Stevenage and Oldham live up to their billing

IN THE scheme of things, the battle to stay in the Football League is relatively unimportant compared to other events around the world, but an air of definite tension hung over Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium on the day the 90th and 91st-placed teams met in what could only be labelled an elimination bout.

It had reached a crucial stage of 2021-22 for both teams, who seemed hell bent on falling through the trapdoor. Oldham may beaten Leyton Orient a few days earlier and Stevenage might have be hoping for a late boost from the appointment of their third manager of the campaign, but both seemed in freefall. That Oldham – who also changed their coach in January, John Sheridan replacing Keith Curle – were still in with a shout was partly due to the poor form and slump of Stevenage, but the relegation battle had crystallised into any one of three to accompany Scunthorpe United. Barrow, who only returned to the league after a long absence in 2020, have evolved into candidates for a National League return.

Relegation for Stevenage would be a bitter pill to swallow after 12 years in the EFL. They’ve had some great moments in that period, winning promotion to League One in their first season and enjoying cup ties against Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Leicester City, Hull City, Southampton and Swansea City, among others. They ended their non-league life with two FA Trophy victories in 2007 and 2009 and were runners-up in 2010. It’s a town that’s always been tailor-made for league football, but since relegation back to League Two, support looks to have plateaued and in 2021-22, gates had been 5% lower than before the pandemic.

Phil Wallace has owned the club since the late 1990s and provided the impetus to take Stevenage into the league, the most recent improvement to the excellent Lamex Stadium being the North Stand, which offers a superb view for spectators. From time to time there are rumours Wallace wants to sell Stevenage and there were suggestions of a tie-up between the club and a group of cryptocurrency investors in 2021.

Wallace, allegedly the 35th richest person in Hertfordshire, would surely not want to end his reign at Stevenage with relegation, but the club’s on-pitch performances have declined in recent years and the manager’s role has become one of the least secure in football – they have had 10 full-time appointments in 12 years, hardly a recipe for stability.

Oldham Athletic were in the first Premier League in 1992-93 and spent two seasons at that level before falling into the second (1994) and third (1997) tiers. In 2018, they were relegated to League Two and have finished in 19th and 18th in the last seasons respectively. Just ahead of visiting Stevenage, Oldham published their accounts and they didn’t make for good reading. Football finance guru Kieran Maguire of the Price of Football, suggested the latest figures showed the club is “technically insolvent” as it has more liabilities than assets. 

However, Maguire added there is no sign of the club going into administration, but the accounts demonstrated a hand-to-mouth existence. Oldham, like many clubs, owe a lot of money, so relegation from the EFL would surely be a blow to their financial position.

Oldham fans turned out in force at Stevenage and their vocal support was very impressive. Conversely, there was an air of despondency among the home fans, who had not seen their team win since a league game the end of January. Their last away victory was recorded on August 14 at Bristol Rovers. Oldham had just ended a run of six consecutive league defeats when they beat Leyton Orient on March 29. Their home form has really been their undoing and their recent run included three successive defeats at Boundary Park. 

The general feeling was the losers of the game at the Lamex may well be heading into non-league football. Time was certainly running out for both, but Stevenage appeared to have the easier run-in, with games against Rochdale, Colchester, Scunthorpe and Carlisle. Stevenage’s biggest problem was scoring goals, just 34 in the 38 games before the Oldham clash and just six in the last 10.

With so much at stake, it was no surprise tension got the better of things for long periods. Stevenage had two early efforts, but their finishing explained why they had found scoring such a chore. Luke Norris and Arthur Read should certainly have done better when presented with close range opportunities. 

Oldham took the lead after 16 minutes with a nicely taken goal. Jordan Clarke’s cross to the far post was met by a looping header from Jamie Hopcutt, who had been recalled to the team by Sheridan. The Oldham keeper, Danny Rogers, danced with joy as the ball sailed over Christy Pym, his opposite number.

Stevenage nervously pressed, but their lack of firepower was exposed repeatedly, notably in the frenetic finale which almost brought the equaliser. Oldham’s defence held out, frustrating the home team and their unhappy supporters. It was a great rearguard action, although it didn’t make for compelling entertainment. It didn’t really matter to the majority of the fans, the result was the most important aspect of the afternoon, and Oldham got precisely what they came for. While the Latics travelling support enjoyed the moment as if they had won major silverware, the noise from the long Stevenage terrace was akin to mumbled jeering.

It is possible both of these teams will avoid relegation, but at present, Stevenage are in the drop zone. The situation will change game-by-game, but Oldham’s win, however ugly, has given them a three-point lead over Stevenage. They also have a better goal difference, which is worth another point. And then there’s Barrow, who are level with Oldham and have an eight-goal advantage. Stevenage manager Steve Evans, who felt his side were outstanding (!), is calling for the backing of the entire new town. They travel to Colchester United on April 9, who are also far from safe. As Evans said, Stevenage have seven cup finals ahead of them. He’s not wrong.

Remaining fixtures

Barrow 
(7): Home – Forest Green, Northampton, Sutton United.
Away – Crawley, Exeter, Salford, Swindon.

Oldham (6): Home – Crawley, Northampton, Salford.
Away – Forest Green, Port Vale, Tranmere.

Stevenage (7): Home – Rochdale, Salford, Tranmere.
Away – Carlisle, Colchester, Mansfield, Scunthorpe.

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.

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