A month ago at the Hive a lesson was provided about the importance of remaining earnest. Graham Stack’s footballing career is stuffed with fascinating stories and memories, but in a pocket of north London as a season was being defined by 90 minutes the former Republic of Ireland under 21 international stayed ice cool.
Barnet were dominant against Gateshead, but when the visitors eventually created a potentially game altering chance Stack was crafty enough to get down low turning the ball away from danger. It was a remarkable save to prevent Carl Finnigan’s header crossing the line. Not long after the Barnet celebration party was well and truly started.
“We were delighted with the way the season finished,” Stack told The Irish Post about Barnet’s welcome return to the Football League. “It was a long 10 months from the first day of pre-season, but I suppose it was worth it in the end. We had a goal set. Promotion was our priority, but to win the title was brilliant.
“Our main target as a club was to get back into the Football League. That is what we intended to do, but last summer we knew that the Conference is a very tough and competitive league. I think the way we finished the season showed that we were worthy winners.”
So Martin Allen, as animated and passionate as ever on the touchline, had accomplished one mission. Now another demanding challenge looms, but Stack is adamant Barnet can make an impact in League Two.
“The gaffer is very hands on and he will be trying his best to recruit players that will fit in here,” Stack says. “The gaffer has full belief in the squad we’ve got already, and he will be doing his best to retain the core of the squad. We certainly feel as if we can do well in League Two.
“Obviously every summer you know there is a possibility of a few changes, but we definitely feel that we can compete. The young players in our squad now have one more year experience gained. They will be physically and mentally stronger too having achieved some success.
“Luton won the Conference at a canter and they weren’t out of place at all in League Two. They nearly got a play/off place, they were a little unlucky not to. That gives us encouragement, there is no reason why we cannot do something similar next season.”
With a year remaining on his deal at Barnet Stack is delighted to have forged a positive relationship with Allen explaining that a career in coaching interests him. “I had a conversation with Martin Allen at the start of the season and I worked closely with him during the year. We went through different ideas I had for training and regarding the team and watching games.
“As much as I’ve been involved in the coaching set up I still feel I have plenty to offer playing too. Still it has been a great experience for me to work closely with the manager meeting him after training. I’ve definitely learned a lot which is important for me as I’d like to stay involved in coaching and management in the longer term.
“I’m completing my A licence at the end of the month at St George’s Park, and I’m trying to make progress in that aspect of my career. Throughout the years I’ve seen a lot at different clubs I’ve been involved with.”
That is certainly the case because the education received at Arsenal when Stack was part of an ‘Invincible’ squad gave him a sweet taste of the game at the highest level. “Arsenal are a fantastic club and they’ll always have a piece of my heart,” Stack admits.
“I’ve a lot of love for Arsenal having spent 14 years there. The way I look at it with Arsenal is it is like sending your kids to the best school and university – it sets you up for the rest of your career because you learn so much off the best.
“I had success at Youth level with Arsenal in the Youth Cup and I played all the way through a Carling Cup to the semi-final too. It was incredible to be part of around 40 games in the ‘Invincibles’ run.
“There were other nights in the Champions League away to Inter Milan and Celta Vigo. I’ll never forget those and to have been involved in the squad for eight or nine big Champions League matches was an unbelievable experience. I probably only truly appreciate it now when I reflect back.
It was always going to be extremely difficult to break into that Arsenal side when you had world class goalkeepers like David Seaman and Jens Lehmann there. I learned a lot and it is only on reflection you realise how good it was.
“It is odd because your career goes past you before it sinks in. The memories I have are brilliant and to have been in the company with genuine greats of the game like Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry I look back with a lot of satisfaction.”
In the salad years of the 70s when Liam Brady was flaring to prominence Arsenal had serious Irish connections.
When Stack was a youngster Don Givens was also on the staff and both had a positive impact on Stack, who earned seven caps at under 21 level for Ireland. Stack was also included in the senior squad, but never made an appearance. “I absolutely loved being involved with Ireland; it was very pleasing for me,” Stack, proudly recalls.
Stack’s mother hails from Glenamaddy where many great Galwegians have emerged from throughout the decades. “I look back now with fond memories of my time playing for Ireland.
“I can remember playing in the Toulon tournament. I played against Austria and Germany, there was a great togetherness in the Irish set-up. I really liked that and the manager Don Givens was good for me in my career.
“When I was involved with Ireland we always felt we were capable of getting a result, even though I remember bad results like losing in Albania too.
“Don was under 19s manager and Liam Brady was Head of Youth so there was a real Irish connection at Arsenal when I was a youngster there. It was ideal for me and you could see the progress the club was making at the time.”
That was the start of Stack’s playing days. Now as the end drifts closer Stack continues to possess a drive and desire to succeed. “I feel I have a lot to offer as a coach. With the ideas I’ve taken from others and the philosophy I have about football I really feel I can make an impact.
“I played under good managers like Steve Coppell and Mick McCarthy, who is still doing really well. They’ve proven they know what it takes to earn promotions.
“Dennis Wise too he got Millwall to an FA Cup final, and Martin Allen of course, who has won the Conference and League Two. That isn’t easy.
“Of course I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked under Arsene Wenger too. They were fantastic managers to take pieces of advice and information from. I feel that is what I have done and I want to put my own ideas into practice at some stage.”