difference the slope made. In their minds, it felt easier kicking down-hill second-half but when Barnet beat Burton 10-0, eight of the goals came kicking up the slope.
Kicking up-hill was harder in the 1970s when the Underhill pitch was often a mud-heap from October onwards and teams would struggle to get the ball out of their half.
For fans, a trip to Underhill is a trip into football's past. There's a smart new stand at the bottom of the ground but seating for away fans is in a tiny make-shift structure that sits on a corner of the north terrace and looks like it's on loan from a jousting tournament while most of the ground is traditional terracing, each with its own tea hut.
And Underhill's tea huts bring back memories of their own. There was the game when they forgot to switch on the urn until the half-time whistle meaning there was no hot water until 15 minutes from the end of the game. And during another League Two game one visiting manager sent two of his subs up to the corner hut to join the queue and buy teas and Mars bars for the rest of the bench.
We've seen some great players at Barnet. Edgar Davids is there now, Jimmy Greaves played in the 1970s. And there are some wonderful players not so well known outside Underhill. Les Eason, a sort of non-league Jimmy Greaves who would glide over the mud and score for fun. Gerry Ward, who team-mates described as a non-league Johnny Haynes and who in another time would have played at a much higher level. And Colin Powell, now the groundsman at Charlton, and a wonderful winger during his time at Barnet. He did know how to score kicking downhill and was the master of the volley that dipped late in flight.
And while Roy Hodgson is concerned about the lack of English players in the Premier League, Barnet fans have always been cheered by the sight of local lads in their team including Ricky George, who'll be watching the game tomorrow and Russell Townsend, the first of many players sold to a League club by Barry Fry.
We each have our memories. I recall one of my schoolmates, Barry Slapp, making his debut for Barnet in a local derby against Finchley where he was marked by Mick McNutt. As the name suggests, McNutt was a no nonsense player built like a wrestler and in no mood to be shown up by a schoolboy. He dumped Barry onto the Underhill mud in the first minute but Barry had the last laugh scoring twice.
In recent years we saw Joe Hart play for Shrewsbury in a game where the kick-off was delayed for 90 minutes because of a power problem at Underhill. During the extended warm-up one of the Shrewsbury players whacked a shot wide of the goal which smacked a young fan full in the face. Hart showed his class, dashing back to the changing room and returning with a Shrewsbury shirt and some gifts for the fan.
Underhill has always attracted great characters - managers such as Barry Fry and Martin Allen who knew how to connect with the fans. The best Barnet teams have a tradition of attacking football. In their first League game they lost 7-4 at home to Crewe and then drew the next game 5-5.
The terraces are so close to the pitch you can see and hear everything. The players feel it too. This year I heard Morecambe's Kevin Ellison swear to himself after he misjudged the bounce of a ball. And then I saw him turn round and apologise to the crowd for his language.
All these memories and more will come flooding back as we go to Underhill for the last time on Saturday, watch the team run out to the stirring sounds of Guns N' Roses guitar intro to Sweet Child of Mine, buy our tickets for the half-time Black and Amber draw and hope that a team that specialises in great escapes can do it one more time.