Football: Fairclough's men have to brave the fair times and foul

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The Independent Online
Stevenage Borough's travails are the stuff of footballing nightmares. Mike Rowbottom finds the non-League club hoping their fortunes will change for the better, starting with today's FA Cup third-round meeting with Swindon.

Bob Gristwood has supported Stevenage football club for 35 of his 45 years. Which means he has followed Stevenage Town, who went bankrupt, and Stevenage Athletic, who went bankrupt, too.

And more recently, Stevenage Borough, who went all the way to the top of the non-League pile two years ago only to be told they could not join the Football League because their ground had not been upgraded by the 31 December deadline.

That is a blow from which Stevenage, one of only four non-League survivors in this weekend's FA Cup third round, have not yet recovered.

As he stood in the rain-lashed main stand at the club's Broadhall Way ground on New Year's Day, this anything-but- fair-weather fan was probably in the best possible place to reflect on his experience.

"It's been hard work at times," he said. "It would have nice for the club to have gone up in 1996. But they knew the rules. They should have got their act together in time."

That the club did not was partly down to the local authority, which failed to supply its promised lion's share of the pounds 1.6m cost on time.

For all the frustrations involved, however, Gristwood has remained a loyal fan, and he will be among several thousand Borough supporters boarding coaches this morning for the two-hour journey down the M4 to Swindon, where Steve McMahon's First Division championship contenders await their team.

This is not uncharted territory for the Hertfordshire club, who in the past seven years have risen from the depths of the old Isthmian League under the guidance of Paul Fairclough.

Two years ago they reached the FA Cup first round proper, and last season they got to the third round, beating Leyton Orient before losing 2-0 at Birmingham City in a match witnessed by almost 8,000 of their travelling supporters.

That record earned them an automatic place in this year's first round, and after beating Carshalton, they put out Third Division Cambridge United in a replay at Broadhall Way.

But the man who scored the winning goal, 23-year-old Stuart Beevor, was not in the team which beat local rivals Rushden and Diamonds 2-1 on Thursday, Stevenage having had an unsettled season thus far.

Fairclough, who suffered the personal frustration of being left on the bench as Harlow Town defeated Southend United and Leicester City in their FA Cup run of 1979, has had to renew the heart of his team this season.

After the anticlimax of their Vauxhall Conference-winning year, Stevenage persuaded their best performers - skipper Paul Barrowcliff, Nigerian youth international midfielder Efetobor Sodje, and leading scorer Barry Hayles - to stay for one more season to see if they could retain the title and make the big jump.

They fell just short, finishing third. Many at the club, including the chairman, Victor Green, believe they were victims of their own success in other competitions - their progress to the FA Cup third round and the FA Trophy semi-final caused a severe fixture build-up.

Last summer, however, saw Barrowcliff join Brentford for pounds 55,000, Sodje, who has ambitions of making Nigeria's World Cup squad, join Macclesfield for a knock-down pounds 35,000, and Hayles move to Bristol Rovers, for whom he is now scoring at will, for pounds 250,000.

Green denied that any of that money had been required to cover the estimated pounds 250,000 cost of Stevenage's unsuccessful legal challenge to the Football League over their failure to gain promotion on the basis of restraint of trade.

Two further things came out of that court case, and only one was to Stevenage's credit. Although the judge was unable to accept their plea, because a precedent had been set in earlier cases involving Kidderminster Harriers and Macclesfield Town, he accepted many of their arguments, and the League subsequently shifted its deadline three months further backwards.

But evidence given in court by Torquay United, who had retained their League status in 1996 because the Vauxhall Conference champions had not fulfilled ground requirements, led to a Football Association inquiry which, last April, imposed a pounds 25,000 suspended fine on Stevenage.

The FA, with the benefit of recorded telephone conversations, confirmed the allegations by Torquay's chairman, Mike Bateson, that Stevenage had attempted to obtain a pounds 20,000 "incentive" for their players to win the title even though they had missed the ground improvement deadline.

Had the other main Conference contender, Woking, prevailed, they would have taken Torquay's League place because their ground was already up to standard.

Stevenage have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and set off again, but this season - hampered by several unfortunate injuries to a couple of new signings - they have found themselves struggling at an unfamiliar end of the table.

For Fairclough, who has known almost perennial success since taking over the club in the depths of the old Isthmian League seven years ago, the legacy of 1996 cannot be ignored.

"If I said I am over it, I would be lying. I will never get over it, until such time as I am in the Football League with Stevenage. But it hasn't taken any edge off me. It's made me more determined," he said.

Today he will be hoping that the opportunism of Gary Crawshaw, who took a year off from football to travel the world in 1994, or Giuliano Grazioli, a recent signing from Peterborough, will catch Swindon out.

Fairclough has a novel theory about how non-League clubs should be rewarded for FA Cup success in future. Any clubs reaching the third round, he believes, should be given lucrative automatic ties against the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Somehow, you cannot see the FA leaping at the idea.