Lower league Barnet set to leave 105-year home
London: Exasperated by what they describe as a lack of support from local councillors, one of London`s oldest clubs are on the verge of leaving their modest stadium after 105 years.
Tony Kleanthous, chairman of League Two (fourth division) Barnet, formed in the same year as the Football League in 1888 but not members until 1991, announced last month the club would next year leave the quirky Underhill ground that has been their home since 1907.
He blamed their departure on a protracted battle with local government officials who, he said, had made it clear they do not want the club in the north London borough.
"I`ve been battling with them for 17 years. I`ve just had enough," said Kleanthous who was the Football League`s youngest chairman when he took over in 1994 at the age of 28.
"The arguments have become so petty and silly and it has become quite clear they don`t want us in Barnet," he told reporters.
The council views the issue differently and said it had repeatedly tried to find a solution.
England is the birthplace of soccer, spawning thousands of small clubs like Barnet, but is also home to onerous planning laws which put considerable power in the hands of local politicians, the borough councillors.
Kleanthous said the council had frequently rejected proposed improvements to Underhill. The whole dispute highlights a bigger issue about the role of football clubs in a modern-day community.
"The last thing they want is us doubling our crowd numbers as it would mean (the more wealthy) Totteridge Lane and High Barnet residents would see traffic problems grow as we grow. This is all about getting rid of us," Kleanthous explained.
At a time when London`s top sides Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur sell out their stadiums every week and are awash with money from Premier League TV rights, many clubs in the lower divisions face a daily battle to survive.
Underhill, which can host 5,241 fans but is rarely half-full, is renowned for its sloping pitch.
While footballing success is proving difficult, Barnet are fifth from bottom and fighting to avoid relegation to the minor leagues, the club`s work in the community is thriving.
Janet Matthewson, head of Barnet`s community trust, said the club organised workshops with young offenders and local youth three times a week and would be working with up to 600 youngsters per week this year.
"Kids need a sense of identity and a sense of belonging," she said.
"We work with drug teams, alcohol teams and the police to get out a social message about knife crime and make the kids feel they have a responsibility for their community."
Kleanthous gives Matthewson 200 tickets a week to distribute to children from under-privileged backgrounds while teenagers under 14 can buy a season ticket for 20 pounds.
Matthewson, however, also said the council had been less than supportive and many fans seem to share her sentiments.
"The council has never supported us and has always been against us," said Lauren Miller, 31.
"We demand some help from the council," said Peter Speroni, 62, who has supported the club for 48 years. "Any other council in the country wants to help their clubs but Barnet doesn`t want to know."
The dispute with the council, which has the power to reject or approve building rights, centres on an application for a lease extension on land connected to the southern end of Underhill.
The club wanted a 125-year lease extension at a peppercorn rent but the council offered 15 years at market value.
Barnet say that is nearly four times what they now pay, representing another broken promise from local politicians.
Council leader Richard Cornelius disagrees.
"I just don`t recognise their version of events," he said. "We have already offered Mr Kleanthous a 15-year extension to his lease at a cost of 7,000 pounds a year. That would let him run the ground safely at its current capacity."
Kleanthous, who has poured millions of pounds into the club, is ambitious for success and said Underhill`s existing capacity would not allow Barnet to develop the way he would like.
Like many fans he is now resigned to leaving the site although their home for the start of the 2012-13 season is uncertain.
"I was a wealthy man once but then I bought Barnet," Kleanthous said with a smile. "I won`t give up though."