Languishing in mid-table, Barnet FC have not made a good start to their first season outside the Football League in ten years. Bees bosses are now pinning their hopes on moving to a new ground to rejuvenate the club, writes KEVIN BURCHALL

When Barnet FC spiralled out of the Football League last May, many fans conceded they may never again see their beloved Bees back in league football.

Four months on and the gloom has not lifted. Poor attendances and precarious finances have alerted beleaguered supporters to the fact that a return to league action is far from certain.

To put it simply, Barnet are not just struggling on the pitch they are struggling off it as well. Gates are down on the target the club has set just to stay out of the red.

Star player Darren Currie has been sold to Wycombe Wanderers for £200,000 and Sam Stockley went to Oxford United for £150,000.

Such sales should, in theory, have decisively boosted the club's bank balance but, with the transfers paid in instalments, the club is still some way short of breaking even.

Meanwhile the departure of such high-profile players will have done little to encourage the fans.

The reality is that the club remains open to further sales. With the average attendance at Underhill standing at barely 1,000, much-criticised chairman Tony Kleanthous is in dire straits. Barnet have budgeted for a squad of 18 but the squad stands at 22.

"He [Tony Kleanthous] has got a squad of 22 so he is paying an extra four players' wages," said club spokesman Dennis Signy.

"Barnet need an average crowd of 3,500 and that was the case when they were in the Football League. The club only averaged 2,400 last season but he has allowed for a loss again this year by budgeting for an average of 1,700."

Football is currently booming but a financial report by consultants Deloitte & Touche earlier this year revealed that even Premiership clubs were running at a total loss of £34.5million, due to a 20 per cent rise in players' wages.

While Barnet's players do not command wages in the £100,000-a-week bracket, Tony Kleanthous says wages at the club had increased by two-and-a-half to three times in his seven years at the club.

At the start of this season the club's wage bill was more than the projected income for the whole of this season.

It is a problem faced by many of the division's smaller clubs. Barnet is one of only seven full-time clubs playing in the Conference a sign that the massive revenues generated by television, merchandising and multi-million pound sponsorship deals are failing to trickle to the footballing minnows.

Mr Signy said: "He [Tony Kleanthous] has lost the Worthington Cup, money towards the school of excellence and the chances of Barnet getting through to the third round of the FA Cup have diminished because they have to play qualifying rounds.

"Tony has had to make people redundant and they are still trying to get players out because they need to reduce the squad. He has already turned down £250,000 for two players because they fell short of their valuations."

European legislation is beginning to bite those clubs in the lower echelons as income from transfer fees is set to dry up.

In the future, a limited fee can be charged for players under the age of 23 a factor which is leading Barnet to hang on to its more promising young players.

Last season Mr Kleanthous said the club was losing as much as £500,000 and, as he put it, he is no Mohammed Al Fayed, so something has to give.

The chairman is banking on absent fans making a slow return and getting back behind their club.

"He is hopeful that if the team does well, fans will come back to Underhill. Everybody has said that Barnet fans are always slow coming back but the Football League figures show crowds are up by seven per cent," said Mr Signy.

So where does the solution lie? Tony Kleanthous said after relegation he would stay and put Barnet on an even keel (a thankless task if ever there was one) and last week called for unity between fans.

With Barnet's Underhill site currently not up to Football League standard, the club sees the way forward as a new ground with extra earning potential.

"Tony needs a new ground to increase his commercial capabilities and he wants to provide a community base," said Mr Signy.

This view was echoed by Mr Kleanthous at a meeting with the chairmen of both the club's supporters' associations when he made public the club's hopes of developing to the south of Underhill.

Terry Hufford, chairman of the Official Barnet Supporters Association, is adamant the development south of Underhill should go ahead.

He said: "The idea is to get a stadium with a capacity of 10,000 and I think the chairman is hoping to get some corporate hospitality, a bar and function rooms so that Barnet can be used seven days a week. I think first and foremost the fans are going to need to get on to the council to grant permission so we need to lobby. South Underhill is a must and I think all fans will welcome it," he added.

A new stadium remains a distant goal and if Barnet fans continue to stay away in droves then even the chairman's patience and his financial backing may finally run out.