IT WAS fitting that the sun shone on the opening day of the football season as clubs up and down the country welcomed fans back to their grounds. The familiar rituals of matchday may have been disrupted over the past 18 months, but the spectators soon slipped back into old habits – abusing the opposition, berating the referee, celebrating with gay abandon. In Stevenage, a club that has now shed almost all of the remnants of its non-league past, they played host to Barrow, whose followers had a 530-mile round trip to see their heroes.
Stevenage have now been members of the English Football League since 2010, the 2021-22 season will be their 12th at that level. Towns like Stevenage are tailor-made for league football, but they have to overcome the hurdle of being close to London and the even more significant obstacle of legacy. When the new towns were built after the second world war, they acted as a filtering system of the inner-city population. Londoners moved to Basildon, Harlow and Stevenage and they took with them family links to the likes of West Ham, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal, among other clubs. Establishing a new generation of supporters takes time but Stevenage seem to have achieved that. When you see fans with their colours on neighbouring railway stations, you know you’ve made progress.
The presence of EFL football in a town means something, not just in footballing terms, but in putting a pointer on the map. For example, who would have heard of Scunthorpe, Mansfield, Sutton or Walsall if it were not for their football clubs? Stevenage is well known because of three things – it’s a stopping point for what we used to call Inter-City trains, it’s a new town and they have a football team. Of course, there’s plenty of other reasons for knowing about Stevenage, but for most people, these are the dominant indicators.
Since becoming an EFL club, Stevenage have rubbed shoulders with some big names. They achieved infamy in 1998 as a Conference club when they faced Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle United, but since then, they have met the Geordies again and beaten them, and also come up against Tottenham, Everton, Stoke, Millwall, Norwich, Southampton, Swansea, Hull and Reading.
It is fair to say Stevenage are now an established EFL club, but life can be a bit of a struggle. The pond they paddle in is far bigger than non-league, so their attendances are always at the bottom end of League Two. In fact, Stevenage could attract more people in their non-league heyday, although today, crowds are about the same as they were in 1996-97. Their stadium is an excellent example of a small, neat and uniform ground, with a modest but adequate capacity. The latest development, the north stand, offers a comfortable view of the action.
The Stevenage public have missed live action and there was something of a big reunion going on around the ground. “We all look older,” one woman declared when reacquainting herself with other Lamex regulars who had put their Stevenage shirts in cold storage for the best part of 18 months.
With player turnover high at the lower end of the EFL, there were a number of new faces in the Stevenage line-up. Jake Reeves (Notts County), Jake Taylor (Exeter City) and Jamie Reid (Mansfield) were all snapped-up on free transfers, while goalkeeper Joseph Anang, arrived on a season-long loan from West Ham. Barrow, who had finished just five points clear of relegation in 2020-21, also had a cluster of new faces, including goalkeeper Paul Farman (Carlisle), Joe Grayson (Blackburn), Mark Ellis (Tranmere), Josh Gordon (Walsall) and Remeao Hutton (Birmingham).
The game itself was lively, rarely dull, but short on real quality and long on yellow cards (10 in total). Stevenage did enough to deserve the points, scoring a well-crafted goal in the 48th minute, Reid dashing to the byline, crossing low and Reeves arrived to sweep the ball into the net. Reid almost added a second later but Farman, who played for Stevenage between 2018 and 2020, pulled off a good save.
Victory, however narrow, was a satisfactory start for Stevenage, but for Barrow, it was a long way to come for no reward. For the interested observer, it was good – and a little strange – to see a stadium with fans enjoying themselves in the right way. It’s back!
Note to Stevenage: Turn down the PA please – if football is a human league, let’s hear the sound of the crowd, that’s what we’ve been longing for.