Stevenage v Barrow: Football’s back and people are smiling in the sun

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.

Forest Green Rovers and another way

FOOTBALL IS, in many ways, a one dimensional game – its simplicity, its demographic and its popular appeal make it ideal for the masses. Regardless of the number of causes the industry attaches itself to, the essence of football remains entertainment for the people, the creation of loyalty and allegiance and, ultimately, forlorn expectation. Traditionally, we have associated the game with grimy back streets, smoking chimneys, the curled-up collar, the moth-eaten scarf and the crowd, Lowryesque in its composition, marching religiously to the match, using the skeletal floodlights as their marker point.

Beacon

Forest Green Rovers is different, a beacon of modernity that captures the zeitgeist and reminds us there is a totally alternative way to run a football club, a model that could well become the norm should the seas surrounding Britain start to create seaside resorts out of market towns in middle England.

FIFA have named FGR as the “world’s greenest football club” and they’ve also been recognised by the United Nations with a “Momentum for Change” climate action award. They are the world’s first Vegan football club, a stance that would seem at odds with the game’s historic status, but is nevertheless more than just a curiosity. This is not a gimmick, or a passing trend, FGR have become a sporting standard bearer for how the world needs to change its ways.

You know FGR are unique as soon as you arrive at the New Lawn. The first thing you see outside the ground are electric charging points for cars and a sizeable solar panel. Recently, the club announced that its playing kit would be made from bamboo, a sustainable source that produces very agreeable fabrics. There seems to be no part of the club’s operation that does not play to its values and ethos. The advertising at the stadium was all on message, as well, with “Faith in Nature”, the match sponsor, leaving you in no doubt about where FGR are coming from.

The club is powered 100% by renewable energy provided by Ecotricity, the company owned by club chairman Dale Vince (who still runs his Zero Carbonista blog) and the pitch is totally organic. The grass is cut by a solar-powered robot lawnmower and all water is recycled.

The club’s commitment to the eco-life includes its catering, a totally vegan approach that probably raises eyebrows among visiting fans but also removes any chance of hypocrisy. Vegan burgers and sausage rolls seem to roll out of the “Devil’s Kitchen” as fast as any other club catering unit, proving that people are buying into the concept.

Hills and hurdles

At the moment, FGR has the look of a top level non-league club, although their ground is neat, ticks all the boxes and more than meets requirements. It is not especially accessible, hence away fans have to travel by rail to Stroud and then make their way from there. Once in Nailsworth, the steep climb to the ground is more suited for Sherpas, but you cannot fail to be impressed by the sight that meets you once you ascend the hill.

This is FGR’s third season in the Football League. As a non-league club they were part of a unique band of clubs that have reached both the FA Trophy and FA Vase finals ( a list that includes Tamworth, AFC Fylde, North Ferriby). Founded in 1889, their rise to prominence really started in 1998-99 when they made their debut in the Conference. Their initial stint in the top level of non-league lasted six seasons, but they returned in 2012, winning promotion to the league in 2017. In 2018-19, they finished fifth in League Two, losing out in the play-offs to Tranmere.

League two football in itself is an achievement given that Nailsworth has a population of 6,000 and nearby Stroud has 33,000. FGR’s average attendance in their first two campaigns totalled 2,700 although they were down by just under 3% in 2018-19. Given that around 500 away fans can be found at many games, it basically means that FGR can call upon 2,000 locals. Crowds have grown over the past decade – in 2010-11, they averaged 950 at the New Lawn and by the time they won promotion in 2017, the attendances were hitting 1,700. Football League status has added another 1,000 onto their regular gates, which is a significant achievement.

Of course, their home area, the Cotswolds, can scarcely be called a footballing hotbed and you suspect that this will always be a hurdle for the club. This is a part of Britain that comprises farmers’ markets, 4×4 vehicles navigating the lanes, hundreds of acres of National Trust grassland and out-of-sync second homers from London.

With growth in mind and better accessibility, the club has been trying to get planning permission for a new ground which will also take the eco-ethos even further. However, the plan, to construct a 5,000-seat wooden stadium, was rejected by councillers. It would have been sited close to junction 13 of the M5 motorway and as well as being a stunning design, it would also create jobs for the area. Dale Vince’s Ecotricity is already one of the biggest employers locally. He was less than happy at the rejection of the stadium, which was designed by Zaha Hadid the company behind the new national stadium in Tokyo. Vince described the decision as a “farcical moment” and explained that the reasons for the rejection were “tenuous at best”. Vince appears to be confident that the appeal will be successful, so FGR may yet have their Eco Park.

The match

If they get their new ground, FGR may draw bigger crowds. On the opening day of the 2019-20 season, they attracted 2,541 to their first game against Oldham Athletic, who brought along around 500. August 3 seems a very early weekend to get underway and the balmy summer weather certainly seemed to affect the energy levels of the players. It was poor fare, all misplaced passes and hopeful balls. FGR had an early setback when George Williams was badly tackled by Zak Mills and he limped off with what was eventually diagnosed as a broken leg.

The second half was better, with FGR pressuring Oldham and being very generous with their finishing. With 18 minutes remaining, the breakthrough came, a nice ball into the area by Joseph Mills and a spectacular left-foot finish by substitute Taylor Allen, a close season arrival from Nuneaton. The goal was enough to win the points and give the hi-vis zebra-stripes a 1-0 win.

The match aside, which is always a case of “you pays your money and takes your chance”, it is difficult not to be heartily encouraged by Forest Green Rovers. We live in worrying times and climate change, regardless of those in very convenient denial, will become the great challenge for humanity in the years to come. We may need big business and look-the-other-way politicians to grasp the urgency before universal action is taken, but Forest Green Rovers are doing their bit. If other clubs can do likewise, the huge and influential market of football can help to drive positive change. With that in mind, we should perhaps all wish the team in bamboo the very best of luck.

Photos: Game of the People