I feel a bit sorry for Stevenage Football Club, I really do. Not because Argyle have just inflicted a second 2-1 defeat of the season on the Hertfordshire team. I’m delighted by that, obviously. No, the reason is that Stevenage looks like a club hanging on by its fingernails to the affections of a town that doesn’t seem to care very much about its football team.
I got chatting to a Stevenage fan outside the ground on Saturday, and he told me that, rather than supporting their local club, football enthusiasts in these parts prefer to head towards London for a Premier League fix. Presumably to nearby Watford or, if they have the disposable income of a small country, Arsenal or Spurs.
It’s easy to see why local residents would take any opportunity to escape, even if only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not funny or clever to mock someone else’s town, but good lord, it’s hard to find much positive to say about Stevenage.
Lying to the east of Luton – itself hardly a beacon of architectural excellence – Stevenage is a place where people appear to have been very much an after-thought. An endless spaghetti of dual carriageways, roundabouts and industrial parks, humans are forced to scurry through underpasses beneath the constant stream of cars and lorries. Walking through one of the tunnels, I half expected to find a BBC wildlife documentary crew capturing footage of the subterranean creatures dwelling below the inhospitable concrete desert above. With every other building on the many retail parks being a Wickes, Bensons for Beds, Sharps Bedrooms, Topps Tiles or Wren Kitchens, a visitor from another planet would surmise that religion here centres on the worship of bathroom fittings and bedroom furniture.
But the main reason the club struggles to attract more than about 3,000 fans is that, having only existed in its current form since 1976, Stevenage FC has never established much of a hold over local people. That’s partly down to the fact that the history of the town itself doesn’t go back much further, having effectively come into existence only in 1946 as the first of the government’s ‘New Towns’. With a couple of hours to kill before Saturday’s game, we stopped in at the Stevenage Museum (I know how to have a good time). My expectations were not high, and all I will say is that whoever put the displays together has done a remarkably good job considering how little they had to work with.
The harsh reality is that a 44-year-old club has no legacy of multi-generational loyalty to draw on, and a town with minimal history has no ‘story’ to hold it all together. The contrast with teams elsewhere, especially in the Midlands and the north, is telling. The words ‘faded glory’ might attach to Football League clubs up there, but at least there is a collective sense of history and culture to glue it all together.
Any football fan with a perspective that extends beyond the gilded halls of the Premier League senses that the likes of Walsall, Rochdale, Oldham, Doncaster or Bradford are in many ways is the real heart and soul of football. These are towns and cities that used to really be something, in most cases manufacturing powerhouses, with a proud working class history. Places where men (and back then it was largely men) would go to watch their local football team on a Saturday to escape the grim reality of their working week. They were expressions of civic pride and even today, as demonstrated by the angst in Bury over the demise of their storied club, remain at the heart of many communities. But Stevenage, and its fellow ‘new’ towns, lack a back-story of that, or any, kind.
And things are unlikely to get better anytime soon. After 10 seasons in the Football League so far, three in League One and the rest in League Two, Stevenage currently languish at the foot of the bottom tier. Relegation back to non-league looks to be a real possibility. When the floodlights went out in the second half on Saturday, to the inevitable chants of ‘this is embarrassing’ from the Green Army, you could just see the headlines in the local paper, confirming to sceptical Stevenage-ites that it is a ‘tinpot’ club, unworthy of their support.
The tragedy is that the Lamex is a tidy little stadium, even if a faint whiff of non-league still hangs about the place. The match day experience was perfectly acceptable and with a few thousand more bums on seats – not a big ask with the local population well in excess of 100,000 – the ground could be bouncing. There’s a free 500-space car park five minutes walk from the ground as well, so getting to and from a game could hardly be easier. Definitely less hassle than grappling with cancelled trains and replacement bus services for a trip into London.
And so I find myself wishing Stevenage well. I know that, with a hard-to-like manager and a propensity for time wasting that Wycombe would be proud of, this won’t be a popular opinion with many of my fellow Argyle fans. But without League football, the club’s already tenuous hold on the loyalties of the local population would weaken further. Meaning that another generation of local kids will choose the ‘glamour’ of the Premier League, either in person or via Sky Sports, over their local club. And that would, I think, be a damn shame.