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

Brazil, Chelsea and England 1970 – Why the perception of “iconic line-up” still misleads us

THE BBC recently published a story in 2021 highlighting how rarely some clubs’ iconic line-ups actually played together. It showed that football carries many myths in its rich heritage, but also confirmed that our perception of the component parts of great teams rarely takes into consideration injuries, suspensions, loss of form or just being “out of favour”.

On the other hand, 50 years ago, football was less of a squad game, therefore it was arguably far easier to name a “regular” side. It helped that collectors cards, and there were a lot of them, fuelled the misconception that most clubs had relatively static teams. It was easy to name the best elevens of most top division outfits – or at least how we saw them.

The Leeds United team of the 1970s supposedly had an XI that never altered. However, what we consider to be Leeds’ regular side of the Don Revie era – Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Terry Cooper, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Peter Lorimer, Allan Clarke, Mick Jones, Johnny Giles and Eddie Gray – only lined-up once. It is hard to believe, but apparently true. This is all the more surprising given Leeds had a relatively small squad compared to some clubs, but they also had a player who could fill-in across many positions, Paul Madeley.

Similarly, Chelsea’s “classic” team from 1969-70, which was denied its big day in the FA Cup final due to the injury of Alan Hudson, also had a limited lifespan – just nine games. That team comprised: Peter Bonetti, David Webb, Eddie McCreadie, John Hollins, John Dempsey, Ron Harris, Charlie Cooke, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Ian Hutchinson and Peter Houseman.

Chelsea had a few decent players in reserve such as John Boyle, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Birchenall, Bobby Tambling, Marvin Hinton and Stewart Houston, so it is likely that manager Dave Sexton stumbled across this side after trying several permutations and overcoming a lengthy injury list.

This combination had its first game on December 6, 1969 at Old Trafford, a 2-0 win for the  Blues. Two goals from Ian Hutchinson against opposition that included George Best and Bobby Charlton underlined Chelsea’s quality and moved some reporters to declare that Dave Sexton’s side could make a bid for the league title – “What price these Southern Softies now?” asked Harry Miller of the Daily Mirror.

The team won eight of its nine games, their only defeat coming at Wolves on December 13. The last time they lined-up was the FA Cup semi-final at White Hart Lane on March 14 1970 when Chelsea secured their place at Wembley with a 5-1 win against Watford.

After that success, the team started to encounter problems: Alan Hudson missed the last league games and the two FA Cup final meetings with Leeds; Ian Hutchinson had a series of injuries that eventually brought his career to an end in 1976; Eddie McCreadie had a troublesome stomach injury; Peter Bonetti was ill with pneumonia; and Peter Osgood endured a lengthy suspension in 1971. New players like Keith Weller, Chris Garland and Steve Kember were added to the squad over the two years.

In 1970, Brazil won the World Cup with a team that became household names across the globe: Felix, Carlos Alberto, Brito, Piazza, Everaldo, Clodoaldo, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Pele and Tostao. This team appeared as one body just four times, three occasions during the World Cup and once more on September 30, 1970. This is not totally surprising as World Cup teams normally disperse once a tournament is over, the competition is invariably the end of a build-up process rather than the start of something.

England, at Mexico 1970, looked to have a team to compare with their 1966 World Cup winners. Sir Alf Ramsey named his squad and gave the 1 to 11 shirts to: Gordon Banks, Keith Newton, Terry Cooper, Alan Muller, Brian Labone, Bobby Moore, Francis Lee, Alan Ball, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Ramsey had fielded this team for the first time on May 10 1969 when England beat Scotland 4-1 in one of their best post-1966 performances.

On June 1 1969 this group of players faced Mexico in the Azteca Stadium and drew 0-0 in a pre-World Cup tour game. By the summer of 1970, it was widely regarded that this team was Ramsey’s best selection but he could only play this side twice in the actual World Cup, the last game being the ill-fated Quarter Final against West Germany. The team played together six times and lost just once and kept four clean sheets. The German side that beat England in Leon, incidentally, was never fielded again. Not one of the England team would see a World Cup beyond 1970 – it wasn’t until 1982 that they qualified for the finals again. It’s unlikely anyone would describe some of the teams that wore the white shirt in the intervening years as “iconic”.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA