IT has been a slightly rocky run-in, but Stevenage finally clinched promotion with a four match sequence that brought them three wins. After nine years in League Two, and a three year period where their place in the EFL was seriously under threat, Steve Evans’ remoulded team were in the running all season and showed their character against Grimsby Town in their last home game of the campaign.
Talking of enduring personalities, Evans has always been an easily identifiable figure on the touchline. Going back to his days at Stamford, he was like a jumping bean in the dugout, voiciferous, humorous and just a little confrontational at times. His career as a Football League manager has not been without controversy and he has become something of a journeyman.
Any thoughts that he was yesterday’s man when he arrived at Stevenage have been proved very wrong; the team has been rebuilt with experienced players and of those that played against Grimsby, only three were at the club before the Glasgow-born Evans. The next challenge will be to ensure he has enough youth in his squad when they move up to League One.
There was tremendous expectation at the Lamex stadium for the visit of Grimsby. Stevenage needed to win to secure an automatic promotion place. In recent weeks, when their form dipped and others started to fancy a top three place, Stevenage looked under threat after being in the top two for most of the season. Victory at Swindon Town by 1-0 set them up nicely for one last battle in front of their home crowd. The game was sold out but you could sense the club were a little nervous about the occasion in more ways than one. Result aside, Stevenage were worried about crowd behaviour after having some issues in a recent big game at the Lamex. The body searches may not have been as intense as Wembley, but the queues implied that precautions were clearly being taken. Around 700 Grimsby fans travelled down for the game.
The home supporters were confident of victory and promotion. “We are going up, we are going up,” they chanted almost from the start. But it was not long before they were silenced by early Grimsby pressure, a string of corners adding to the tension. Stevenage actually had a goal disallowed in the second minute from Jamie Reid, but the first half was largely tense and featureless.
It all came alive after the interval and in the 57th minute, a cross by Jordan Roberts was met by a textbook header from Reid and the ball sailed to the bottom corner of the net. The terraced side of the ground visibly shook as the fans celebrated, the roof bouncing with joy. Ten minutes later, it was 2-0 as Luther James-Wildin, who had come on in the 14th minute for the injured Michael Bostwick, steered the ball into the net from the edge of the area. That was enough to calm Stevenage nerves and extinguish any thoughts of a Grimsby comeback.
Stevenage’s success in 2022-23 has largely been built on their home record, the best in League Two with 17 wins from 23 games. They have also scored more goals at home than any of their rivals (40) and only two teams (Orient and Stockport) have conceded fewer at home than Stevenage’s 16. Away form, however, has been hampered by 11 draws on their travels.
Are Stevenage better equipped for League One than they were before? That is a question fans will be asking as the club enjoys this landmark moment. Given they won promotion to League One in their first ever Football League season, there was an obvious lack of experience. They went back down in 2014 after reaching the play-offs in 2012 – it was all a little meteoric. But they have had nine years to take stock and they will certainly know what to expect.
Perhaps the club can attract more fans to help them along their way – the 6,500 that attended the Grimsby game created a genuinely electric atmosphere at the Lamex. Stevenage’s last three-year spell in League One drew an average of 3,000 – a town of 90,000 people should be able to better that figure as the 2022-23 average of 3,700 demonstrated. In this age of inflated football ticket prices, League One football at Stevenage could represent very good value.