Right now, fans of both non-league and Football League clubs are probably gloating about Stevenage’s relegation to League Two. They’ve never been a popular club, mostly the symptom of the old green-eyed monster, but that didn’t stop them ploughing a furrow through non-league football and into the Football League.
On the evidence of the past two seasons, the club has plateaued. Not since 1988 have Stevenage fans experienced the agony of relegation. In between, they have won promotion five times, clinched two Conference titles, become FA Cup giant-killers, played host to the likes of Newcastle, Tottenham and Everton, and sold players up the ladder (George Boyd at Hull is a good example). It’s a great story and although it is unlikely that Stevenage will ever be equipped to move beyond League One, indeed it may be some time before they play at that level again, they are an established Football League club.
Stevenage craved Football League football. They [wrongly] felt they were deprived of the chance in 1996 when their ground didn’t meet the necessary criteria and although they contested the decision, making themselves unpopular in many circles, they didn’t really have a sound case. One person I felt sorry for, however, was Paul Fairclough, who had taken Borough from Isthmian Two North to the Conference in four years. He called the 1995-96 Conference win a “hollow triumph”. While Fairclough had his day with Barnet, Borough lost their way for a while, going through managers like Richard Hill, Steve Wignall, Fairclough (again), Peter Taylor, Mark Stimson and a couple of Graham Westley stints before winning promotion to the Football League in 2010.
It was a town ripe for hosting a Football League club. A population of 80,000-plus many what used to be called “working class” and by definition football lovers, and bang smack on a main railway line. The club’s promotion, though, was really down to two men – Westley and chairman Phil Wallace.
Westley has now had three spells at the club, which begs the question about Stevenage’s imagination when it comes to appointing managers. Initially, his style didn’t go down too well, but when he returned for his successful second sojourn, it was a different Westley that was in charge. He led the promotion to the Football League and then departed for Preston, returning again after Gary Smith’s ill-fated reign.
It was clear last season that the bubble had burst at the Lamex and relegation this time around is not a big surprise. Wallace has already admitted that Stevenage “over-achieved” in getting as far as they had and he’s absolutely right. But it is not the end of the world – talk of dropping straight through to the non-league game is without foundation and purely over-reactionary, even if is being fuelled by wishful thinking others.
But perhaps Stevenage should look around for someone else to lead their bid to return to League One at the first attempt. This is not a club used to failure, so the psychological impact of relegation on the current participants in this drama may be significant. It would be nice to say Stevenage will be back, but a prolonged period of building might be more beneficial in order to cultivate a larger following than they currently have. The 2014-15 season will be a big test for the character of the club.