The game: Barnet v. Halifax Town.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: shall I compare it to a summer’s day? Yes, yes I shall.
Bar the Championship, the Conference has surely been England’s tightest league at the top this season. At two-thirty on Saturday afternoon, as I gambolled over to The Hive in the warm sun, there was only a point separating first and second in the table – Barnet and Bristol Rovers respectively – while third-placed Grimsby Town sat a mere three off the summit. So late in the campaign, with three games to go, none of these sides could afford let things slide.
I was, of course, about to watch the ‘Bees’ of Barnet; the league leaders were looking to avoid a slip up against the ‘Shaymen’ of Halifax Town. The home fans may have been buzzing prior to kick off, but I still suspected that the Bees might be feeling the strain of this game; the reverse fixture had been a one-all draw at The Shay, yet Town’s improved position and proximity to the play offs meant they now had more motivation than ever to get a result.
I need not have been concerned for the home side. I had barely ducked under the railings of the home terrace when Bees’ wide man Mauro Vilhete opened the scoring; a scrappy clearance in the away area fell to Vilhete, who then sliced a shot over away keeper Matt Glennon and into the top corner. The main stand roared.
Town tried to work their way back into it with some wide play, yet Barnet’s Andy Yiadom and Elliott Johnson were absolutely superb in the full-back positions; likewise, imposing centre back David Stephens stood out in his successful stifling of the Shaymen. The Bees began to boss possession, then had a flurry of chances to get their second. In the ninth minute, a quickly-taken free kick set Johnson off down the left; he hit an inch-perfect cross to the waiting Bondz N’Gala, yet the defender’s shot was blocked a couple of yards out. Five minutes later, Vilhete made a foray down the right before cutting inside and taking the shot on himself. This was deflected an inch past the upright.
League top scorer John Akinde had a couple of quick opportunities, as did forward Michael Gash. The game was interrupted in the twenty-first minute as Town’s Graham Hutchison came off with an injury, but Barnet showed no sign of letting up after this unexpected pause; midfielder Conor Clifford straightaway made an inroad into the Town area, teeing up the onrushing Curtis Weston to fire just wide; a minute later, Clifford cut in from the left before smashing the joint of crossbar and post.
The best response to all this that the visitors could muster came from Scott McManus; in the twenty-ninth, the Halifax left back took a thirty-yard pot shot which flew high and wide. After that, the Bees came straight back at their opponents. Akinde might have had a penalty having burst into the box past Town defender Marc Roberts; he was brought down in a tangle of legs, but the referee waved play on. After a relatively quiet ten minutes of continued home dominance, Gash and Clifford then combined well on the left before the latter pinged a pass to Akinde on the edge of the box; his shot was uncharacteristically wild, soaring over the bar.
The game was edging toward half time, and it looked as if the Shaymen might get away with only a one-goal deficit at the break. Then, in the forty-fourth minute, under pressure from the advancing Yiadom, McManus attempted to play a short back pass to his keeper from the left. He found the lurking Akinde instead; Barnet’s number nine coolly slotted the ball between Glennon’s legs to give the Bees a two-goal lead and claim his thirty-first of the season.
As the home choruses of ‘To the Football League, we’re on our way!’ pealed out, the first half came to a close. Barnet had made it look easy, while Halifax badly needed to improve in the second forty-five. In the meantime, I badly needed to run off and watch The Grand National. Needless to say, my horses performed atrociously.
Conversely, the Shaymen managed to perform quite well for the opening fifteen of the second period; much tighter at the back and far more organised as a unit, they ceded the ball to Barnet without seeming in such immediate and constant danger as they had previously. Nevertheless, the Bees did get a third goal. In the sixty-first minute, Yiadom weaved through the Town defence and into the right side of the area; from there, his low cross found Weston – Barnet’s number eight slotted home from five yards.
The rest of the game consisted of home attacks and dogged away defending. Halifax’s James Bolton saw his powerful drive blocked after a Danny Schofield-delivered corner in the sixty-sixth, but apart from that it was all Barnet; Akinde and Vilhete played a flourishing one two in the area moments later – the latter fired high – before Clifford, Gash and fresh substitute Charlie MacDonald all had chances of their own.
The last ten minutes saw the Bees’ Spanish midfielder Luisma come on for an impressive little cameo. As the home fans cheerfully olé-d their side’s every touch, Luisma could have scored twice; first from a stinging drive – well saved by Glennon – and then from a crafted shot just past the near post. Still, the Shaymen refrained from conceding again. To the Bees’ joy and the visitors’ relief, the final whistle soon went.
Barnet had certainly played like champions, while Town had been bested fair and square. With Grimsby falling to Wrexham, the Bees’ win signalled the end of the three-way Conference title race. With Bristol Rovers beating Southport, it’s now a two-way sprint.
Result: Barnet 3 Halifax Town 0.
My MoM: Mauro Vilhete was excellent throughout, but Andy Yiadom gets the nod; superb at right back, got an assist on one of his many raiding runs forward.
Best fans: the Bees. Olé! Olé! Olé!