New town euphoria: Stevenage win promotion

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.

The Premier League new boys – how long does the honeymoon last?

THE New season is well underway and the teams that won promotion to the Premier League at the end of 2021-22 have experienced mixed results. Taking the history of the competition as a benchmark, there is a good chance one or two promoted clubs will suffer relegation in their first campaign back in the top flight. In the last four seasons, seven of the 12 clubs have gone down immediately, in 2022 it was Norwich City and Watford. The other new boys, Brentford, finished 13th and won many friends for their approach and attitude.

Staying the course is hard for the new boys, but if they can survive in year one, they will have benefitted from the financial rewards of Premier League membership and be in a better position in year two. In 2019-20, for example, Fulham, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion were all promoted. All three clubs generated turnover of between £ 53 to £ 58 million. Their wage bills were unsustainable, with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion paying out 125% of income and Leeds a very concerning 144%. This scenario is not unusual by any means, but having pushed the boat out to reach the Premier, wages went even higher in 2020-21 for the three clubs, but given the significant rise in income, less of a burden. However, for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, the jump from Championship to Premier proved too much once more.  Fulham’s revenues totalled £ 116 million, but this was still way below the level of even mid-table clubs like Everton (£ 193m), Aston Villa (£171m) and Newcastle (£ 140m). Given that Leeds are a bigger club in terms of support than their two promotion partners, it was no surprise their income was as high as £ 171 million. Fulham, who have been going through a yo-yo existence for the past five years, returned to the Premier in 2022-23, hoping they finally acclimatise in the right way.

The average lifespan of a promoted club is 3.8 seasons – 14 clubs in the Premier constitution have been promoted to the league at some point.

Nottingham Forest’s return to the Premier League will be welcomed by many but they may find life a lot more challenging since 1999 when they were last in the division. When Forest were relegated, their turnover amounted to £ 17 million, just one million lower than they generated in 2020-21. This certainly emphasises the difference between life in the Premier and a place in the Championship. Conversely, while wages in 1999 were £ 11.8 million, Forest were paying more than double their revenues to their squad in 2020-21. Forest do have good support and they appear to have a very promising coach in Steve Cooper, but will they invest the money they will receive in 2022-23 wisely? They have spent heavily in the summer, more than £ 100 million, and their outlay is higher than Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle United (source: Transfermarkt). Their new signings include Jesse Lingard, a free from Manchester United, Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi for £ 18.5 million and Neco Williams from Liverpool for £ 18 million. Awoniyi scored for Forest against West Ham to record their first victory of the season.

Forest’s eagerness to bolster their squad does highlight that clubs are well aware they have to strengthen rather than rely on the players that won promotion. But it has to be executed sensibly. In 2018, Fulham acquired almost a new squad and it was clear they hadn’t done their homework particularly well. They plummeted like a stone in the Premier in 2018-19, much of their squad assembled using the so-called moneyball strategy. However, they are back again with a decent group of players that may just hold their own after three promotions and two relegations in five seasons. Fulham cannot be accused of not giving their fans a roller-coaster ride in recent seasons and for six years, they have moved from division to division. They have generous ownership which has enabled them to pay top wages when they were in the Championship, but there may be more expectation this year after continued investment on and off the pitch.

Fulham have been fairly aggressive in the transfer market over the past five seasons. Between 2018-19 and 2022-23, their net spend has been the 10th highest in English football at £ 188 million. On a gross basis, they have spent £ 242 million. Much of their hopes rest on striker Aleksandar Mitrović, who has disappointed in his previous Premier campaigns. In his last two Championship seasons, Mitro has netted 69 goals in 84 matches, but in 2020-21, Fulham’s previous Premier outing, he scored just three times in 27 goals. If nothing else, he has a point to prove and at 27, he should be at his peak. He’s started the season well. Fulham sold a couple of players, notably Fabio Carvalho to Liverpool, but they’ve also acquired João Palhinha from Sporting Lisbon (£ 20m) and West Ham’s Issa Diop (£ 17.8m).

AFC Bournemouth’s past labelled them as a small entity, but they are also a progressive club and before relegation in 2020, they had spent five years in the Premier League. The sceptics didn’t really expect them to return in a hurry, but they are back. Prior to promotion in 2015, Bournemouth’s turnover was a mere £ 12.9 million, but by 2017, this had jumped to £ 136.5 million. During their first Premier stint, Bournemouth’s wages also climbed dramatically from £ 29.6 million in 2015 to £ 111 million in 2019. Relegation meant the club had to regroup and as income fell to £ 72 million, wages also halved. In 2020-21, after four years of losses, Bournemouth made a profit of close to £ 17 million. While winning promotion was credible, Bournemouth face a challenge to compete at a higher level and there are question marks about their ability to survive. Their owner, Maxim Demin is a Russian-born businessman and a UK citizen, hence he was not sanctioned by the British government like others. Bournemouth spent around £ 27 million ahead of 2022-23 on two players, £ 15 million on Feyenoord’s Marcos Senesi and £ 11.9 million on Marcus Tavernier of Middlesbrough.

Since the Premier League was inaugurated in 1992, the average lifespan of a promotion club is 3.8 seasons. Fourteen of the current 20 clubs have won promotion at some point (just six are ever-presents – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) and the current longest run is Manchester City, who have spent 21 seasons in the Premier since returning. West Ham and Southampton are in their 11th season, while Crystal Palace are on 10.

Whatever happens to the new boys, some clubs, such as Fulham, Bournemouth and in past seasons, Watford and Norwich, have shown they are resilient after relegation and bounced back. Obviously helped by parachute payments to some extent, it also shows that with determination and focus, relegation can be dealt with.