Committee members Ben Kentish and Sam Norris interviewed Tony Kleanthous in early June. The full interview will be published over the next couple of weeks in three instalments. The second instalment is below.
The questions were submitted by BFCSA members. (The third and last instalment should be published before our AGM on 09 July.)
What is the current situation with regards to Underhill?
As it stands now, we meet the League criteria. The problem is that as little as two years ago there was another Football League working party set up to look at ground criteria. Fortunately I managed to get on that working party. I found that there were only two things on the whole agenda: one was what the stadium entrance capacity should be - whether or not it should go back to being 6,000 - and the other was what the allowable slope on a pitch should be. We dealt with that issue, but we all know that eventually we'll be told enough is enough. You cannot carry on with a pitch like ours; the slope is just not acceptable. And then we have this problem that if you straighten the slope, you have to straighten all the stands too. We just don't have the room here.
We tried to buy the houses around the ground but a lot of the owners wouldn't sell. So what can I do? Underhill is lovely; it's our home and our tradition, but the fact is it doesn't meet new rules and if the ground criteria change again then we'll get letters again saying they're going to throw us out of the League. I can't let that happen. So we've got another £350,000 we want to spend on this ground and it's just a case of trying to get the money together at the moment. That expenditure completes the toilets and the catering for the South Stand, and provides for new floodlights. As well as that, we've got a new CCTV system being put in this summer which is costing a lot of money around £60,000. So we'll have a very up-to-date CCTV security system. After the rest of that work is finished, we'll be as far as we can go here without starting to knock things down. At that point, we'll be turning our attention back on the council and we've already told the council 'Be warned, we're going to be back' because over the last few years that we've been doing this work, people have forgotten that we still need a new ground.
What is left to be done to complete the planned upgrade works at Underhill and when will this happen? When will the new floodlights be installed?
It depends purely on money. We haven't got the money at the moment because between last October and February of this year, we lost about £250,000 that we hadn't budgeted for. Most of that money was spent on bringing in extra loan players. Plus our income went down because attendances dropped, so we had to take money from other budgets. But we knew we had to put more money into the team in order to bring in loan players and make sure we got out of trouble. So the floodlights, which will cost around £150,000 in total, have had to be put on hold for a while. But actually that's not acceptable and we need to do them, because the way they are at the moment is a problem. They do need to be done it's just a case of trying to find where we're going to get the money from. If I could, I'd do it tomorrow. The things I want to finish at Underhill are the floodlights, the catering and toilets underneath the South Stand, and also a load of other CCTV and electrical work that needs doing on this site. They are our priorities at the moment. After that, there's not much more we can do on this site.
Given that there is a lot of room behind the East Terrace, is there scope in future to build a new stand on the East side of the ground, providing the Scouts and St. John's ambulance could be adequately relocated?
I can't rebuild the East Terrace because of the slope. You can either rebuild it on a slope or you can rebuild it flat. If you build a new stand on a slope, what's the point of that? Because if you then have to straighten the pitch, the terrace is out of line again. It's a nice idea but then you get into lots of problems and by the end of it you feel like pulling your hair out. Also and we didn't know this until we started the work on the new South Stand there's a massive mains cable behind the East Terrace so we wouldn't be allowed to dig there. Plus there would be big issues with getting permission to build anything there that extends onto Priory Grove, and then we'd have to relocate the road because it's a public access way and it would be difficult to do that. I bought some of the houses on Fairfield Way so I could use their gardens to widen the entrance there, but you get two or three who hold out and that's it. I'm not saying we wouldn't do any more; I'm just not sure what more we could do. I can't extend the North side unless I own all the houses.
We're going to do a little bit of work on the entrances for the North and North West Terraces but that's not planned for a couple of years. I don't know what else to do. I could build the rest of the back of the South Stand, because we've got permission for that, but again you come back to the problem of if we've got to flatten the pitch and we flattened it as it was, we'd have no north end because it would be too high above the pitch. So if we flatten the pitch, we'd have to move the pitch downwards, meaning the whole south end of the ground would have to move. The reason we've got portakabins there and the reason we haven't finished the building is purely because in the eventuality that, in an emergency, we have to have quickly flatten the pitch, we'd have a plan. We do everything with flexibility to allow for future uses. That's not a good way to operate for us, but at least we're pretty ready here now because in the 15 years that I've been here I've prepared us for nine out of ten possible eventualities.
How long do you envisage Underhill remaining a viable home for Barnet FC?
I think we've got ten years here. I say that because there are new criteria that were supposed to be coming into effect next season, but they've just given everyone an extra two years because of the current financial climate. To meet those criteria, the changing rooms have to be bigger, we need better floodlights and pitch covers, and we've got to change the directors' boxes and the press boxes. There are a number of changes we've got to make and that will cost a lot of money. Some of them are going to be a nightmare, like making the changing rooms bigger. We've got to be very careful with anything we touch in the Main Stand because there is asbestos in that stand, so we're not allowed to just go and refurbish something at will. This is another example of the problems of working with this site. Just to give you an example of how difficult it is, each press box now has to have a writing station and an electricity point for each member of the press.
Most clubs would think 'Okay, it's a bit of work but we can deal with it'. But for us, having to provide each press person with their own electricity point means we won't have enough electricity on the site, so that's a major nightmare for me. We're having to work on rebalancing the power on the site because we actually don't have enough electricity coming into this site to run this ground. To fix that we'd have to buy a big transformer, but there's nowhere to put it and anyway they cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. So even the most minor things can cause a huge problem here. We even had times last year when we had to turn tea urns off in some of the tea huts because it was overloading the power. People don't realise some of the crazy things we live with. When the floodlights are on, we really struggle with power for anything else.
Going back to the original question, there are a number of operational issues here and they'll catch up with us eventually. We won't be able to keep putting them off. So I say we've got ten years left here, and that is based on my experience of the time it takes to make all the changes we need to. It's not because I know something or because I've got a plan, it's just what I think. If we haven't found a new home within the next ten years, we're going to really struggle because I can't keep it going much longer.
What are your plans for the houses you own around Underhill?
I don't really have any plans for them. We just buy them and rent them out. Sometimes we need to use their gardens or bits of their gardens, and if you look at most of the houses we've bought, you can see where we've been using bits of their gardens to enlarge our footprint. We own the cricket club now too. If we didn't own that then we wouldn't be in the League now, because it is owning that cricket club that made it possible to use a bit of that land and build the new South Stand. At that time capacity was a major issue, and capacity isn't just the number of people you fit into an area, it's calculated on access and egress. Owning the houses means if I needed to widen an entrance I could knock a house down and do it if I had to. We have to be realistic with our plans and for us it's just about controlling our destiny. It's all been about flexibility; we own this ground, we own the cricket club land, and we own quite a few properties around it. Our intention is to own as much as possible so it's in our destiny. If my plan was to make money from that, I wouldn't be buying two-storey terraced houses in Barnet, I'd just go and buy a nice big block in the middle of town and rent it out for a fortune. Financially there is no sense in what I'm doing, other than for the benefit of the club. If we redevelop this ground on this footprint then we need all the houses to do it, so it makes sense to have them.
My philosophy all along has been to make sure that we not only have a Plan A but that we also have a Plan B, a C, a D and an E. So it makes sense to have those houses because it might be that we end up rebuilding a stadium here. Or it might be and this would probably never happen in my lifetime that our council might actually wake up and see sense and say 'Actually we've got one brilliant site in the middle of the borough, let's put you there'. Obviously that's Copthall I'm talking about. It might be that they say, "Develop the Underhill site and you can use that money to build yourself a Wembley-type stadium at Copthall", for argument's sake. We need the flexibility and having our own land gives us the flexibility to decide our future, which we weren't able to do in the past.
What are your plans for Underhill if and when we move to a new ground?
I have none. This entire site is owned by Barnet FC Holdings Ltd; it's all owned by the club and its holding group. I may ultimately own that, but the properties aren't in my name; it's all part of the holding group. Whatever happens to this site, all I'll be interested in is getting the maximum possible amount of money for the club to use, whatever it is used for. That is all that matters to me. This club was very much a pig's ear when I took it over, now it's stable; we have our own assets and we are quite a stable football club when you look at what is going on in the rest of the Football League. Most people in football are quite impressed by our efforts here. I have no plans for this site, only one: to make sure we get the maximum benefit for Barnet FC from it. Whether that is cash or redeveloping the site, I don't know. If Tesco offered us the best money, I would take it. If Tesco said to us tomorrow, "We'll take over Underhill and we'll give you a 10,000 capacity stadium at Copthall", I'd say thank you very much and I'd pull their arm off. By the way, there's no hidden agenda, it's an open agenda. I get upset when people say I'm hiding something because I'm telling you openly what we're doing. I've said I'm going to sell this site if we have to move, in order to get the money to build a new place. I've said if we have to stay then I want to be able to expand as much as possible, and I've told you I don't think we'll be here more than ten years.
When does the clause whereby the Council receives a percentage of any profit on the sale of Underhill expire? Is this significant?
I think there are about three years left, but it makes no difference anyway; it has no effect now. The issue about the clause is that it allowed the council to get 60% of any value of Underhill if we left the borough. The fact that they would receive money if we left Barnet meant they were stopping us from doing anything in the borough, in order to force us to leave so they could get the money. That's what the argument was all about. That's what they've done with Hendon. They've done a deal with the owners of Hendon whereby they forced the club out and Hendon and the Council are sharing the money. But I wouldn't do a deal like that; I wasn't interested in the money because it's not what I came here for. If we're talking about the Council, there are three things that have worked really well in our favour. One was that we beat them in court twice and they wanted to take it to the House of Lords but three old judges laughed at them and told them to stop victimising the club. Up until that point, even our own supporters wouldn't believe the situation it was very frustrating.
The situation was actually very simple: if the council helped us and we stayed here at Underhill, they got no money. Whereas if they made my life a misery and forced us to move, they got a lot of money. But if Barnet supporters knew they were making my life a misery, you'd turn on the Council. So what the Council needed to do was force us out and make me look like the bad one. Their plan was to get Barnet out and blame it on the dodgy Greek, thinking I wouldn't mind because I'd have a few million in my pocket. But actually I did mind, because anyone who knows me knows you can't buy me like that; it just wasn't going to happen. That was one thing that happened that was a significant issue. The other significant issue was the Prince Edward site, because now we've got an alternative option. Now the Council can see that if they don't help us, they will lose us. And they can also see that there are a lot of boroughs out there that dream of having a club like ours.
When you've got a site that is going to open next month that has had around £11 million invested in it that's how much will have gone into that site by the time it opens the people in that area are going to have, on their doorstep, facilities that are going to be considered some of the best in the country. Maybe our council are starting to realise that. The third thing that has been significant is the change in leadership of the council. Because in the past there was a lot of spin going on, but in fairness the leader now is a businessman; he's straightforward and I understand his language. I can talk to him and we know where each other is coming from. There's no spin, no politics; we just understand what each other requires. Hopefully they will value us and find us somewhere else. I do talk to the council regularly and I do say to them 'Look, you've bought some time by letting me do things here but it's coming to the point where, once my training ground is finished, I'm going to turn my attention back onto this borough and I'm going to be saying to you "I need a home. I want a home for Barnet FC". I still want a 10,000 capacity stadium because if I have that, and it meets all the regulations, I can do what every other chairman does and just focus on the operation of the club and the football, rather than all this other nonsense. Once we start marching, we'll march fast - you'll see.
What is the latest on the search for a new ground?
There isn't a latest really. We had talks with Hertfordshire University and I was stunned at how they behaved. I don't really want to say any more than that, but I was very surprised at how they behaved for the sort of body they are. I didn't want to continue with the talks, I just didn't feel it was right. Other than that, there are a couple of sites in the borough that have come up as opportunities again because of the change in the housing market. Developers are not developing anything and everything any more and that means there are new opportunities opening up. I can't disclose where those sites are because then we'll get into a situation where supporters will hear the name and take it onto a whole new level and doors start closing in your face before you've opened them. When you talk about a football stadium, someone will say 'Oh I saw Tony in so and so road looking at such and such a site the other day, I wonder if it could be for a stadium'. By the time that has been reported, there will already have been a residents' group up set up opposing any notion of a new stadium and if the council in that area had even slightly considered going further with you, immediately the shutters come down.
That's why we don't talk about these things. It's not because we want to hide it from people, it's because we want to have a chance. But it is an ongoing issue. I haven't found anything on offer yet that is better than Prince Edward. Prince Edward is literally 500 yards over the border of this borough and is only 10 to 15 minutes away from our existing ground. You couldn't pick a better location, and it's got good tube coverage as well. So we take that, not Underhill, as our starting point and say what we need to find has got to be better than that. How can it be better than that? First of all, we want a 10,000 capacity stadium. Secondly, we'd like it to be in the borough of Barnet. And thirdly, we'd like it to have transport links that are at least as good, i.e. by having a tube station nearby. So it's a case of trying to balance all of that. When John Prescott was secretary of everything, as he was when we tried to move to Copthall, the biggest driver in all the decisions was public transport links, and it always failed on that. But as I've said before, I'm prepared to find a way to put the cost in to provide the transport links. It's about how you link the stadium to the trains.
If there was a suitable site that I could have tomorrow with planning, I'd take it and I'd build a train line for it. If they give me the planning, I'll even build the train line. I would, no doubt about it; I'd have it going right to the stadium so you come out of the station, buy your food and then watch the match. It's about overcoming all these obstacles, and the sheer cost of them. What a lot of people in this country don't see is that the burden of government paperwork now is so high, and the bureaucratic process is so huge that you don't do anything without it costing at least six noughts. It's crazy. Somehow we've got to cover all these costs, and I can assure you there's no Arab Sheikh looking at us going 'Barnet's the one to have, let's put a few billion in there'.
How close are we to a decision regarding a new stadium?
We're not at all close to a decision at the moment. I haven't got another site for us. I've looked at many, but I haven't found one yet. I've spent 15 years looking for a site in Barnet. If I wanted us to have a home anywhere, I could have done it. Remember we were offered Milton Keynes before Wimbledon were offered it. I turned that down. I don't know if people know this but there was £50 million worth of capital gain put into that stadium; £50 million came from the council to build that facility. £50 million pounds, and I turned that down because I felt Barnet should be in Barnet. I don't know many people who would turn down a gift of £50 million. People think I've got some kind of plan, but if I did I'd have to be the worst businessman on earth, because this plan that I'm supposed to have has, 15 years later, taken all my health and all my money.
What are the chances of us moving to the stadium at PEPF?
Well, we have a ground at Prince Edward. We have a stadium there that is half-built and we have permission to build a league stadium there. But I don't really want Barnet FC to move there. However, I will move the club there absolutely without a shadow of a doubt if we can't resolve this problem. I will look to move us to Prince Edward if I absolutely have to, but it's not on my radar at the moment and it's not my plan. I'd like to finish the stadium there and use if for youth, reserves and ladies' matches, and meanwhile I'd like us to build a nice big home for Barnet FC in the London Borough of Barnet, and it should be at Copthall, by the way. That's what I would like to do; whether I can I don't know. Some people say 'Oh we'll worry about that when we get there' but I don't think they realise how hard it is to get planning permission in London nowadays. You've got to work at least three or four years in advance. It took me three years to get all the planning for Prince Edwards sorted and that was just for a training ground.
What happened to the promised referendum about whether to remain at Underhill or move away?
The talk of a referendum happened around the time we were getting promoted to the Football League. At that time, there was a League rule that said the slope we had wasn't allowable. The rules had already been changed to lower the minimum capacity to 5,500 from 6,000, which meant we were fine on that issue, but we still had a problem with the slope. What I said at the time was that I do not want to lead supporters where they don't want to go. My point was a very simple one: you don't need me if you want to stay at Underhill. Staying here would put you in a position where you can't develop the ground and can't take the club forward. You don't need Tony for that. In that instance I would choose a committee of supporters, put them in charge of the club and just say "Look, just carry on running it. Whatever comes in, you spend. But you don't need me".
I would still do that, by the way. So if if Barnet Council said here's a place to built a great stadium - or Barnet didn't and Harrow said they would let us build a bigger one at Prince Edward - and I felt we should be moving, what I wouldn't do is force it upon everybody. There's no point. If I felt that there was a good body against it I'm not talking about 10 or 20 voices, but if you could see there was a clear dilemma about whether to move - then I'd say have a referendum. And if you don't want to move then fine stay here, but you don't need me. Because I'm a pretty ambitious guy and anything I'm involved with anything, ever, and I've been involved with a lot of businesses everyone will tell you that I want it to grow.
This club has grown significantly. Everything I'm involved with grows because I work bloody hard to make it grow. What am I going to do trying to grow a business when the people its customers, its supporters are not interested in it growing and the authorities won't accept it growing? What am I going to do here? I don't want to walk around Barnet being the Barnet Football Club chairman, saying "What a great guy I am, hello everybody". I'm not like that. I want to do a job. And my job is to grow this club. If I can't do that job, you don't need me here. That was the point of the referendum. I'm not saying we're never going to have referendum, I just don't think we need one at the moment; there's no point in it at the moment.
Have you seen the eco-stadium that Dartford have built, and would this be something you'd be interested in doing at Barnet?
The one with the grass on the roof? I have, and I would hate to do that for Barnet. I'm not saying an eco-stadium isn't a good idea; I just don't like it. The trouble with these schemes is that normally in doing them you have to involve yourself with an agency or other of the government or the council. And what our government and council don't realise is that everyone says 'Run away! Don't go near them because you'll regret it'. They'll pull out form after form after form that you have to fill in, you'll need a team of specialists to work with them, and they will have people with clipboards checking everything. It just isn't worth doing. I'm actually quite a believer in doing stuff like that Dartford have and if I could avoid having anything to do with anyone from the government or council, I would consider it.
If we move to a new stadium, can you confirm that every effort will be made to ensure there will be a terrace there in order to enable the large number of supporters who like to stand to do so?
I am a believer in terracing. I think it is absolutely wrong that people aren't allowed to stand if they want to. But I don't agree with the [Stand Up, Sit Down] campaign and the things the campaign are putting forward. I don't think they are conducting it in the right way. I've spoken to their chairman about it and he has taken on board quite a few of the things I've said. Having said that, though, if we are allowed to have standing supporters then we will gladly have them. But the Football Foundation provides part of the funding for stadiums and they insist on it being all-seater. So there's no point having a moan at me, I'm not the one that makes those rules. If I'm told we can have terracing then we will have terracing.
What is the current relationship between the club and Barnet Council like?
I think it's very good. I've got a lot of respect for the current leader. He constantly says no to me about most of the things I want to do but at least he has a good reason when he says no. I can work with that and I think he respects the fact that we can take no for an answer; we just expect things to be done in a proper way. But he's going to be standing down in order to stand for parliament and I don't know who's going to replace him let's hope it's someone who wants to help the club.
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