AS FAR as dream days in football go, it doesn’t come much better than what Graham Stack, the former Hibs goalkeeper, experienced on Saturday as he thrust himself into Barnet folklore.
Languishing in one of League Two’s relegation spots before last weekend’s visit of Wycombe Wanderers, the Bees were in need of a hero if the occasion of their last-ever game at Underhill, their home for the past 107 years, wasn’t going to be tarnished. Anything less than a win would have left them red-hot favourites to drop out of the Football League, despite a remarkable revival under the guidance of illustrious player-manager Edgar Davids.
Right at the end of a nerve-jangling encounter in North London, in which Barnet waited 81 minutes to make they breakthrough, Underhill looked set for a sad farewell as Wycombe were awarded a penalty. The whole ground fell flat, but moments later, the old place was celebrating like never before as Stack threw himself to his right to make potentially one of the most pivotal penalty saves in the club’s history to deny Joel Grant an equaliser. Seconds later, as the full-time whistle sounded, emotional Barnet fans flooded on to the pitch to hail the hero of the hour. For a man recently made club captain, and with his three eldest children, Leila, Gracie and George, enjoying the privilege of being the last-ever match-day mascots at Underhill, while the fourth, 11-week-old Alfie, lay oblivious up in the stand with the rest of Stack’s family and friends, this was the keeper’s ultimate moment on a football pitch.
“That feeling on Saturday was as good as I’ve experienced in football,” said the 31-year-old Londoner, who left Hibs last summer. “It was a really emotional day. It was the last game at a stadium with a lot of history and a lot of memories. My three oldest kids were mascots and I had all my family and friends there. To save a penalty with the last kick of the game, it was fairytale stuff in the end.
“The last ten minutes were a total roller-coaster. I’d been saying to the lads all season that I’d definitely save penalty and it’ll be a big one, so I just hope that’s the one that makes all the difference. It was one of those days your whole career builds towards. Some players might never have days like that in football, but I certainly felt like I had my day there at the weekend. To have a guy like Edgar Davids, one of the biggest names of his generation, walk out on to the pitch with your kids is incredible. We got plenty pictures, so that’ll be lovely to look back on. Alfie was in the stand with my mum and dad and my other kids haven’t stopped talking about it, so was a great occasion for the whole family. It was quickly back down to earth, though. I was at a cheerleading presentation for my two little girls on Saturday night. It was a special day all round. I’ve been sent some amazing pictures of the day.
“A large chunk of the crowd got on the pitch at the end and they were kissing, cuddling and holding me up. I’ve had people after the game and on Twitter and Facebook calling me a hero and a legend. That means so much, especially when it comes from people who have been supporting this club for 50 or 60 years. And then there’s all the people connected with the club; jobs could be at risk if we slip out the Football League, so it was more than just three points at stake on the day.”
Underhill’s last action hero knows his team are still not out of the woods yet. Just a point ahead of second-bottom AFC Wimbledon, who host Fleetwood on Saturday, Barnet still need to win at Northampton to be sure of staying up.
“The weekend was great but at this moment in time we’re still in a dogfight,” added Stack. “If I hadn’t saved the penalty, though, we’d have been sitting in the bottom two needing to beat Northampton and then hope for other results to go our way. The plan was always to ensure we went into the last game with our fate in our own hands. After the first 12 games we only had three points on the board from a possible 36, so we’ve done remarkably well to put ourselves in this position.”
Stack puts Barnet’s remarkable revival down to the arrival of Davids back in October. “Edgar’s record since he came in has been phenomenal,” said Stack. “You can’t fail to be impressed by his methodology, his philosophy and his attitude. The biggest factor for me is his mentality; he’s just a natural winner. He’s driven by success. He’s quite a serious guy, but he lets the boys have a laugh when we’re winning. He’s put his reputation on the line by coming here, but he’s done a remarkable job. There’s been a massive turnaround in fortunes since he came to the club and that can’t just be down to luck; there’s got to be some good coaching or management behind it. He’s been brilliant for me. He made me club captain and gave me a three-and-a-half-year contract extension in January. He’s come out in the press and said I’m a Championship keeper playing in League Two. When someone like Edgar Davids says something like that, it makes you feel good about yourself.”
He’ll feel even better about himself if Barnet can complete their survival mission and then his old club go on to enjoy Scottish Cup final glory next month. Stack won’t make it to Hampden as he will be away on holiday, but, still an avid Hibs fan, he will be back in Edinburgh – a city he is pondering relocating to when he retires – to cheer on Hibs against Hearts at Tynecastle a fortnight on Sunday.
Such is the strength of feelings he retains for his old team, Stack forced his teammates to watch Hibs’ remarkable comeback against Falkirk in the Scottish Cup semi-final a week past Saturday. “Our match at Torquay got waterlogged off when we arrived at the ground so I was straight back on the bus to watch the Hibs game,” he said. “A few of the boys wanted to watch another game, but I said ‘no chance, we’re putting the Hibs game on.’ What a turnaround it was. It was a great game for the boys on the bus.”
GRAHAM STACK hailed fellow former Hibee David Stephens as one of Barnet’s key men this season and insisted it’s only a matter of time before the big defender gets picked up by a bigger club.
Stephens, 21, was brought to Easter Road by John Hughes in 2010, but struggled to establish himself in his two years in Edinburgh before following Stack down to Barnet last summer.
“Denzel’s been outstanding,” said Stack. “Two or three clubs from League One and the Championship have shown an interest in him. He’s certainly well thought of by the fans down here and he’s valued highly by the rest of the lads.
“You could see immediately the potential he had when he came to Hibs, but it’s only now we’re starting to realise just how good he actually is. He’s quick, strong, powerful and very good in the air.
“He had a bit of a hard time up at Hibs, but he was a young, inexperienced lad and sometimes he was criticised quite openly. Young players need encouragement and he’s had that down here. Edgar Davids is a massive believer in him and that’s helped him become a much better player.
“Our player of the year awards are coming up and Denzel without question will be in the mix for that.”