A rough guide to... Stevenage

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pat Bell

1 August 2016

40-year-old Stevenage have come through a turbulent adolescence and are now settling into middle age.

How are you?

Stevenage are just 40 years old, but what a 40 years. They have risen all the way up the league pyramid to the third flight. They have fought, and lost, a legal battle to take up their place in the League. They survived the questionable practices of an owner who threatened the club with liquidation. They have conceived bitter enmities for Torquay and Newcastle.

Yet this struggle is almost entirely internal. Stevenage are a club that no one outside their corner of Hertfordshire cares about. Stevenage are like a character in a novel by Dostoyevsky, full of passionate, but unobserved, intensity.

What have you been up to?

Stevenage was designated a new town in 1946, but football in the area is older than that, and much older than Stevenage FC. Stevenage Town were formed in 1894. In 1967 they won promotion to the Southern League Premier Division, but folded in 1968. Their successors Stevenage Athletic lasted just eight years.

The current club were formed in 1976 but ran into immediate problems. The council had sold Broadhall Way, the home of both predecessor clubs, to a local developer. He dug a trench across the pitch to stop anyone trying to play football there. Lincoln City immediately applied for a ground-share.

By 1980 Stevenage were back at Broadhall Way and adopted the name Stevenage Borough to mark their senior status in the town. However, the club really took off with the appointment of Paul Fairclough as manager in June 1990. Over the next six seasons, they won four league titles to rise through the Isthmian League, becoming Conference champions in 1996.

The Football League denied Stevenage promotion because they had missed a deadline for increasing the capacity at Broadhall Way. Stevenage took the Football League to court, arguing the ruling amounted to a restraint of trade. The judge appeared inclined to accept their arguments.

Then Torquay, the club whose status the Football League had saved, produced recordings they had taken of discussions with the Stevenage board earlier in the season. Stevenage's title challenge was being fired by goals from Barry Hayles, the subject of a transfer bid from Fulham. Stevenage owner Victor Green had suggested that it was in Torquay's interests that Stevenage win the Conference as their nearest rivals, Woking, had a ground that did meet League standards. Therefore Torquay should pay Stevenage to not sell Hayles. For a club trying to make a case based on fair play, this revelation was a decisive blow. Stevenage's case was thrown out.

Stevenage managed to retain largely the same squad for the next season, but an era was coming to an end. Hayles was sold to Bristol Rovers for £250,000. That, coupled with a series of successful cup runs should have meant the coffers were healthy. It was therefore something of a shock when Green announced he would shut the club down unless a buyer could be found. Phil Wallace came forward and has owned Stevenage ever since.

The next decade was one of retrenchment, but Stevenage remained a force in non-League football. They appeared in four FA Trophy finals, winning it twice, once in the first competitive fixture at the new Wembley Stadium. They were beaten Trophy finalists in 2009-10 but got ample compensation later that season as Stevenage won the Conference with two games to spare.

This time there was no hitch; they were allowed to take up their place in the Football League. Unfortunately for some. With Grimsby going the other way, Stevenage are the only club in the 92 against whom we have never played a competitive fixture.

For Stevenage (they celebrated gaining League status by dropping the "Borough" from their name), promotions come in clumps. In 2011, they got their revenge on Torquay, beating them in the play-off final. They even came close to a third consecutive promotion up to the second flight, losing in the play-off semi-finals in 2012.

That was as good as it got. After struggling to 18th in 2012-13, they finished bottom of the third flight in 2014. They almost bounced straight back up, beaten after extra time of the play-off semi-finals by Southend.

What kind of a season did you have?

In May 2015, Stevenage became the latest club to play host to the reality TV show "I used to play for England: of course I can manage a football team." Previous episodes you will recall included Tony Adams taking Wycombe down to the fourth flight, confessing in a national newspaper his inability to communicate with lower league players. In a follow-up, he managed Portsmouth for 16 largely winless games. After that, he announced he'd never take on another club unless the set-up was already exactly as he wanted it to be.

One or two managers in the series, like Bryan Robson, are allowed to start near the top and fail slowly. Others pay lip service to serving their apprenticeship in the lower divisions. A winning streak at Macclesfield projected Paul Ince to a job at well-resourced Bastard Franchise Scum, and from there, the chance to fail in the Premier League.

Notwithstanding this dismal record, Stevenage chose to dispense with Graham Westley – the man who in an earlier spell had taken Stevenage into the League – and replace him with Teddy Sheringham. Vowing to improve on Westley's play-off failure, the former Tottenham, Manchester United and England star led Stevenage to just three wins by the end of October. 

To be fair, Sheringham was working with a reduced budget and a smaller squad, tested further by injuries. Nevertheless, in the context of a battle for League survival, Sheringham's quotes that he was "learning on the job" came to look less like modesty, more like a plea for mercy. Sheringham re-registered as a player, a classic trope in the ex-star's management armoury.

The squad was bolstered with a welter of loan signings. Results improved. Briefly. A winless January ended with a trip to relegation rivals York for what Sheringham described as a "must-not-lose" game. They lost. The board drew the logical conclusion.

The new manager, Darren Sarll, is a complete contrast to Sheringham. Few people outside Stevenage have heard of him, his playing career having peaked in the Conference South. He had youth and player development roles at Brentford and Rotherham before returning to Stevenage and rising through the ranks: youth team coach, first team coach, caretaker manager, manager.

There was no immediate improvement in results under Sarll. Successive wins against Hartlepool and Cambridge gave way to a five-match losing streak. However, just one defeat in the last eight games of the season took Stevenage to 18th, with a relatively comfortable 14-point gap above the relegation places.

How are you feeling?

Cautious expectation was the watchword for Stevenage when the season began. That is founded on a little more than just Teddy Sheringham no longer being at the club. Sarll was busy during the close season. Among several permanent signings, he brought 34-year-old Jamaica international Jobi McAnuff to Broadhall Way. He's also made two loan signings: Shaun Donellan from West Brom and Connor Hunte from Wolves.

Despite an opening-day defeat by Crewe, the grounds for optimism remain. In the League Cup, Stevenage beat Ipswich at Portman Road, although Stoke beat them 4-0 in the next round. Stevenage have recorded their first league win of the season through a goal in the sixth minute of injury time against neighbours Luton. If there's a rivalry between Stevenage and Luton, I suspect it's one of those embarrassing one-way ones. I lived in Luton for a few months. I heard Watford cursed frequently. Stevenage were never mentioned.

Stevenage has a population of about 80,000 and even on the opening day of the season could only attract a gate of 2,544. Realistically, their chances of promotion will depend heavily on the willingness of Wallace or someone to inject funds. But another lower- to mid-table finish is well within their compass.

Where are you from?

"A place I call home," says the most famous son of Stevenage, formula one champion Lewis Hamilton. "I am so blessed to live in such an incredible place." Unfortunately though, Hamilton is talking about Monte Carlo – more yachts, lower taxes.

Punk-poet John Cooper Clarke briefly lived in Stevenage. His hopes of finding a steady job writing copy for the local tourist information centre foundered at his first effort, Evidently Chickentown: "The bloody view is bloody vile for bloody miles and bloody miles".

For a new town, Stevenage is old. It has Romano-British remains and an entry in the Domesday Book. Stevenage is Old English for "place of the stiff oak".

When local government minister Lewis Silkin designated the area for expansion in 1946, his plans did not meet with universal approval. On visiting the area, he was greeted with road signs doctored to read "Silkingrad". EM Forster, noted for his subtle novels of middle-class life, was raised in Stevenage. The new town, he wrote with characteristic restraint, would "fall out of the blue sky like a meteorite upon the ancient and delicate scenery of Hertfordshire".

You must be delighted to be meeting a team in black and white stripes?

In 1997-98, Stevenage reached the fourth round of the FA Cup and were drawn to play Newcastle at Broadhall Way. With the issues around the ground still fresh in everyone's minds from the 1996 court case, Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish cited safety concerns to argue, unsuccessfully, for the tie to be switched to St James's Park.

Suddenly, the tie became something of a grudge match. Even more so when, after Alan Shearer had given Newcastle an early lead, Stevenage had two goals disallowed. Eventually Giuliano Grazioli equalised, and Newcastle had their wish: a home tie.

In the replay, Newcastle again took an early lead through Shearer. If you want to make friends on Saturday, tell a Stevenage fan about Justin Whittle. If you want to pick an argument, tell them Shearer's header definitely crossed the line. Shearer scored again, and Stevenage went down 2-1.

Don't waste too much sympathy on Stevenage. They were still under the ownership of Victor Green. For the home tie, he had quadrupled ticket prices, claiming this would address Newcastle's safety concerns.

There was then a certain sense of squaring the circle when Newcastle were again drawn to play at Stevenage in the third round of the FA Cup in 2011. Green was history and Stevenage were finally in the Football League. Two wrongs had been righted. Now they made it a third; Newcastle were beaten 3-1.

The cropped front page image of Broadhall Way is © Peter Garner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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