I’ve only seen Wrexham play at Underhill once. But the match, the occasion and the ground itself left a big impression on me.
When Wrexham travelled to Underhill, in the spring of 2007, they looked a side destined for relegation to the Conference. They hadn’t won any of Brian Carey’s first eight games in charge and had slipped into the relegation zone. For the first half of the match, it looked like nothing was going to change. Wrexham looked like a side going through the motions; toiling up-hill in the first half; going a goal behind. We’d seen it all before that season. We’d huff and puff. We’d lose. We’d go home disappointed. Rinse and repeat until we go down.
But something changed. Maybe it was the bright spring sunshine; maybe it was kicking downhill. Who knows? But come the second half, the Wrexham fans started singing. One man spent the entire second half banging one of the East Stand pillars – alcohol no doubt numbing what must have been his increasingly bruised hand.
And then Lee McEvilly scored. A 25-yard screamer. Then, three minutes later, he scored again – this time a looping header. We then had to wait thirty, agonizing, minutes to clinch the victory. It must have been worse in the dugout; Brian Carey seemed too paralyzed with fear to even make the usual time-wasting substitutions lest he somehow break Wrexham’s fragile advantage.
But somehow we prevailed and the support, the atmosphere and the relief that game were unlike anything I’ve felt watching Wrexham before or since. It felt like a turning point and so it proved; we lost only four more games that season, surviving relegation on the last-day.
It was partly because of this that I was saddened to see Barnet move away from Underhill at the start of last season. The stated reason was a trumped-up feud with the local council. It doesn’t take a paranoid Wrexham fan to suggest that a chairman with property interests in High Barnet might well have a vested interest in wresting the football club away from its historic home. When Barnet moved into The Hive in Edgeware (a ground originally built for Wealdstone), I assumed that Underhill would be no more, lost like so many other historic London football grounds.
It was, then, a surprise to learn that Underhill is still standing, and, all things considered, in great nick. Even more unlikely, it was hosting a football match again. Ironically, given where Barnet now reside, Underhill is now the temporary home of Edgeware Town. The Wares are themselves something of a ghost; a reformation of a club that died not long after my first visit to Underhill. My visit was to be their very first home game since reforming.
The crowd was 172. No doubt a respectable crowd for a team five tiers below the Conference but about a sixteenth the crowd that had seen that Wrexham’s turnaround. The place had a slight Mary Celeste quality to it. We were watching a match at three o’clock on a Saturday, in a football league stadium, yet hardly anyone was there. We occupied the padded seats of the directors box.
The crowd was an eclectic mix. A selection of old Edgeware Town fans made up the bulk of the crowd, augmented with groundhoppers keen to see Underhill for maybe the last time. Also present were about thirty or so Barnet refusniks who are boycotting the Bees while they play outside the borough.
The match, a “derby” with Barnet-based London Maccabi Lions (the highest place Jewish team in the football pyramid), was a poor one. A howler from the ‘Ware keeper gave Lions the lead before Edgeware responded in the second half to earn a draw. But I wasn’t really there for the football. I was there to see the ground.
Underhill is magnificently ramshackle. The East Stand, running the length of the pitch, starkly illustrates the slope of the pitch. The weest and North sides of the ground are a hotch-potch of little stands – as though every time the regulations have changed someone has just tacked a new stand on to the ground. It is charming, and, in an age of soulless newbuilds (of which Barnet’s current ground is a prime example), increasingly rare.
When Edgeware Town move back to Harrow (something that will happen as soon as they install a 3G pitch), Underhill will fall silent again. Perhaps it won’t ever host a football match again. It will be a big loss to football.