David Cameron Walker

Archive for the ‘Stevenage’ Category

Are we good enough to sack Gary Smith?

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Is four wins out of the last fourteen league games a good enough reason to sack Gary Smith?

Fortress Lamex has become a limp bouncy castle with only 17 points from a possible 45 claimed on home soil.

Other chairmen would have surely axed the former Colorado Rapids boss by now, but I believe that Phil Wallace is doing the right thing to back the man at the helm.

Loyal Boro fans reply to the taunting trolls on the fans’ forums- “Who would you have instead?”

Rash sacking decisions are a risky gamble. They can pay dividends like with Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield in the closing stages of last season which saw both clubs promoted, or you can become a laughing stock like Nottingham Forest in the league above.

Gary Smith was never destined to live in the shadow of former boss Graham Westley- his ruthless style of football and nonsense in the media were not going to be missed. Players followed the previous manager north and Smith has had a clean slate this season. What did we honestly expect? The team is pushing through a transitional phase and I am excited about seeing the new look Stevenage FC take shape.

Chairman Phil Wallace is man who believes in long term projects. A new training facility and plans for a new £1.2 million north stand just reiterates his commitment to the club and its progression. The appointment of Smith was well thought out back in early 2012, and Wallace is always a man to look at the bigger picture.

It was over a week ago that Notts County handed Keith Curle his P45 after just winning two matches in their last 11 in all competitions.

Similarly at the beginning at the season, Paul Groves of Bournemouth was sacked ten games into the season having only won one game of the new campaign.

These are bigger clubs than us who have higher expectations- reaching the playoffs last season was like another fairytale despite defeat at Bramall Lane. This season hasn’t been a let-down either, we have found our place in the footballing world.

With Brentford, Oldham, Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe completing the fixture list in a tough February; it is time to really see what Smith can do as he adopts a 4-4-2 formation after the January additions of Sam Hoskins and Steve Beleck.

Every Boro fan will be awaiting the return of the animal Jon Ashton back to the defensive line, a player who has been dearly missed for an extensive period this season.

I for one am proud to say: In Smith I trust!

Written by Chris Penn, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Chris tweets at @cm_penn11

Different team, same ambition

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

After 16 changes in the summer, the Stevenage fans were left in limbo. The team we knew was gone and we didn’t know what to expect. I set my stall out early, claiming we’d finish mid-table but that I’d have been happy with a season that saw us finishing anywhere outside of the bottom four. However, here we are, sitting in the play off positions having tasted the dizzy heights of second place.

Up until a few weeks ago we were neck and neck with Tranmere and separated only by goal difference. OK, our recent results have led to a bit of panic in the ranks and we’ve slipped a few places. But for us to be approaching Christmas in the play off places is remarkable.

The most intriguing thing about the season so far though is that, despite our current position, we haven’t actually played that well yet. We’ve played some wonderful football in sections of games, but we’ve also seen that countered by a defensive frailty not seen in a Stevenage side for many years.

Of course, this is only to be expected when the regular back five is broken up. Our left and right back positions have been taken up by new faces, influential centre back Jon Ashton is out injured and long term number one Chris Day has been relegated to the bench following the emergence of Steve Arnold between the sticks.

The defensive organisation is something that needs to be sorted quickly, as the last few weeks have seen us concede four goals at home twice (Swindon, Preston); four goals away at Sheffield United; and three away at Rotherham, where we were unceremoniously dumped out the FA Cup at the first time of asking. This has led to many questioning how good this side is, what they can achieve and whether our current position is actually a bit of a fluke.

A point away at form side Bournemouth has gone some way to allay these fears, but with Tranmere as our next test, we won’t have any time to dwell.

With Jon Ashton seemingly close to returning and summer signing Lee Hills back to fitness and well in contention to become our first choice left back, I’m quietly confident our defensive issues will be sorted so that our midfield can concentrate more on supporting our rather isolated lone striker, Marcus Haber.

There is a lot of creativity available across the midfield with Greg Tansey, Filipe Morais,Lucas Akins, Luke Freeman and Robin Shroot all capable of unlocking defences, but manager Gary Smith needs to work out how to best utilise them all.

Morais has been deployed largely as a winger with little impact, but when he’s had a chance to sit in the hole behind the striker, he has been a revelation. For me, Greg Tansey is finding himself dragged too deep. When he has performed, he’s kept play ticking over beautifully and scored some stunning goals, but he is prone to going missing too often.

Lucas Akins has arguably been the pick of our attacking bunch so far with some fantastic performances down the right wing. His pace and power have been a nuisance for many a left back already and hopefully he’ll continue that for the rest of the season.

As for Shroot and Freeman, it’s been a frustrating season for both. Freeman was last season’s star for us but this season his impact has been limited to a handful of sub appearances. I’m not sure if he’s lacking confidence or whether he’s just been found out when teams double or even triple up on him. And while he has the ability to beat them all, his final ball has been lacking.

As for Shroot, he’s joint top scorer having come off the bench a number of times early in the season to rescue points when the game has looked dead. For one reason or anotheras the season has worn on, however, he’s not been getting much game time.

So, despite looking to the outside world that it’s the same old Stevenage sitting in an elevated position and punching above their weight, it’s anything but. I think we’ve shown enough times already this season that we’re more than good enough to maintain a push for promotion but we need to show it far more consistently.

We’ve got a good group of players who came racing out of the blocks but no one would argue we’ve been lucky at times to scrape points out of games when we didn’t deserve them. We’ve had a tough run of fixtures against some teams who - on the day - were far superior to us and we’ve come unstuck.

It’s going to take a bit of mental strength and some clever management to make sure it doesn’t affect us too much and wreck the wonderful start we made. I honestly think that because these heavy defeats have occurred in quick succession, things seem worse than they are. If they’d have been spread evenly across the whole of the season and we were still sitting fifth, no one would bat an eyelid.

I fully expect us to get over this and have a real strong second half to the season.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

 

A New Dawn

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Stevenage start the 2012/13 season with an almost entirely new squad to the one that was narrowly pipped to last season’s Play-Off Final by Sheffield United.

Of that first team squad, only Chris Day, Mark Roberts, Jon Ashton, Darius Charles, Luke Freeman and Robin Shroot remain. Patrick Agyemang may perhaps be added to that list should Gary Smith turn last season’s loanee into a permanent acquisition.

In addition to those, we look set to see youngster Michael Thalasittis given a more prominent role and expect Don Cowan to feature once again after a long term injury.

In place of the departed players – I’ve not got time to list them all – come a number of exciting signings who Smith has brought in to transform Boro’ into a more potent attacking force.

Greg Tansey has arrived from Inverness Caledonian Thistle to add some creativity in midfield and sitting him alongside the tough tackling James Dunne and Anthony Grant will give him license to support a front line now featuring ex-Tranmere forward Lucas Akins and Canadian target man Marcus Haber. Throughout pre-season, Haber has shown particular prowess in the air and to capitalise on that, Stevenage will be looking for improved delivery from wide areas.

Our young prodigy Luke Freeman looks set to continue his dazzling form down the left hand side and the newly signed Filipe Morais takes over duties from the departed Lawrie Wilson on the right, where he’ll be expected to deliver a better final ball than Lawrie tended to manage.

As well as these new attacking options, Stevenage have made defensive signings in the shape of Lee Hills, Bondz N’Gala, David Gray and Anthony Furlonge, plus goalkeeper Steve Arnold as back up to Chris Day.

With such an overhaul to the squad, it’s difficult to know where to begin with expectations for the season but it’s safe to say that, as last year, the main priority is to stay in this division.

Our arrival in League One just 12 months ago was heralded as an outstanding achievement and the fact that we not only survived but thrived was almost beyond the realms of make believe. But this season will be a lot tougher.

The fully reassembled squad is going to take time to gel; the newly adopted style is going to take time to bed in and then, of course, we have ‘second season syndrome’ to worry about.

I’m hoping, considering the amount of new faces we have, that we can avoid the latter and can again be a surprise package. After all, I’m sure there will be many sides expecting us to perform again in the manner which served us so well in our old guise.

If the team can hit the ground running, there appears to be no reason why this squad can’t emulate their predecessors’ achievement and take a play off spot. But to look to any higher than a mid-table finish would perhaps be driving expectations too high for a squad who has only been together a matter of weeks.

Last season: 7th
Prediction: 13th
Man To Watch: Luke Freeman

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

Well wasn’t that eventful…

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Well wasn’t that eventful!

The first foray into unknown territory is often a daunting prospect. This season, however, Stevenage FC found themselves battling ex-Premier League big boys for a third successive promotion and a crack at the Championship -– rather than settling for any old spot outside of the bottom four. Mad? Probably. Exciting? Definitely. Unique? Certainly.

As a fan, the past season brought with it a whole spectrum of emotions – from sheer ecstasy through to denial and uncertainty, finishing up with immense pride (admittedly, tinged with sadness) at what the club had achieved. Not just this season, but in the two or three that had preceded it.

I don’t need to go over previous seasons, because everyone knows where we’ve come from, but this season alone has seen some huge achievement. We’ve been victorious in battle with eventual champions Charlton; completed the double over automatically-promoted Sheffield Wednesday; and remained undefeated (in the league anyway) against play off finalists Sheffield United.

It’s seen us rack up six goals twice – at Yeovil and Colchester; five goals twice – away at Rochdale and at home to Sheffield Wednesday; and despite early predictions, not once seen us on the wrong end of a result that emphatic.

It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride, of course. The departure of Graham Westley to Preston looked set to plunge us into turmoil, until Captain Fantastic Mark Roberts stepped up to the plate and guided the club through three matches without defeat – including that 5-1 win at Rochdale and a 4-2 home win over MK Dons.

The season fell flat for a short while upon the arrival of new manager Gary Smith. A string of draws looked to have derailed our play off hopes, but we put the work in (with a small amount of luck in the form of Brentford’s penalty taking!) to pull off a customary run of positive results when it mattered most and extend our hopes of promotion for another couple of games.

In the end, Sheffield United did what they’d failed to do in the earlier league games – hold us to a draw at The Lamex and then nicked a winner on home turf just as extra time was looming. If we’re honest, it was a fair result over the two legs, but that makes it no less cruel that it came so late.

And so it was. Our first season in League One ended with a paradox – it may have been extended, but it came to premature halt. With the end of the season, came the end of an era at Stevenage Football Club and everybody knew it.

It sounds melodramatic, but the final scenes were poignant.

Standing in the away end at Bramall Lane, witnessing our visibly broken trojan of a captain clamber through hundreds of Blades fans mocking our downfall and refusing police advice to go back down the tunnel. He then beckoned out his team, which merely confirmed what we’d known for a long time – this group of players we’ve cherished for so long had yet again given their all to the club, the shirt and the fans and we’ll probably never know another group like them.

The team has already been broken up with the departure of seven fringe players, adding to the loss of long term right back, Ronnie Henry; self proclaimed “goal scoring left back” Scott Laird; and the scorer of the goal that made this season possible, John Mousinho.

There are undoubtedly more to follow to – it’s the price you pay for punching above your
weight.

It’s difficult to look ahead to next season, what with not knowing who’ll be pulling on the shirt. But any player we sign can be assured of one thing – they’ve got some very big boots to fill.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

Nobody likes change

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

I worked for my previous employer for the best part of 10 years. I’d been through an apprenticeship there, learnt my trade there and was comfortable there. I knew my role inside out, knew everybody and had a lot of friends.

Then the company hired a new manager who tried to shake things up and work “his way” and I didn’t like it. The reason for this wasn’t because I didn’t agree with the new man’s methods; I knew he was right, but it was different. It just wasn’t how I was used to working and the feeling of comfort I’d had for so long had gone.

I knew I could earn more money elsewhere and so decided to leave. My thought process being that if I was going to be made to change, I might as well be made to change for more money in an office nearer to my house.

And so… Gary Smith and Stevenage.

Smith’s arrival at Stevenage has heralded a period of uncertainty and fan division not seen at the club for many a year. It’s difficult to imagine from the outside a Stevenage fan who would have the temerity to feel dejected, but trust me, there are plenty. As with all periods of uncertainty and change, Stevenage has spawned a vociferous element that likes to make their ill-thought-out opinions known, and there is already a growing ‘Smith Out’ brigade among the fanbase.

The recently buoyant terraces are full of misplaced moans and muted boos at final whistles. I even heard one bloke ludicrously suggesting that this summer – the eve of another assault on a league we’re too small for – would be the first in years that Stevenage fans would be “at a low.” Ridiculous, I know.

Don’t get me wrong, Smith hasn’t done much to endear himself to the fans. His two forays into the loan market have been not far short of woeful with Patrick Agyemang seemingly unable to do anything you’d expect from a footballer and Jordan Slew seemingly more bothered about trying to get sent off than actually score goals. But the positive of those two arriving is that at least Smith has recognised quickly what we recognised a long time ago; that the club’s strikers don’t find the net often enough.

He’s also committed the cardinal sin of not applauding the fans after every match – something which I’ve never really understood. If I was getting whinged at and booed after two months in my new job I can’t imagine I’d be queuing up to ‘go for drinks’ on a Friday.

The main problem is that Gary Smith has inherited Graham Westley’s Stevenage squad and is not winning games that people think would have been won under Westley. It would appear that it’s Smith’s fault that his predecessor decided to up sticks with his whole management team in the middle of the season. It left captain, hero and living-legend Mark Roberts at the helm for three matches while chairman Phil Wallace frantically scoured the globe – and I do mean the globe – to find a replacement.

It would appear that it’s Gary Smith’s fault that Stevenage have had injuries to key players and that others were sold before he arrived, which has meant that he’s had to shuffle personnel about into unfamiliar positions.

It would appear that it’s Gary Smith’s fault that he has inherited a collection of players whose achievements have exalted them to the status of Gods. A collection of players who have taken Stevenage from non-league obscurity to League One security. A collection of players who have reduced grown men to tears. A collection of players who simply cannot be bettered and must never be disbanded… Ah.

The truth is, this team needs to be disbanded now. There was always going to come a day when somebody moved on. Truth be told, even if Westley hadn’t moved on, the team was never going to stay together beyond this year and the change in management will have unsettled the entire squad as much as it has the fans.

There’ll be players in the squad that dislike Smith, players that Smith dislikes, players who want to move closer to home and players that have simply had their heads turned by the opportunity of Championship football and associated wages. There will also be players who have no intention of leaving but face a period of uncertainty, knowing that the hugely successful team they’ve been a part of will be no more.

I fully expect four or five players to leave the club in the close season. If rumours are to be believed then one or two have already tied up moves, and good luck to them. They’ve more than earned their stab at a higher level or more money and every single one of them will move with my blessing and my thanks.

However, as sad as I’ll be to no longer see these players in a Stevenage shirt, I do find the thought of a summer revamp quite exciting. The club have coped perfectly well when losing star players in the past and hopefully will do so again. I genuinely believe that, given a transfer window and some funds, Gary Smith has the right contacts to bring in some very good players to this club. If he can keep enough players in the spine of this team and build around them, there’s no reason why we can’t press on again next year.

And let’s not forget, there’s still a chance that pressing on might even be done in the Championship.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

Thanks for everything Graham….

Friday, January 13th, 2012

I’ll admit it – I never wanted Graham Westley back at Stevenage because I didn’t think he was up to it. Shows what I know!

In fairness to me, however, his first stint at Broadhall Way was, by and large, a pretty awful affair. Dreadful football, dreadful press relations and a dreadful relationship with the fans. I remember a good friend of mine having a cut out of a local newspaper article where Westley had slated the fans pinned to his wall “just so we didn’t forget” he’d done it. I guess it worked.

However, in among the gloom of Westley’s first tenure was a glimmer of light in the shape of the 2005 Conference play-off final, which was lost 1-0 to Carlisle United. But I’d imagine that even Graham himself would admit that the club finished there more by luck than judgement.

On his much maligned return, Westley pledged that he was a changed man and he’s spent the last three years proving that to be the case. Now, two FA Trophy Finals – OK, one was lost – a Conference title, a 3-1 FA Cup battering of Newcastle, a League Two play-off victory and, for now, League One comfort later, I’m genuinely gutted to see him leave.

Could Stevenage have achieved everything they have in the last three years under anybody else? Quite simply, absolutely not.

Westley’s knowledge of non-league football meant that, on his arrival, he could bring in some unearthed gems and assemble them into a well-drilled machine. The likes of Michael Bostwick surely could not have imagined that he’d be nominated as a League One Player of the Month, just three years after being in a relegation fight while at Ebbsfleet. Could Mark Roberts, arguably Westley’s greatest signing, have imagined he’d have had such success in the short time after he was marshalling the back line at Northwich Victoria? I seriously doubt it. But that, in my opinion, is Westley’s greatest talent.

Dragging more out of a player than anyone else thought was there is something which he has done time and again, and it meant that he could find players who would go along with his regime. As a rule, footballers don’t like training from 9-5 and most refuse to do it. Westley, though, has put together a squad at Broadhall Way that, while they might not like it (but how would I know?) know that it’s best for them and know that it works. The players who don’t like it? They don’t play for Westley – it’s as simple and as ruthless as that. His methods may be unorthodox, but they get results and that is why he’s now moving on.

This does pose a worry though. When he returned to Stevenage again, he arrived at a club that allowed him to set up his own regime and he was working for a chairman who knew him well enough to back his every decision. Whether Peter Ridsdale is the type to allow that remains to be seen, but Westley is not stupid and he won’t have taken the job without assurances.

While I’m sad to him go, I don’t blame him for taking his chance. His stock is as high now as it’s probably ever going to be and I think he is totally justified in moving on to Preston North End who are, lets face it, a much bigger club than Stevenage. He’s worked wonders here and a man with his ambition is always going to push for more. If Preston can give him the freedom to run things his way, then our loss will most certainly be their gain.

The success that Graham Westley brought to this club has been a long time coming and it’s been a joy and an honour to be a part of it. All the best Graham, and thanks for the memories.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

It’s the most wonderful time of the year….

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Here we go again then folks, entering the second half of the season with Stevenage on an unbeaten run that surpasses that of Huddersfield Town. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one – but it wasn’t really 40 odd games, was it? (Play-off finals don’t count!)

The current run spans nine matches across League and FA Cup, with seven clean sheets kept and two goals conceded – one in each of the games against Bury and Sheffield United – both of which Stevenage won. They’re making quite a habit of this.

On top of the unbeaten run, the club are also continuing a run of not losing games they score first in, with that little achievement now moving past the 90 game mark, extending back to when the club were in the Conference.

In all seriousness though, results this year have way exceeded all expectations and it’s going to be a tough ask to maintain this until the end of the season. But, as we have seen for the past two years, Stevenage are more than capable of continuing to prove the critics wrong and achieve more than even us fans think is possible.

Since my last article, Stevenage have won five and drawn three; arguably the most impressive result being the defeat of Sheffield United, with Scott Laird’s late penalty winning the game. But even that was on the back of impressive victories in two tricky away matches at Bury and Brentford.

Much to the fans disdain, Stevenage don’t appear to have made many friends in football terms – but then who likes to be beaten by a pub team? However, the club’s fans have been picking up plaudits wherever they go, so I suppose I’ll take that. For now.

The side’s achievements so far seem to be going largely unnoticed, with Player and Manager of the Month nominations overlooking anybody with a Stevenage affiliation. But you just need to look at Stevenage’s league position compared with those of fellow promoted sides Wycombe Wanderers and Chesterfield.

The other teams promoted last season, Bury aside of course, have struggled hugely with the transition to this league but, even after derogatory words about Stevenage from both camps, I doubt there’s a single person related to either club that wouldn’t change places with Stevenage at the moment.

With only three home games before February, the next few weeks are going to be a difficult time for Graham Westley and the team. However, past experience shows that Stevenage should not be discounted from here on in and with the run they are currently enjoying, I certainly wouldn’t bet against the club dragging themselves into the play-off mix.

There are some tough games to come, notably Charlton Athletic and both Sheffield clubs away – all of whom will want to seek revenge for defeats at the Lamex Stadium earlier in the campaign. Who knows, this may all peter out to a mid-table finish, but even that will be six or seven places higher than most fans would have been happy with.

To wrap things up, 2011 has been a fantastic year to be a Stevenage fan and we’re just soaking it all up in case the club do a Dagenham next year! All that remains is for me to wish you – and your club – a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year.

Cheers.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

Well isn’t this lovely….

Friday, November 4th, 2011

Sixteen matches into the season and Stevenage find themselves with almost double the number points than games played, a positive goal difference and a league position that is closer to the play-offs than the relegation zone.

Not bad that – for whipping boys at least.

Without wanting this blog to come across as smug or to deliver it in an “I told you so” tone, I’m feeling smug. And I did bloody well tell you so. Quite how long this smugness will last is anyone’s guess, but the rattling I’m expecting on Saturday won’t do much to rid me of it. Should that rattling occur, of course.

Truth be told, with a bit more luck, more competent refereeing and a bit more composure from the penalty spot, Stevenage would be in the play-off places now and there would not be many with legitimate grounds to argue it.

There’d be plenty who would argue it of course because, obviously, the team are a vile collection of thugs with no technical ability and no right to be in League One because they are newly promoted, don’t have much history and their ground isn’t fourteen times the size of the club’s average attendance*.

All that aside though, the start of this season has been a joy and to find ourselves in the best position of all of last seasons promoted sides is as impressive as it is unexpected.

Stevenage have beaten sides historically they shouldn’t be beating, with the highlight of these being the 1-0 win over Charlton Athletic. It would have been the 5-1 annihilation of Sheffield Wednesday but the “we’ll get our revenge” speech from little Bradley Wright-Phillips made that one so much sweeter. To think, a Charlton player wants to get revenge over Stevenage. You’re smirking too, aren’t you?

Other highlights have included beating Bournemouth away, Brentford away as well as turning Bury over on their own turf after former Stevenage star Efe Sodje claimed in the press all his former employers do is lump the ball forward. The irony of him then spending 90 minutes lumping the ball forward was not lost on those who made the journey. I didn’t go obviously, I’m married.

One away game that I did go to though, thankfully, was Huddersfield.

It was a lovely day. Few beers with the lads, kebab, fish and chips on the way home plus I got to see the worst penalty I’ve ever seen resulting in The Boro losing 2-1. Not the best way to build up to another highlight of the season, but you can find joy in the strangest of places and I found it in Lee Clark.

Watching a man of his standing in the game, who had his team on a 36 game unbeaten run, celebrating like he’d just steered Huddersfield to victory in the FA Cup Final after beating Stevenage, was brilliant.

The look of sheer joy on his face at the final whistle was unbridled, and to then watch him nearly rip Graham Westley’s arm out its socket and have the gall to complain when Dino Maamria refused to have the same treatment made the whole trip worthwhile. Obviously the little lamb blamed the visitors for that episode but even David Blunkett saw that it was an unnecessary confrontation started by him. But to avoid digressing – onto the downsides.

There’s only been one really, and that was short lived. Westley’s side lost four games in a row.

Not a big deal to many, but it’s the kind of run the club hadn’t been on for years, since losing three in a row back in October 2008. It was about due I guess. A run of defeats which started with a missed penalty against Notts County and ended with the aforementioned missed worst-ever-penalty at Huddersfield.

The Notts County defeat had the added downside of watching Lee Hughes scoring and grinning, and we followed that up with defeat in Carlisle then another at home to Scunthorpe in a game which left many wondering how Stevenage hadn’t scored until the 93rd minute. Add to that the fact it was merely a consolation after being 2-0 down and that was a rough afternoon. The defeat in Huddersfield was the fourth and then came the victory against Charlton to set the club on their way again.

The Boro have now won three and drawn one of  their last four and are entering that time of the year where, in the past, they’ve maintained superb form until the end of the campaign. That said, in the past they haven’t had to play Sheffield United in their next fixture so no-one is going to be thinking that the team are safe just yet and what’s more, few fans are certainly not expecting a repeat of the last two years.

The goal remains the same: don’t go down. Stevenage are on course to achieve it.

* = It’s 2.5 times bigger but that’s beside the point.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

 

Why does nobody care?

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Some of you may be shocked to read this given our reputation, but Stevenage is not an attractive town.

It’s an identikit post-war new town with too much concrete, too many roundabouts and too high a rate of teenage pregnancy. Oh, and a Chicago Rock Café. Despite this though, people flood to fill the new housing developments in the town every year, and why?

Is it because most of them are available through the housing association and are therefore cheap?  Probably.

Is it because of the good rail links with London?  Possibly.

Is it because they want to cut down the commute to the football club they visit every week?  Is it buggery.

Stevenage FC has long been establishing itself as an attractive and modern football club, building success slowly over a number of years which, as we all know, has culminated in a very profitable past two seasons with back-to-back promotions and blah blah blah…

However, they still can’t seem to increase the home attendance above the 2,000 – 2,500 mark it has been at for years.

The success of the last 2 years has helped to highlight the club to a wider audience, but those around the town will know that Stevenage have been an emerging force for some years now and there is some local interest in the club.

In 2007, they won the FA Trophy in front of 53,000 people. Around 30,000 of them were there because of a passing interest in Stevenage Borough FC. Granted, many of that 30,000 saw it as an excuse to be among the first to visit the new Wembley, but they would not have been at the match had Kidderminster Harriers been playing Grays Athletic in the final.

In that match, Stevenage put in one of the greatest Wembley comebacks of all time, winning 3-2 after being 2-0 down at half time. They did so by playing some fantastic attacking football.

Despite this the club’s average attendance hasn’t grown since our days in the Conference.  You can guarantee there will be 2,000 home fans every week at The Lamex but to greatly increase that number, there needs to be something pretty special happening; even the chance of revenge over Newcastle United in the FA Cup wasn’t enough to sell out the stadium.

My neighbour recently peered over the fence to ask if he’d need to book tickets for him and his lad for the then upcoming match against Hartlepool. I genuinely thought he was winding me up and was shocked when he told me he thought the ground more or less sold out every week.

So why don’t the people of Stevenage turn out for games and what can we do as a club to entice them in?

Many of you reading this are immediately thinking of adding a witty comment to the bottom suggesting that we could try playing better football, so to save you the job I’ll explain that the style of our play has nothing to do with it.

I’ve admitted openly on here that Stevenage don’t always play fantastic football, but only a few years ago they consistantly did under the stewardship of Mark Stimson. They attacked with pace and flair and played some beautiful one touch football with a team including George Boyd and Steve Morison. But not only did it not get them anywhere; it didn’t significantly boost attendances.

There’s the usual argument that Stevenage is a 30-minute train journey from London and therefore the club are competing for fans with the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham. It’s a fair argument in some respects, but how many of the football going population of Stevenage realistically travel to watch those teams play weekly? I’d guess fewer than 10% – so what is the other 90% doing?

They’re certainly not visiting the other sights of Stevenage because there aren’t any. Unless you count a trip to UK Discount Warehouse, Primark and QD in the town centre as alluring.

Is it a marketing problem? Possibly, but the club are working hard to address their standing and visibility in the community and are actively trying to encourage people on match days.

For example, the recent home match with Rochdale fell on an international weekend and with League 1 being the highest tier playing, the club put on an initiative that offered all Premiership and Championship season ticket holders entry to the match for £5.

I’ve not seen any word from the club as to its effect, but from my vantage point on the half way line, it had little-to-no impact. In the long run, trying to entice people in to watch Boro’ when they hold a season ticket elsewhere is pretty pointless, but at least it was a nice idea.

Stevenage also offer free entry to all under-11s in the hope that a parent will start bringing them along, but this is a long term plan to raise attendances and in reality the club needs a quick fix which – despite recent successes – I just can’t see coming.

On Tuesday, they play a match that two years ago would have been a fantastic FA Cup draw; Sheffield Wednesday at home. However, this is no FA Cup match. Stevenage are playing them on their own merit and, were I wealthy man, I’d bet every single person reading this a tenner that The Owls don’t beat them and another £10 on top that the attendance is around the 5,000 mark, with 1,400 of them travelling down from Sheffield.

Has someone got any ideas?

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger

Mark tweets at @HollisMark

If you can’t beat us, hate us

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

“Am I happy supporting a team who play completely rubbish football?”

I’m paraphrasing slightly because my iPod is playing up and so I can’t access his exact quote, but that’s more or less the question I was asked by this podcast’s venerable host in the opening episode 4 weeks ago.

A brief, shocked, intake of breath from the assembled crowd can be faintly heard in the background before my reply … “I wouldn’t say we play completely terrible football”.

After three games of our debut League One season, I’d suggest that I was right.

The opening game was a tight affair against a decent Exeter City side. OK, we set up very defensively, and rightly so in my opinion.

Despite the fact we were at home, we couldn’t afford to go out and get comfortably beaten on the opening day and so we took steps to stop that happening. I’m personally glad that we took that stance against a side that finished inside the top ten last season and played some pretty neat football, with Exeter captain and Stevenage boy Dave Noble the main figurehead in a lot of their moves.

Following that up with a League Cup game at home to Peterborough was as tough a start as we had last year (Macclesfield followed by Portsmouth – both at home) and again, despite going a goal down early on, we gave a good account of ourselves, coming from behind 3 times to eventually be knocked out by a questionable penalty in the last minute of extra time following some George Boyd, let’s say… ‘theatrics’.

A point away at Chesterfield followed with their equaliser coming in the seventh minute of six minutes injury time and resulted in John Sheridan and the associated Chesterfield local press pushing themselves up my personal and wildly scientific “Bitterness League” (it’s actually got a different official title but it just wouldn’t do to repeat it here) after coming out with post-match rubbish like “I knew it wouldn’t be a great spectacle, but that’s the way that they are”.

Now, I’m no football manager, John, and I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but my suggestion would be that if that’s “how we are”, then perhaps you should have set your team up adequately to deal with it. Bit less time moaning, bit more time doing your job, eh?

And then there was Bournemouth, fresh off the back of mauling the not-too-dissimilar-to-Stevenage Dagenham & Redbridge 5-0 in the League Cup. I wasn’t confident.

As is usual though, when I’m not confident, Stevenage pull out the stops and to go there and win 3-1 is something that I wouldn’t imagine many teams will do this season.

So three games in and we’re unbeaten. What odds would we have got on that in the close season?

Many Bournemouth fans are complaining to anyone who will listen about how we kicked them off the park with niggly fouls (ironic really, considering they ended up with 10 men) but the truth of the matter is, and in fairness there are a number of Bournemouth fans who have noted it, they’re just the latest in a long line of clubs that probably should, but definitely couldn’t, deal with us.

Despite this continual whinging from our non-victorious opponents, and it is, oddly, only the non-victorious opponents, I categorically do not accept the view that we are a bad footballing side.

Yes, we have a big centre back pairing who won’t be bullied, but we have a midfield and attack that are, on the whole, good ball players who can dish out some rough stuff if necessary. And anyway, who doesn’t want a pair of giants at the back aside from Arséne Wenger?

What you have to understand is that Stevenage grew up in a tough neighbourhood. If you couldn’t take a bit of a kicking from the likes of Barrow then you came out on the wrong side of a 1-0 or you’d lose to Welling Utd more times I care to remember. (Coincidentally, I’m writing this the day after Grimsby have just lost 5-0 to Braintree). We learnt the hard way after 15 years in the Conference that pretty football doesn’t win you enough points to achieve anything; you need to be able to play neat passing football when you can and be able to battle when you can’t.

I don’t understand why this is viewed as wrong.

Football is a results business and I challenge anybody to find me a football fan who would be happy to see his team get relegated because he could comfort himself with the fact they tried to play pretty one touch football.

So yes, in answer to the original question, I am more than happy supporting a team who play “rubbish football” because I don’t believe we do. I believe we play the type of football needed at a point in time to get a result, and up to now, it’s not done us much harm.

As it stands, I’d rather be a Stevenage fan celebrating back to back promotions and holding our own in League One than be a fan of a team like Chesterfield who ‘play football in the right way’ (whatever that dull platitude actually means) but can’t dispatch of a “non-league team” in their own back yard.

Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage FC Blogger

Mark tweets at @hollismark