Football: Ball now in Stevenage's court

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The Independent Online
After all the distractions of a summer spent in the High Court, where they tried in vain to overturn the Football League's decision to deny then promotion to the Third Division, Stevenage Borough return to the real world of on-the-pitch battles tomorrow.

The defending GM Vauxhall Conference champions kick off the new campaign at home to Halifax Town, the last club to be relegated from the league which their hosts feel so strongly they should now be members of. Like Kidderminster and Macclesfield before them, however, Stevenage will find it hard to retain their title - especially as their priority this year has been spending money (pounds 1.6m to date) on improving their Broadhall Way stadium, rather than on new players.

The close-season arrivals at Stevenage have been squad players, the most experienced being the former Slough and Marlow midfielder Neil Catlin. The good news for Borough, though, is that they may hang on to last term's top scorer, Barry Hayles. "We have had plenty of enquiries but no firm bids," Paul Fairclough, the Hertfordshire club's manager, said this week.

In contrast to Stevenage, Rushden & Diamonds have spent heavily on new players as they embark on their debut campaign in the Conference. The Beazer Homes League champions, who set a non-League record fee when they bought Carl Alford from Kettering for pounds 85,000 on deadline day last season, have signed two more England semi-professional internationals: Mark Tucker from Woking for pounds 35,000 and Kenny Cramman from Gateshead for an undisclosed five-figure fee.

Woking, runners-up for the past two seasons, are relying on experience as they try to go one better. They have signed the former Blackburn striker Simon Garner, 36, on a free from Wycombe to play alongside the 39-year- old former Chelsea forward Clive Walker in their attack. With Terry Howard (ex-Orient and Wycombe), Tom Jones (ex-Swindon and Reading) and Steve Wood (ex-Oxford and Reading) also arriving, Woking have the quality to win the title - but their toughest opponent may be Rushden's spending power.

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