UNDERHILL

So far I have featured numerous heroes of Underhill but now I'll feature Underhill herself? The Theatre of Teams – Barnet Football Club teams.

When this feature appeared in the bumper edition last ever Underhill programme on April 20th 2013 for the game against Wycombe Wanderers, Editor David Bloomfield very kindly called it my magnum opus.....not sure about that but it was a pleasure to write about the “second home” of so many persons. Therefore if you have a couple of hours to spare read away!


In the Autumn of 1888, when Jack the Ripper was stalking his victims in London's East End and Celtic and Rangers were contesting the first “old Firm” derby, Woodville FC became Barnet FC. After various minor adjustments to the name of the club and playing at undeveloped grounds in Queens Road and Barnet Lane, in September 1907 Barnet Football Club set up a permanent home on a piece of farm land at the bottom of Barnet Hill – the first game featured a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace. Underhill was born and has been part of our lives for 106 years.

In those days the simple grass terrace banks and indeed the notorious sloping pitch were kept in shape by grazing sheep and cattle. A small timber Pavilion was built in 1908 to house the VIP's and their guests. The team dressing rooms were in the Old Red Lion Pub and from records it seems that the average attendance was about 300-400.

Underhill 1930's

Other than expanding Underhill to a fully enclosed ground with a exterior fence boundary, a proper entrance on Westcombe Drive and a supporters hut and tea bar (on the site of the current Durham Suite) the amenities remained very basic until the early 1930's when the team won their first Athenian league title. Soon a more substantial front loading main stand in all wood was built and the open terraces given a makeover with “industry standard” a firm cinder surface with timber sleeper supported steps cut into it. Half of the the South Terrace or West Bank as it was confusingly called – legend has it that when the ground was laid out no one owned or possibly no one was able use a compass!- was given the luxury of a narrow token all wooden cover at the very back stretching from roughly where the toilet block is now to the edge of the 6 yard box.

An attendance of 6,853 was officially recorded for the visit of Queens Park Rangers in an FA Cup tie in 1931 which according to the press report seriously stretched the resources of the ground. The result? Barnet 3-7 QPR.

By the 1940's a distinctive picket fence had been added as a pitch surround and two turnstile blocks built. The first on Westcombe Drive the second on Barnet Lane. The clubhouse was also extended and a public address system installed. 
East Terrace 1940's

Barnet were a power house in the Amateur game winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1946 and 4-5,000 were regular attendances at the ground although the official capacity by now was just over 8,000. In October 1946, Underhill was the first football ground to be televised live by the BBC. Twenty minutes of the game against Wealdstone were broadcast in the first half and thirty five minutes of the second half before it became too dark to film! This era saw the record attendance at Underhill which was achieved on 23rd February 1952 for an Amateur cup tie. 11,026 saw the game against Wycombe Wanderers. The great centre half from that era and later club captain Alf D'arcy recalls, “The ground was overflowing with people perching on trees and grabbing any vantage point they could. It was quite daunting to be truthful.”

By 1956 the centre area of the East Terrace had been transformed by the addition of a metal framed cover with an unusual, and seemingly unnecessarily tall, fascia. Over the years this has intrigued me and others as to why this was so but recently it was explained to me that a television/radio commentary viewing position or more likely a Press Box had been planned to be integrated in the structure. While the idea would have been quite something at an Athenian League football ground at the time it does seem a little palatial. 
Underhill 1950's


But then Hampden Park had one built onto the roof of their South Stand as designed by the great football ground architect Archibald Leach so why not Underhill? In fact a rather drab Press Box was erected soon after but on the opposite side of the ground squeezed in-between the original Main stand and the still uncovered South West terrace.
All the old cinder terracing was concreted over in the late 1950's the costs aided by the splendid run in the FA Amateur Cup in 1959/60 when the club reached the Wembley final loosing 3-2 to Crook Town.
Under floodlights 1962

 The roof wings of the East Terrace were added and the South West Terrace covered in 1962 yet the North and North West Terraces have always remained open to the elements due to their proximity to neighbouring houses – roofs would have allegedly obscured too much of the the residents light! In September 1962 the ground started to provide its own light when the first set of eight floodlight pylons were erected.

As with many improvements to the ground these floodlights and the second set erected in the late 1970's and the updated lamps in 1984 were mainly financed by the extremely strong Barnet Football Club Supporters Association which was formed in 1926. Their contributions to the upkeep of Underhill stadium must never be underestimated.
In times before benevolent chairmen, sponsorship and advertising, money was very tight and supporters' fund raising events were the norm for keeping the club afloat. Raffles, dances, quiz nights, matchday draws, the manning of the tea huts, the organisation of coaches, the washing of kit, you name it, it was overseen by the committee and wholeheartedly backed up by supporters. Sunday morning clean up brigades would sweep the terraces of litter and carry out any minor running repairs. 
Underhill 1963

During the summer months work parties would be organised to paint the stands, the fences, the crush barriers and the goalposts, a laborious and timing consuming task. Long time Bees fan Steve Percy, a committee member who became Chairman of the SA for over ten years in the 1980's and 90's recalls, “When I was a teenager there would be dozens of volunteers turning up during the holidays. It would be hard work but great fun and all because of one thing. Being proud of our football club and their little ground”.

The club won back to back Athenian titles in 1963 and 1964 when the first major development occurred at the ground with the demolition of the original main stand making way for a new modern brick and concrete stand with seating for 800. From the pitch there didn't appear to be much difference between the old and the new, especially in spectator space, but interior photographs from the time illustrate the incredibly tiny dressing rooms and facilities the players had to endure. The stand cost £30,00 to build and it was originally designed to extend all the way down to the bottom goal but the additional cost of £15,000 couldn't be raised – what a shame, just imagine how that would have looked?
The new stand was ready in time for the massive 3rd round FA Cup tie in season 1964 and the visit of 1st Division Preston North End. 10,861 filled Underhill to witness a narrow 3-2 defeat and the Bees were headline news in the nation papers. The previous round had seen Barnet defeat the old enemy Enfield when over 9,000 attended.
At that time it would have cost an adult 2/- (10p) to stand and an extra 1/- (5p) to transfer to the seating areas. The programme was priced at 3d (1p).
Main Stand being built 1964

The West Bank was soon given a central cover and new barriers and it became a Mecca to the more boisterous and vocal of the home support. Older supporters still reminisce with pride and tell stories of the why, which, when and the wherefore of what was really just a plain and simple cover over a a bank of terracing. Every ground in the world had one but it was a special place and will always stay in the hearts of those fortunate enough to have sampled the camaraderie that it afforded on match days. The East Terrace, up until 1985 referred to as the Popular side, always had less barriers than the rest of the ground as the rake of the terracing wasn't considered a risk to spectators.
The West Bank

In 1971 the ground observed Barnet's 6-1 FA Cup victory over 4th Division Newport County - equalling the competition's all-time record for a win by a non-league side over league opponents. In 1972 a replayed FA Cup 1st Round tie against Queens Park Rangers – the first game at Loftus Road had finished 0-0 - severely tested the stadium's safety aspects when 10,919 squeezed into the ground. Eye witnesses and insiders actually reckon that was a little shy of the actual real attendance and numbers close to 15,000 were being suggested. All I know is that at 6.45 – kick off was 7.30pm – the gates were closed and there were thousands locked out. As a 12 year old we managed to get a third of the way down the East Terrace with me clinging to my Dad's overcoat belt for dear life such was the crush of spectators. Ben Embery, a centre half playing as a make shift centre forward remembers, “I has being marked by Terry Mancini that night and he was a hard man, crunching tackles from behind that would be yellow or even red carded these days, but the atmosphere was amazing. The players all realised that there was problems off the pitch that night but we just played on trying to focus and did really well until about 70 minutes when the calibre of Gerry Francis and Stan Bowles began to tell.” Barnet lost the game 0-3 but the evening as Ben hinted was marred by serious fan trouble on a scale the like of which, apart from a few isolated incidents namely Peterborough, Bristol Rovers, Chelmsford and Ilkeston, was fortunately never witnessed at Underhill again.
Underhill 1970

Average League attendances often dipped to below the 1,000 mark during the late 1970's and early 1980's but by the mid 1980's, with Barnet challenging regularly for the GM Vauxhall Conference and Fry at the helm and seemingly signing another top class player every other week, crowds doubled and then tripled and eventually attendances of around 4-5,000 were not uncommon.
Back in January 1982 4,000 spectators and the BBC Match of the Day cameras captured the FA Cup 3rd round tie with Brighton & Hove Albion. On a pitch that resembled a ploughed field a thoroughly entertaining 0-0 draw resulted. It had only taken 35 years for them to remember where the ground was!

In the gales and general bad weather the country experienced in 1988/89 the East Terraces' roof wings were severely damaged and subsequently removed completely for a while which lent a rather unusual atmosphere to the ground – was that to blame for the 0-2 home defeat by eventual champions Darlington which was the catalyst to Barnet finishing second in the GM Conference for the third time in four seasons? That match was designated all ticket for around 6,000, the biggest attendance for some 18 years.

In 1991 the club finally achieved their ambition in joining the Football League and things really began to change. For starters Chairman Stan Flashman procured new seats to be bolted onto the risers in the main stand but alas they were blue!


The ground had remained very much unaltered from the 1960's until first the Popperwell Report after Heysel Stadium and Bradford Valley Parade disasters in 1985 and secondly the Justice Taylor report in 1989 were published and all football terraces were put under closer scrutiny for their safety. Standing was banned on the quaint double steps in front of the main stand, much to the annoyance of the dozen or so regulars who had stood there for 25 years, and on all the pitch surround barriers. Eventually and with much sadness the West Bank roof was removed. The main reason for this was explained thus “In the event of heavy rain all the spectators would attempt to cram together under the small cover so the capacity of the terrace had to be reduced for safety. The easy option at first was simply to remove the roof, which was done leaving a very ugly sight, the next option of course was demolition and placement of temporary seating. This second option had two distinct advantages. One, helping the club to reach the required seating to total ground capacity ratio and two, provide an easily “policed” area to house the larger number of Football League club away fans that visited Underhill”. Seating was also installed directly onto the terraces of what has become the Family Stand in 1991.

The modern day record attendance of 6,209 crammed into the ground in January 1991 to witness the 0-5 defeat by Portsmouth in the FA Cup 3rd round. Soon afterwards the infamous Underhill slope was also reduced significantly to appease the FA. It was huge operation and one can still see the evidence of the old slope by the boarding behind the north east corner flag. The gradient was once a massive 8 feet drop from North to South!

The original club house built in 1920, although modified inside and out numerous times, was a familiar landmark at the bottom end of the ground and was the hub of the supporters for many years and a vital source of revenue to a club of our standing. The bar would open three or four nights midweek but the Saturday Night dance and “turns” evenings were very popular in the 1950's and 60's and my Father's Dance Band even played there. Top Cabaret artists of the times were also booked – one of the best evenings ever featured the brilliant Brothers Lees impressionist act which won Hughie Greens' Opportunity Knocks – check them out on You Tube! During the week there would be packed out Bingo sessions, and later on meat draws, whist drives, darts and pool. After home (and away) games the players would pop in for a drink and as a young teenager I would hang around just to be able to stand and mingle alongside the likes Jimmy Greaves – just imagine that? The great man once asked me if I was going to the next away game. I just gulped and nodded my head. A “see you there then mate” followed and he wished me a safe journey home! 

The clubhouse was gutted by an unexplained fire in the new year of 1990 with the loss of important club documents and rather more sadly from a another perspective, club records, photographs and memorabilia.

 The West Bank was temporary closed until the new building was, and in hindsight, very speedily assembled becoming operational within 6 weeks. Suggestions for the name of the building were being brandished about by rumour, many as to be expected were jocular incorporating the larger than life characters to have been associated with club over the decades – Stan Flashman of course and Manager Barry Fry, legendary players the likes of Lester Finch were all considered. It was rather fitting in the end that Kevin Durham's name was honoured as during that summer midfielder Kevin, part of our promotion to the Football League squad, tragically died suddenly of a heart attack aged just 29 while on a family holiday in Spain. Therefore the Durham Suite was born - a fitting tribute to a player who many people feel would have represented this club for many years to come and he was a lovely man too.
The Durham in mid construction 1990

After a Player of the Season do, and rather worse for wear, myself and a couple of mates missed the last bus back to Finchley. I remember deciding to rest for a while and sat on the steps of what was the West Bank promptly falling asleep and waking up some hours later – who else has slept on the terraces at Underhill?

Other than the temporary seating behind the bottom goal, this area now referred to as the South Stand, increasing and then decreasing when necessary the ground remained just so until 2008 when a smart new South Stand was erected with room for 1,040 spectators bring the current capacity to 6,023. This structure, full of amber and black seats, is of the modern design so it can be dismantled and transported in sections to any home.
The old, although updated, floodlights were pulled down in 2010 and four very tall state of the art corner pylons were positioned – ironically only in its twilight would Underhill now look like a traditional football ground when seen from distance.
The South Stand 2008

I however have always known where it is and it has rarely let me down in nearly 50 years, and when it did it was forgiven because it has always made it up to me afterwards. It has been a massive part of my life, I have spent an awful lot of time there. I know every nook and cranny, have laughed, cried and bled there and I made the most amazing friends there too. It sounds like I could be describing a member of my family – it honestly feels that way now that it is going. Farewell our Underhill, my Underhill, the Theatre of Teams, Barnet Football Club Teams.

Reckless April 2013
 

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