Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

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Best be beelieving

Beeasy like Sunday morning

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!

Beeasy like Sunday morning

Hive got chills, they’re multiplying

The game: Barnet v. Woking.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: unforgettably chilling, like the thought of a world without quinoa.

Teeth chattering, knees knocking, I walked the wintry walk up Camrose Avenue and toward Barnet’s new home, The Hive. Despite my fondness for the Bees’ old Underhill Stadium – a ground I attended quite a few times, long before writing as The Luxury Fan – it was hard not to be impressed by the modern set up upon arrival; with a state-of-the-art bar, an immaculate pitch and – most importantly – a substantial, two-thousand-strong crowd, the whole place gave the impression of a club very much on the rise.

This is, of course, precisely what Barnet are. Saturday’s fixture saw the table-topping Bees take on promotion-chasing Woking in a critical Conference clash; with the home side looking to pull away from the chasing pack and the away ‘Cards’ looking to push for a play-off place, this was a high-stakes match at the summit of non-league football. The importance of a three-point haul was certainly not lost on either set of supporters; both vied vocally from the start. The latter even leapt about incessantly in pre-match expectation – or possibly just to stay warm.

On the field, things started at pace. Barnet’s John Akinde and Woking’s Scott Rendell – the two top scorers in the league – worked early openings, but couldn’t get shots away. In the seventh minute, Akinde then burst forward on the left wing, galloped into the opposition’s box and cut the ball back for the waiting Lee Cook, only for the Bees’ midfielder to slip before he could strike. Barnet’s passing was more assured than Woking’s and they started to influence the game accordingly, but the away side seemed in no way cowed by the league leaders’ confident play; readily attacking on the break, nippy midfielder Charles Banya was a particular nuisance to the home defence. In the fifteenth minute, it was his running that set Rendell up on the edge of the home box; from there, the Woking striker looped a shot just over Graham Stack’s crossbar.

This perhaps served as a warning against overconfidence for the Bees. They certainly started to work even harder from this point on, Akinde especially; with Barnet’s number nine winning every high ball, spreading play and continually working the left wing, his versatile talents were clear to see. In the twenty-first minute, he won a couple of corners in quick succession; pumped in by Cook, both bobbled perilously close to the away net before being desperately cleared. Then, in the twenty-sixth minute, Akinde and Cook made the crucial contributions of the match.

Having found himself in space out on the left, Cook slid a great ball through to Akinde, who had drifted cleverly across the Woking box; collecting the ball and turning to fire at static away keeper Jake Cole, he gave Cards’ defender Joe McNerney no choice but to attempt a last ditch tackle. Flattening Akinde without getting anything on the ball, McNerney didn’t argue with the resulting penalty call. He was rather more irate about the red card that the referee produced, as were the away fans behind the goal; this double punishment might have felt a little harsh but, then again, Akinde had definitely been denied a goalscoring opportunity.

With McNerney sent off, Akinde tucked the penalty away to Cole’s left. The Woking fans, though still happy to jump about, were all the more livid. This only spurred Barnet on; they proceeded to dominate the depleted Cards for the rest of the half. Akinde, Cole, midfielder Luisma and striker Charlie McDonald all went close one after another, last-gasp away defending the only thing keeping the score at one-nil. The best home chance then came in the forty-first minute, when Akinde won a free kick on the left; lashed into the Woking box by Cole, this was headed inches over by Bees’ centre back Jack Saville. The away side proceeded to hold out until half time.

Though the first half had left Barnet with a massive advantage, Woking’s sustained resistance suggested that the result was not as secure as it might have seemed. Unfortunately for the away side, they soon made resistance much harder for themselves. With Akinde and McDonald starting the second half well, both surging up the Woking flanks, the away defence must have felt the intense pressure; still, there was no excuse for them conceding their second. In the fiftieth minute, under mild harassment from Akinde, Cards’ defender Joey Jones horribly skewed his back pass to Jake Cole; this bobbled past the away keeper, onto the post, and in. As Jones dropped his head in horror, home fans and players celebrated with glee. Now, surely, the Bees had won it.

For the next half an hour, there was no real suggestion otherwise. As the Barnet fans sang their best promotion numbers – the Woking fans were still jumping, it should be said – the Bees buzzed ceaselessly around the away net. Cards’ midfielder Josh Payne had a vicious shot saved by Stack in the fifty-fourth minute, but apart from that the home side dominated; Akinde had a series of good chances, while Curtis Weston had two stinging drives palmed away by Cole in the seventy-first. Three minutes later, and the irrepressible Akinde should have made it three-nil. One on one with Cole after a defensive error in the Woking back line, he dragged the keeper wide of goal; having done the hard work, he then blasted his effort well over.

In the seventy-ninth minute, it suddenly appeared as if this miss might come back to haunt the home side. Sprinting from the middle of the pitch, Cards’ substitute Yemi Odubade squeezed between the Barnet centre backs before caning a shot past Stack; the Barnet keeper got a hand to it, but it was impossible to keep out. The ten men of Woking were rejuvenated, while the home side were rattled. A heroic Woking comeback felt possible.

For the last ten minutes, the away side turned the game on its head; frantically seeking an equaliser, they played at their maximum. In the eighty-first minute, Odubade fired low but wide from the edge of the box. In the eighty-second, Scott Rendell tangled with the generally faultless Andy Yiadom in the box, but no penalty was given; though dicey, this was probably the right call. Barnet manager Martin Allen brought on defender David Stephens in the eighty-ninth, and this did shore things up somewhat. Nevertheless, as their fans carried on bounding about, Woking mustered one last chance; from a corner, Josh Payne fired a gliding volley just a little too high.

Full time saw Barnet claim the win, though Woking had put up a valiant fight to the end. Another step on the long road to promotion for the Bees, and an encouraging late performance for the Cards; shivering madly now in the arctic evening air, I zipped my Barbour up to the top and headed home.

Result: Barnet 2 Woking 1.
My MoM: John Akinde. Pace, physicality and hard work; a bold individual showing.
Best fans: Woking’s Red & White Army. Bouncy. Angry. Bouncy.

Hive got chills, they’re multiplying