Football: Ready when you are, Kenny

Newcastle arrive at Broadhall Way today for a classic FA Cup confrontat ion. As little Stevenage prepare for the biggest match in their history, Stephen Brenkley talks to the supporting cast
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The Independent Online
IN THE home changing-room at Stevenage Borough the walls are filled with tactical plans and exhortations. Should Kenny Dalglish, the manager of Newcastle United, pop his head round the door before today's fourth- round FA Cup tie he will be left in no doubt that here is a team who mean business.

The key word, visible everywhere, is "compete". The most telling declaration reads: "Winning isn't something that happens on the field when the whistle blows and the crowd roar; winning is something that should build physically and mentally each time you train and each night you dream." It must create the sort of environment in which players race each other to the showers.

But it is a method which has been constantly effective in Stevenage's rise from the depths of the Diadora (now Ryman) second division only eight seasons ago. The men largely behind the transformation are the chairman, Victor Green, and the manager, Paul Fairclough. Stevenage's training regime is notoriously tough but Fairclough has built a huge reputation as strategist and motivator.

The team's league form this season has been poor but from the moment the draw for today's tie was made they have exhibited a steely resolve, Green being flamboyantly determined to play the match at home and making capital of the attendant publicity. Fairclough's planning will have been meticulous. No Cup minnows will have been better prepared.

The chairman

AMONG the disputes which mark all football seasons, few have been as riveting as that between Victor Green and Kenny Dalglish. The Stevenage chairman wanted to play the tie at home, a privilege bestowed by the draw, while the Newcastle manager, expressing understandable concerns about safety, was keen to take it to St James' Park.

Green refused to be persuaded or cajoled, convinced the FA over safety and won the public relations battle by a pitch's length. Of course, it should be remembered that last season he happily switched the match against Birmingham to St Andrews. It is just possible that Sky's decision to televise the Newcastle tie, purportedly worth pounds 150,000, may have influenced him.

The Green era has been marked by his determination, ambition and inability to resist giving a quote. He laid the Dalglish row to rest by insisting it was in the past, but was then drawn on the subject of Alan Shearer: "Obviously I want him to make a prat of himself and miss the target, but I would be so excited to see him here."

The chairman alighted in Stevenage four years ago after a brief stay at Hendon. He finds Broadhall Way much more to his liking, discerning a greater bond between club and community. Green senses success today but insisted: "The highlight of my football career was winning the Vauxhall Conference. Nothing will ever beat that." Victor indeed.

The groundsman

BARRIE MITCHELL was a pub landlord. After a quarter of a century he had been thinking it was time to change direction and the day somebody walked into his Catford bar and shot him he knew it.

"I'd been threatened with glasses and bottles over the years but this was something else," said Mitchell. "I'd asked the bloke to leave because he was misbehaving and he decided to come back looking for revenge, bringing a gun with him. Fortunately, he only hit me in the buttocks because I was running away at the time."

Having spent most of his working life in smoke-filled rooms, Mitchell had a love and a longing for the outdoors and embarked on a groundsman's course. His first college placement took him to Stevenage and after six months he was offered the job permanently. "I've never been happier in my working life and my only regret is that I should have done it years ago," he said, as he surveyed his pride and joy, the Broadhall Way ground.

"This is the biggest game I've ever been involved in. I'm not nervous exactly but I could have done without a game on Monday night and the frost which followed it. It's hard to get to work on the turf. Bigger clubs have got more chance, of course, with their undersoil heating and more facilities but the ground's got to be played on. It's smaller than Newcastle are used to but they won't be disappointed."

The pitch looked worn in the middle of the week but Mitchell, who in his short career has won awards for his efforts, will have it looking pristine for today. "We'll fork and feed it in the old-fashioned way, roll it, paint the white lines twice and spray some artificial green colouring on for contrast," he said. "It should play pretty well and I can only make sure that Alan Shearer won't trip over a divot and do the other leg in. I'm very optimistic that it should look fantastic on the television."

Mitchell, 52, has concerns beyond today's match though it is impossible to tell from his cheery countenance. A few months ago he was diagnosed as suffering from leukaemia and next month starts a course of chemotherapy.

"Everybody at this club has been fantastic about it: the players, the manager and the chairman. I've been assured my job will still be here for me when I get back. Of course, if the pitch isn't right on Sunday they might shoot me, but I won't be going back to pubs, I can tell you."

The administrator

IT BECAME abundantly clear to Frank Radcliffe quite how big today's game is when he got calls from Kenya and Australia. "It's being shown live on television in both countries and the stations wanted information on the club and the logo," he said. "This is obviously a chance for us to spread Stevenage's name all over the globe."

Radcliffe, who is keeping a video diary of the event, joined Stevenage as the club administrator barely three months ago when their FA Cup journey began at Carshalton. He and his small team have spent the time since ensuring that everything from tickets to hamburgers are in place.

Victor Green, as always, has been a regular presence in the office. The computerised turnstiles should help to relieve congestion and each ticket can be accounted for. Extra stewards have been brought in to handle the crowd of some 8,000, a quarter of whom will be in the temporary stand.

"The phone doesn't stop ringing and nor does the doorbell," said Ratcliffe as, on cue, a consignment of stickers arrived from a local newspaper, the Stevenage Mercury. The club will make a handsome profit, though the vice-chairman, Michael Palmer, said: "To listen to local people you'd think we're taking millions. We're not."

The mascot and his dad

A MAN is leaving Stevenage indoor market every night with his legs all but buckling beneath him. Malcolm Lucy, who has his own clothing stall there, is also running the club's stand. No prizes for guessing which is busier at present.

"They're queueing up for stuff. We took pounds 1,000 one day. Mostly it's scarves but the special T-shirt is going a bundle," he said. The latter item of clothing carries details of Stevenage's FA Cup run on the back and on the front bears the legend "Barmy Army v Toon Army". The Barmy Army was initiated as a seven-strong group of supporters who stood in the same place on the half-way line and, well, whinged. Lucy is a founder member. "We go everywhere, we don't like missing."

His son, Alex, will be one of four mascots today. Alex is seven and his dad said this is the biggest moment of his life.

"He wants to be photographed with Alan Shearer but he's also dreaming of dribbling through the Newcastle team before the kick-off and firing a shot into the goal. I've told him it might well be the only way we'll score."

The A Team

ALMOST every day of every week a group of five men trek down to Broadhall Way to work around the stadium. They are in their seventies now - Jim Briscoe, Bert Davies, Arthur Brown, Ernie Stevens and Ken Thomas - but they insist on helping out the club which most of them have watched since they played on a park ground.

This is their finest hour and Davies was adamant: "The world will be watching and the stadium's got to look spotless. One of the big jobs will be clearing away all the confetti that was thrown on Monday."

The quintet huddle together in their own boot-room, arguing about the Borough. "We wouldn't get a team out any week because we never agree on players," said Briscoe, who usually claims greater knowledge because he played professionally; five League games for Sheffield Wednesday in the late Forties.

He played for the old Stevenage and was invited to get involved seven years ago. The A Team has taken shape since and its members wouldn't miss it for the world. "Nobody bothers us, we know what needs to be done, we love it," said Brown.

The supporters' voice

KEITH BERNERS began watching Stevenage in some form or other when he was a small boy. He has seen two clubs fold but his loyalty has remained undiminished. At 44 now, with three daughters who threaten to be similarly besotted, he still watches home and away.

Today he will be in the PA box as the second announcer, putting on the records and asking for badly parked cars to be moved. "I act as a buffer really between the club and the supporters," he said. "Despite all the triumphs we've had in the Nineties there can still be strange criticism at our annual meetings."

The Supporters' Club, which he chairs, raises money for the main club and provided the funds for the new fast-food cabins which went up in the summer. Their membership soared after the fourth-round draw.

"We had a steady 2,000 but then suddenly it was 2,400," said Berners. "At that point we had to stop it because members had first call on tickets and it was getting ridiculous. I think interest has been heightened by the possible involvement of Shearer. What we'd like is a draw and then win the replay up there."

The man to mark Shearer

TO Mark Smith is likely to fall the task which has proved beyond some of the world's most proficient defenders: snuffing out the threat of Alan Shearer. As if that was not an order of the tallest variety it comes accompanied with Paul Fairclough's bold prediction of the outcome: "If Alan Shearer is marked by Mark Smith he won't get a kick."

All part of the manager's renowned motivational repertoire, but Smith is slightly less sanguine, sensing the wisdom of letting others speak on his behalf. "I'm up for it. We all are," he said.

Smith joined Stevenage five seasons ago from Hitchin Town and has made more than 250 appearances for the club. He was a significant defensive part of the team who became Vauxhall Conference champions two years ago and were denied promotion to the Football League only on the unkind technicality that their ground did not meet league criteria in time - which was the year before.

Smith, who has played for England's semi-professional team, is the crowd's favourite player. He is quick, strong and alert. Shearer may get a kick. He will not have it all his own way.

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