Stevenage – proving that new town football can eventually work

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.

Photo: Alamy

Token gesture – WAGMI and Crawley

CRAWLEY TOWN have entered a hopeful new era, at least that’s what many people believe. On the day they welcomed AFC Barrow to the People’s Pension Stadium, the club was also opening its doors to new ownership in the form of WAGMI United, whose principal figures are a sports gambling analyst and a trader of non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“Hey, what’s up guys?”, said the heavily bearded Preston Johnson, WAGMI’s co-owner, in his introductory and chummy video message on social media. “Go Reds”. This, presumably, is part of the new type of leadership WAGMI (We’re all gonna make it) will bring to English football. “A conventional approach to ownership hasn’t worked,” claimed the new investors in one of the EFL’s most humble clubs. They are not wrong there.

Johnson is also known as Sports Cheetah and is a well known character in the gambling world, while his partner Eben Smith, is a trader of NFTs and was a derivatives expert. There is talk that Belorusian-American businessman Gary Vaynerchuk and YouTube personality Bryce Hall may also be involved. There’s something very “NOW” about this group of individuals.

Crawley struggle to get more than 2,500 people at their neat, functional and ultimately pleasant ground. The town has a population of 107,000 but it was identified as one of the most vulnerable during the height of the pandemic with an astonishing 56% of jobs at some sort of risk. To a certain degree, it is a miracle they have managed to sustain EFL football for 11 seasons, but they have incurred sizeable debts and support has tailed off from their early years in the league.

There’s more than a little unease about the introduction of this type of investment and let’s not forget this is their second attempt at taking over a club, Bradford City were in talks with them a few months ago. They have ticked all the right boxes (doesn’t everyone when they go through the due diligence process?), but NFTS, Crypto, blockchain – these are all part of an unregulated market that has the potential to cause chaos. Furthermore, just 14 years after the financial crisis of 2008, people are starting to dip their toes into murky waters once more. It may be innovative, but reading some of the types of asset being exchanged for NFTs, it does resemble a digital age Emperor’s New Clothes.

With football desperately trying to win credibility in all sorts of ways, attaching itself to good and sometimes debatable causes, virtue signalling at every opportunity, how does a football club really feel about an alignment with gambling and opportunism? And Crawley’s home ground, the People’s Pension Stadium –  how comfortable is the sponsor about backing a club owned by NFT advocates when trust, regulation and security are at the very heart of pension management?

The success of this venture does depend on how the public reacts. There’s no firm evidence that NFTs and football are a sure-fire winner. Liverpool, for example, failed to sell the vast majority of their LFC Heroes, and John Terry’s project saw a volatile drop in value. Dozens of clubs are now entering this field, including Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan as well as players like Tony Kroos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

One question surely has to be the market position of Crawley Town. This is a club with low levels of support (151,000 followers across the three main social media channels) and their attendances rank 91 out of 92. Only Salford City get lower crowds.

That is not to say there are genuine prospects for growth – 107,000 is a sizeable population and being just 28 miles from London and close to Gatwick Airport makes Crawley a significant town. Moreover, they have a relatively young population that may be open to new, untried methods of club ownership. But some fans are wary of their club being used as an experiment that is by no means certain to succeed. Fans will get the chance to purchase NFTs which can be interpreted as giving them some sort of stake in the club. The proceeds can be used to help fund the progress of Crawley Town. That’s a rather simplistic view, of course, but have Crawley got enough fans and enough cachet to make a real difference?

On the evidence of the game with Barrow, there’s a lot of work to be done on the field. Crawley beat a poor visiting side who were desperate for points in their relegation struggle by a single goal. The crowd was just under 2,081 – the new era hasn’t caught the imagination just yet.

Supporter-ownership is a good thing, but will this scheme genuinely lead Crawley down that path? In a market that is generally run inefficiently, there could be a danger Crawley will find their methods will be at a disadvantage compared to the accepted hand-to-mouth system most lower league clubs seem to exist by. WAGMI are looking to challenge the status quo – not a bad thing at all – so it may be a long haul. Have they got the patience given they are looking for promotion in their second season in charge?

It’s a brave move by Crawley Town, but for all the fascination with new forms of finance, there is one big nagging doubt – do we know enough about NFTs and does the football world trust an unregulated product? Football better hope this doesn’t go horribly wrong, the finances of so many clubs are very vulnerable right now and there’s little scope for error.