Watching Barnet play at the moment is a bit like doing an Acid trip. One is never guaranteed to enjoy the journey, but when it’s over, you kind of miss it. And so it proved when I watched Barnet play Mansfield Town this past weekend. It was my third visit to their recently built ground dubbed ‘The Hive’—in time, as it happens, for their third loss of the season. I and those standing around me have began to think that I was their Kiss of Death.
Watching Division 2 football is a far cry from the sometimes PlayStation perfect Premier League stuff. The lack of quality in all areas is immediately and painfully obvious. Passing, crossing, and shooting, the basic elements of the game, are poor. Stringing passes together for a passage of domination is considered exceptional, even for a good side. But that is OK, the crowd don’t mind; we get what we pay for and any moment of skill is relished—any shot, no matter how high or wide, is cheered and immediately prompts a wave of singing.
The thing about this tier of football isn’t about the winning or losing; it’s about being there, having fun, meeting friends, and supporting your club. Winning is never taken for granted and losing will not ruin your weekend; that is mostly reserved for supporters of the big clubs, although it doesn’t do any harm to win every now and again.
When I arrived at the ground, there was optimism that Barnet might make the Division 2 play-offs this season. I don’t know what had inspired this crazy talk, my last visit three weeks prior had ended in a 3-1 home defeat to league leaders Doncaster, followed by two draws, including a disheartening goalless one to bottom of the table Newport; but, wherever it came from, there was unmistakable buoyancy in the crowd. And the visit of Mansfield, starting the day two places below Barnet, presented the home side with the perfect opportunity to set out their stall for the season. But things didn’t go according to plan.
Barnet’s problems on the field are legion. Their first choice keeper is injured, and their number two, putting it very politely, doesn’t look up to the task. When he too got injured mid-game, and the number three readied for an introduction, the crowd groaned. The explanation offered was that the number three was even worse, and I quietly wondered to myself how much worse he could possibly be. I never got a chance to see as number two manfully recovered.
Defensively, Barnet look alright for a Division 2 side, but the midfield appears to be absent for the third time I’ve watched them. They are nominally on the pitch, I counted eleven players at all times, but they are negligible; they do not dominate in any fashion, string play together, or support the attack. This is a shame because Barnet’s most effective player, the powerful striker Akinde, plays alone up front and could use some support from his colleagues—and the team would undoubtedly benefit. Without support, Barnet struggle to keep their foot on an opponent’s throat and if the ball isn’t in the opposition half, or midfield, then it must be in their own half and this invites constant pressure on their defence.
Mansfield hit the woodwork early on in the game and there were a few other chances before the visitors opened the scoring in the 37th minute with a tame looking shot from the edge of the area. The best excuse for the keeper that I heard was that he might have been unsighted for that split second. I was 75 yards away and I wasn’t. The goal wasn’t against the run of play, although I couldn’t say Mansfield dominated in a game totally lacking in fluency.
At half-time, sensing the need for urgency, Barnet introduced two substitutes, one of which was the new signing, Spanish midfielder Bover, and he inspired shouts of ole every time he touched the ball, not just because he was Spanish but because he was also quite good. A player able to get his foot on the ball and play some passes, he breathed new life into the corpse of the Barnet midfield and they began to genuinely threaten their Mansfield counterparts. The Spaniard hit the crossbar with a free-kick, but that was as close as Barnet got to their opponent’s goal and the game ended 2-0 to the visitors after Barnet conceded a penalty in the 60th minute. I was looking elsewhere and missed the foul so have nothing to say on this, but will comment on Mansfield’s gamesmanship.
In the three games I have witnessed so far, unlike in the Premiership, gamesmanship has been minimal. But Mansfield took it to new levels. As I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Barnet fan, I was not as enraged as those around me. Actually, I found it quite amusing and it certainly added to the spectacle of an otherwise dull game. Mansfield’s players tried every trick in the book to slow the game down, feign injury and obtain advantage.
One moment that had the Barnet crowd particularly angry happened right after the scoring of the opening goal. The Mansfield players all ran to the corner of the pitch close to where their fans sat and celebrated. It lasted for quite a while, during which Barnet had lined up and were keen to re-start. Eventually, the referee called for Mansfield to take their places and to a man, as if rehearsed, they all dropped on one knee to tie up their shoelaces.
Despite the lack of excitement on the pitch, it was another enjoyable day out, as there was no trouble off the pitch nor any of the usual venom between the two sets of fans that characterises a lot of Premiership matches. The ground is family friendly and the 200 or so Mansfield fans who’d made the journey south could head home happy with three points for their efforts—and good luck to them. For Barnet, they have a new midfielder that they can grow the team around and if they can integrate him quickly, the four point deficit to reach the playoffs can be easily mustered.