STEVENAGE have started the 2022-23 season with two victories, sparking hope that they won’t face a struggle to stay in the Football League as they have over the past two years. They scrambled to a 2-1 win against Stockport County in their first home game of the season, coming from a goal down. Whatever happens, Stevenage have shown that clubs from the post-war new town programme can provide a good class of football for the local population.
Stevenage are not alone – Crawley Town are also members of the Football League, albeit the lowest division. Neither are what you might call “traditional” clubs, although football in Stevenage dates back to 1894 and Crawley 1896. When the game was in its infancy as an organised sport, they were merely amateur concerns in the south of England, unable to be truly competitive with the rise of industrial football. Most of the people around these clubs would have been from agriculture rather than pits and iron works.
In 1801, Stevenage had a population of 1,400 people. At the start of the 21st century, 80,000 lived in Britain’s first WW2 new town. Crawley now has a population of 112,000. From a football perspective, this duo, along with a cluster of similarly constructed new towns, are bigger than Shrewsbury, Fleetwood, Crewe and Morecambe.
For a long time, Stevenage was seen as a town ripe for the Football League. A big working class population, eager football fans, a relatively vibrant economy and good infrastructure links, it seemed to have all the credentials to make a success of league football. For many years, it didn’t have a stable football club that could carry the Stevenage banner into the 92 – the first club from the town perished, the second, Stevenage Athletic was formed in 1968 and the current club, which started life as Stevenage Borough, was founded in 1976.
The new club, playing at the council-owned Broadhall Way, started to gain true momentum in the early 1990s, winning non-league after non-league under the charismatic Paul Fairclough. Stevenage’s ground wasn’t up to league standards when they won the Conference in 1996, but they still protested when they were denied promotion. This didn’t make them very popular and neither did the upstartish behaviour when they faced footballing royalty, Newcastle United and Kenny Dalglish, in 1998 in a much-publicised FA Cup tie.
In the years that followed, it seemed as though the fire had gone out in Stevenage, but in 2010, they won promotion to the Football League. The “plastic cockneys” had arrived in the big time.
Stevenage, the club, was given that nickname by its rivals in the Conference. People often deride new towns and their residents, largely because they were once seen as refugees from London, bringing their “London ways” to rural locations. “Stevenage is the sort of place where you look out of your window and look across to the next block of little houses and see someone doing exactly the same. Street after street of identical houses, very little distinction between estates, roads and houses. The uniformity drives you crazy,” was how one journalist, born in Stevenage, described his home town some years ago. It implies a certain dullness rather than the more recent comment by Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton, who rather foolishly in this age of over-sensitivity, said he had escaped the “slums” of Stevenage to seek a new and more glitzy life.
Surrounding towns and villages look suspiciously at places like Stevenage and other new towns like Basildon, Harlow and Hemel Hempstead. Part of this is the “little England” mentality of those who want to preserve their cosy surroundings, but it is also something to do with the way people still use the Victorian era as their reference point of how the perfect town or village should look. Indeed, there has always seemed to be genuine fear in surrounding towns that Stevenage might be creeping towards them, threatening their market town existence and lowering the tone. There was also uproar when it was suggested that children from Stevenage might actually be admitted to their local schools. In modern Britain, “nimbyism” is rife.
Towns like Stevenage have football fans by the truckload, however, but all too often the allegiance is divided among the London clubs or Manchester United and Liverpool. This is not unsurprising given that these towns are relatively close to London and many of the original population moved to Essex and Hertfordshire from the capital, notably the bombed-out east end. Given that supporting a football club is often passed down the generations, it has been very hard for new town clubs to make an impact with fans that are more likely to take a relatively short train ride to Arsenal, Tottenham or Chelsea rather than watch non-league football at a low level.
Therefore, anyone expecting new town clubs to thrive in a relatively short time-frame was mistaken. To shrug aside life-long obsessions would take time and possibly the passing of a generation or two. The new town project, the product of Clement Atlee’s Labour government in the early post-war years, created Stevenage (28 miles from London), Crawley (28), Harlow (30), Basildon (26), Hemel Hempstead (24) and Bracknell (34) among others.
While cynics suggested that new town clubs had no future and the “supporters” were fickle and likely to desert the local “Town” at the first sign of failure, what was really needed was a vision and a degree of patience. Stevenage’s local council saw the value of what a football team could do for the image of a new town and gave it the sort of backing that local authorities can really get away with – football on the rates is all very well, but when fewer than 1% of a town are really interested, a football club rarely ticks the box of “community”.
But if time was needed to embed a club into the psyche of new town people, Stevenage achieved it, taking more than 60 years to take the Football League to north Hertfordshire. A year later, Crawley, who had barely entered the consciousness of football fans around the UK, became the second new town club to make the league.
In some ways, it is a mystery that others have not been able to reach the holy grail, although if another was to breakthrough, it could be Hemel Hempstead. Basildon, a town with a population of 107,000 and the demography, has remained something of an under-achiever. Being just 26 miles from London, Basildon was close to West Ham’s Upton Park and is even closer to Southend United, but it has struggled to create a half-successful non-league club.
Could another Stevenage or Crawley really emerge? It is surely harder than it was 40 years ago to create and build a non-league club to the point where they can compete at a level beyond step three or four in the non-league pyramid. It is not just about finance, it is also something to do with contemporary attention spans. People have to be convinced that something is worthwhile at an early stage of its development. They are also attracted to “shiny” things – just look at how the razamataz of Billericay Town attracted big crowds early on, drawn to the chutzpah of the club’s owner and the ethos of “it’s great because I say so.”
New town clubs have their place as part of the community and perhaps that’s enough for most of them. The new town concept has its champion clubs and they are clearly Stevenage and Crawley. The former is really the leader in this context – it was the first new town and it has persevered to give the town once known as “Silkingrad” (after Lewis Silkin, the minister of planning at the time of the project’s launch), almost a decade of league football, some glamorous cup ties and a few trips to Wembley. New town football has, eventually, proved to be successful.