by Jack Howes
On Friday night, Stevenage F.C. will play Sheffield United in the League One playoffs semi-final first leg at Broadhall Way (or the ‘Lamex Stadium’). This will cap an astonishing rise by Stevenage, who in only their second season in league football may win promotion to the second tier of British football on crowds the third smallest in League One and on average around a quarter of the average attendance for Sheffield Wednesday.
Stevenage is in Hertfordshire, 30 miles from London with a population of 82,000. It’s an unremarkable place to be frank more famous for producing sportsmen in Lewis Hamilton, Ashley Young, Jack Wilshere to name three rather than sports teams. Stevenage Borough (they dropped the Borough off the title in 2010) was founded in 1976 when Stevenage Athletic had gone bankrupt, and the new team started to make its way through the non-leagues.
By 1990 they were in the Isthmian League Division Two North. Then between Between 1990 and 1994 they were promoted three times, were unbeaten for 44 home games in that time and made it to the Conference. In 1995-96 they won the Conference but were barred from being promoted due to their ground having insufficient facilities. This was a devastating blow but Stevenage were about to put their name on the UK footballing map through some terrific FA Cup exploits.
In 1997 they made the 3rd round of the FA Cup for the first time beating Leyton Orient at Brisbane Road along the way. They were drawn at home to Birmingham but due to their ground lacking capacity the tie was switched to St Andrews where the Blues duly won. The next season though was the infamous tie against Newcastle. There was bad blood between the players, anger at Newcastle’s attempts to switch the tie from Broadhall Way to St James Park (which if you go to 12:15 of this clip saw Kenny Dalglish be interrogated by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight) and then a thrilling tie. Stevenage drew 1-1 at home and lost 2-1 away, with one of Newcastle’s goals wrongly ruled as being over the line when it clearly wasn’t.
After this they retreated to mid-table mediocrity in the Conference with only a FA Trophy final in 2001 to disrupt the tedium of their league finishes. That was until 2007, when under Mark Stimson they won the FA Trophy. Stimson resigned the following season to go to Gillingham, and after Peter Taylor had a brief spell in the dugout Graham Westley has re-hired after an earlier spell as Stevenage boss.
This was when Stevenage really started to hit the big time. In Westley’s first season in his second spell at Stevenage they won the FA Trophy and after a poor start in the League an 18 game unbeaten run took them to the playoffs and a defeat to Cambridge. The next season though they only five lost five times all season and had an astonishing run of 17 wins from their last 20 fixtures. They won the title at a canter and this time had a stadium deemed suitable for league football.
Last season was their first season in league football and saw another promotion. They were 13th in the table halfway through the season when they were drawn at home to Newcastle in the FA Cup 3rd 13 years after their previous meeting and after a superb win away to League One promotion contenders Franchise FC (sorry, MK Dons). This time they convincingly won 3-1 against a side mid-table in the Premiership. That sparked another superb finish to the season where a run of 9 wins in 11 saw them leap from 15th to 4th. They eventually finished 6th, beat Accrington Stanley in the play-off semi-final then dominated Torquay in the final, winning 1-0 which hardly did justice to their dominance. Their first league season saw promotion.
This season has been even more spectacular. They beat Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 in what must have been one of the highpoints of Stevenage’s entire history and one of the lowpoints for Wednesday. Also there was the win away to Reading in the FA Cup and their run to the 5th round which saw them draw at home to Champions League contenders Spurs, then take the lead in the replay and losing 3-1 to a dodgy Spurs penalty.
Graham Westley also left in January to join Preston, and his departure and maybe tiredness from the FA Cup run saw a run of 12 points from 13 games. They went from 6th to 9th. Then from nowhere they thumped Yeovil 6-0 away from home, attained 13 points from the last 15 available and snuck into 6th place which gives them a playoff place and chance of a 3rd successive promotion.
Stevenage’s style of football isn’t pretty. It’s aggressive, direct, rumbustious. Of course football aesthetes would say it’s ugly, awful to watch and a crime against football. I disagree. Variety is necessary to make football fun to watch. In boxing they say styles make fights. In football styles make matches. Differing styles, different players, different tactical conundrums make matches.
Not to mention the fact that clubs should surely be allowed to get results to the best of their ability. If Stevenage get the best out of themselves by playing the long ball game, good for them. Also in an era when even small sides punching above their weight in terms of league position play dazzling football that pleases purists, it’s almost refreshing to see a small club with a Spartan ground humbling bigger, more bloated rivals by sticking it up the opposition.
The last club who rose so fast with so small a club was Cambridge United in the early 90’s. Under maverick/lunatic John Beck they played a spartan brand of long ball football, bogged down the corners of the pitch with sand so long balls wouldn’t bounce off for goal kicks and throw-ins, painted the away-dressing room pink and jammed the heating on to the maximum setting, put the away dugout near the corner flag, and Beck himself left notes under players dressing room pegs with quotes from Greek philosophers and headbutted Steve Claridge in a dressing room row after he’d subbed him off 20 minutes into a match for daring to cut inside off the wing. The common joke was that ‘the sky’s the limit’ for Cambridge. It wasn’t a joke though when in two and a half season they went from being mid-tale in the 4th division to the 2nd division playoffs and two games from a place in the inaugural Premier League.
Now Stevenage are not as mad a club as Cambridge was then. But their story is of a miraculous rise, of good management, of good players in Steve Morison, youngest ever Arsenal player Luke Freeman, captain and two time player of the year Mark Roberts and of their ability to beat clubs with capacities three or four times the capacity of Broadhall Way. Their rise is a testament to the club, the players, the fans and should be cherished by the footballing public.