‘We are staying up, we are staying up’ and ‘Grazioli, Grazioli’ were echoed round Underhill after beating Port Vale 1-0. The Bees had defied the odds and stayed up after they won and Lincoln had lost. The London club has always been in and around a relegation battle since being promoted in the 2004-2005 season, but this season, the odds were stacked against them.
Mark Stimson’s appointment in June 2010 after Ian Hendon’s departure looked to be a good move. He has a good CV despite getting relegated with Gillingham before leaving them. His task was to build a club that would challenge for at least a play off place and to steer clear of the relegation zone. Only 7 of the 2009-2010 team remained and 17 new players came in. The squad had players that were the envy of many league 2 sides in Izale McLeod, Jake Cole and Steve Kabba and there was a lot of optimism about the club. However, it was too good to be true and the club were bottom at the turn of the New Year. A 7-0 loss to Crewe, a 3-1 defeat at home to Stockport and only 5 wins in 22 league games cost Stimson his job.
They got Paul Fairclough to become caretaker manager, but in his third spell at the club, he struggled to make a difference in his 16 league games. Even though he had got them to League 2 in the first place when he managed them to the Conference title almost 6 years ago, his spell at the club showed a sign of desperation more than anything else and he is always their first port of call when anything goes wrong. He got the club 15 points out of a possible 48 and the club was looking at the dreaded League 2 trapdoor. Clubs such as York City, Wrexham and Mansfield Town have not returned to league football since relegation, while Scarborough folded and had to reform and Boston United got their comeuppance for the fraud that got them to league football in the first place and are now in the Conference North.
After Fairclough left his role as caretaker manager, Barnet were on course for their third manager of the season and another former Bees boss in the form of the ‘Mad Dog; himself, Martin Allen. Having been out of a job for over a year since resigning from Cheltenham Town, Allen gave the side the kick up the backside they so badly needed an injury time goal by Sam Deering against Chesterfield helped them to secure a 2-2 draw in added time. Then a brilliant 4-1 away win to fellow relegation rivals Burton, in which Steve Kabba scored all the goals and a 2-1 victory over a Crewe side that had put 8 past Cheltenham the previous week. After only 19 days at the club, Martin Allen defected to Notts County, leaving Barnet looking for their forth manager of the season, but this was the beginning of the Great Escape.
Giuliano Grazioli, a Barnet legend and assistant manager under Martin Allen, was put in charge until the end of the season. His reign got off to a loss to then promotion chasers Bury. Then a brilliant away win to Gilingham and a disappointing draw at home to Oxford gave the club some hope of staying up. This though was dealt a blow when they were defeated 3-1 at Accrington, in which left the Barnet club 2 points behind Lincoln with 1 game to play and needing a miracle in order to survive.
I got to Underhill an hour and a half before kickoff and the place seemed relaxed. Grazioli was laying out cones on the pitch for training and it was being taken as just another league match. The only thing that was different was the crowd, which had risen from an average of 2000 to just under 4500. As 3:00 approached, the crowd was told that they had been in a similar situation last season and they beat Rochdale 1-0. But last season, they were the team in the box seat, while this season, they are the team with all to lose. The game started and Barnet had the better of the first half, with Mark Byrne having the best chance, but former Lincoln striker Louis Dodds should have done better with a free header from about 6 yards for Port Vale. The second half started and Izale McLeod’s daunting run was stopped by a foul in the penalty box by Gareth Owen. From the burger kiosk, I heard a massive cheer and rushed back immediately to see McLeod standing over the penalty. Then McLeod scored and the nerves stopped. What happened now wasn’t in our fate and the side battled throughout the second half and Kamdjo missed a great chance after an hour. Then a massive cheer went round the stadium. Everyone got their phones out to see that Aldershot had gone ahead against Lincoln and Barnet were going up. Mark Byrne then had a shot brilliantly tipped round by Port Vale’s substitute goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson and another cheer went round when Aldershot doubled their lead. Then the ref added on 6 minutes of added time, in which went round to a chorus of boos. Charlie Taylor missed a golden chance in this period and the side continued to battle until they heard the final whistle. Grazioli and his coaching staff ran onto the pitch in disbelief, many players didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. This was truly the great escape. After much effort to stop it from happening, almost every Barnet fan ran onto the pitch. I ran on in celebration, and the first thing I saw was the captain and lifelong Barnet fan Joe Devera running around the pitch sobbing. Then everyone went to the dugout and everyone was jumping up and down, singing chants of McLeod, Devera, but mainly Grazioli. Then everyone was ordered off the pitch, just for another pitch invasion to happen. Izale McLeod was signing autographs, Jack Midson stood there in disbelief chatting to many fans and I got a chat with Grazioli and he said he didn’t know if he wanted to stay on at Barnet.
Leaving the ground, I thought this is the great escape. Next season Barnet should hopefully challenge for a playoff place under Grazioli, and he has made himself a bigger legend than what he was before.
Please comment on this article on your views on Barnet’s extraordinary season. Also follow me on twitter @footyatjoshilan.