New town football – successful, after all

STEVENAGE and Crawley Town are both 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 21stcentury, 80,000 lived in Britain’s first post-war 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 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 the 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 of the National League South. 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.

Photo: PA

 

New town football – successful, after all

STEVENAGE and Crawley Town are both 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 21stcentury, 80,000 lived in Britain’s first post-war 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 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 the 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 of the National League South. 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, has proved to be successful.

Photo: PA

 

The lure of North v South in the Vase

Happy fans from Marske

THE FA Vase has been dominated by Northern League clubs for the past few years. And there’s a good reason for this – regardless of whether these teams are just simply of a higher quality than the rest of the Vase’s entrants, there’s a feeling at this level of the game that the Northern League belongs to a higher step.

It’s a situation that the FA and the Northern League have created. The league refused to be part of the pyramid for a long time, unable to accept a role as a feeder league to the Conference. They joined the pyramid in 1991 by which time, they had lost their place at the table. Most people consider this was something of a misjudgement on the part of the league. Then, in 1995, the FA effectively “relegated” the Northern League by sending its clubs into the Vase rather than the Trophy.

The league, which has always had a bit of mystique about it, has some fine old names from the non-league game – Bishop Auckland, Crook Town et al – and there can be no doubting the passion of fans from the far north. Given the relatively low attendances, the clubs from this region certainly punch above their weighting.

In this year’s Vase, the Northern League is once more well represented in the latter stages, with both Marske United and Stockton Town making the last four. Invariably, fans from the rest of the country have to scour a map when they’re drawn against a club from the North-East and there will have been many Bracknell Town supporters who headed for Google Maps when they heard the draw for the quarter-finals: Bracknell Town v Marske United.

For the romantic, the opportunity to see an old fashioned South v North clash was too much to overlook – a team from the London commuter belt against a weather-beaten village some 280 miles away. This is what cup – or should we say, Vase – football should be all about: the unknown.

Bracknell became a “new town” after the second world war and now has around 80,000 people. While Bracknell has been called part of the UK’s  so-called “silicon valley”, Marske-by-the-Sea has six pubs, four churches, two railway stations and a population of around 8,000.

Invariably, when a team embarks on a FA Vase run, which can be rather lengthy, it comes at the expense of a bid for their league title. More often than not, teams in the latter stages are way behind on games, although they will nearly always be among the front-runners. Take Bracknell and Marske – Bracknell went into this tie six games in hand on leaders Highworth Town. They may have been 20 points behind, but their form in the Hellenic Premier (unbeaten at home, just four defeats away) suggests they will, should they come through their fixture pile-up without too many injuries and suspensions, have a say in the championship race.

Marske were 11 games in hand on Northern League leaders Morpeth and 24 points behind. Their big disadvantage will be the number of away fixtures they have to fulfil in the closing weeks of the season. It’s not easy being a team on a mission for FA Vase glory.

Bracknell is an hour out of London from Waterloo, but the Marske fans left home very early on Saturday morning. By the time they arrived in town, they were in alcohol-induced high spirits. “Bracknell’s a shit hole, I want to go home…soft southern bastards,” they sang as they perched along the touchline with their flags and drum. By contrast, the Bracknell crowd displayed typical southern reserve, although one or two were showing signs of resentment at the comments being made by Marske’s travelling support. It was all good natured stuff, though.

“Best football’s in the North-East, mate,” said one Marske fan to a group of locals, brandishing a can of lager as he squeezed past. “Oh, yeah, pal…Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough….best football’s in the North-East, we see that every week!.”

By the time kick-off came, there were 1,100 people in the Larges Lane ground with scarcely a vantage point to be had, notably behind the goals, which provided very narrow access. The Bracknell pitch was yet another artificial surface, which merely underlined the growing value of these investments.

Bracknell are the best supported team in the Hellenic Premier with just under 250 people watching them week-in, week-out. But it is a club that has seen better days in terms of status, although the neat, functional ground suggests they are well organised and have a plan. Like many non-league clubs, they have experienced their ups-and-downs, but in the mid-1980s they were playing in Isthmian Division One. Marske, who attract fewer than 200 to their Mount Pleasant home, have won the Northern League just once, in 2015.

Marske looked a more robust outfit than their hosts and early on, Bracknell keeper Chris Grace had to tip over a long-range effort by Glen Butterworth. Marske’s defence looked very solid, with impressive performances from Leon Carling and Adam Wheatley. “They look like proper men at the back,” said one Bracknell fan, watching another attack from his team break down thanks to the head of Wheatley.

Bracknell had a setback in the 10th minute when Jesse Wilson was injured and was replaced by Kensley Maloney (who had “a tireless work ethic” according to the programme), who made a difference from the moment he took the field. They might have taken the lead when TJ Bohane’s shot rolled across the goalmouth after he had carved out an opening. Bracknell also hit the woodwork when full back Dave Hancock’s cross sailed beyond his team-mates and scraped the crossbar. But on the stroke of half-time, Butterworth gave Marske the lead with a low drive.

Bracknell’s managerial duo of Jeff Lamb and Paul McGrotty probably told their team not to concede early on in the second half, but that’s exactly what Bracknell did, a quickly taken free kick finding Curtis Round who produced a nice finish. The Marske players joined their fans in celebration, who now started to realise they were a step closer to Wembley.

The home team was finished and in the final minutes, tired legs started to show as Marske added a third through the busy Danny Earl. Three-nil was a shade flattering, but Bracknell had either frozen or had simply come up against a more accomplished team. It was more the latter.

Marske move on to a two-legged semi-final against their local rivals, Stockton, which means the prospect of an all-Northern League final has gone. Bracknell, meanwhile, have sacked their managers, which shows what a cruel game football can be.