Sam Wallace: In a roundabout way, Stevenage show the true strength of the English game
Talking Football: The football hierarchy here has stayed true to a system that is rooted in civic pride
Monday 19 April 2010
The only television show ever set in Stevenage was Steve Coogan's brilliant Saxondale, the story of an ageing former roadie with anger management issues who ran a pest-control business. They picked Stevenage for a reason – it was supposed to represent bland, small-town anonymity. Just to add insult to injury, they filmed it in Watford.
Coogan is a genius. Stevenage, on the other hand, is a very easy target. It happens to be my hometown and I have heard all the old jokes about roundabouts and colour-coded, self-contained neighbourhoods, each of them designed to hold 10,000 people and – according to projections made in the 1940s – one car for every two houses.
As of Saturday afternoon, however, Stevenage is not just a giant piece of ambitious social engineering by the A1. Stevenage Borough's win over Kidderminster Harriers to seal the Blue Square Premier title means that, as of next season, Britain's first post-war new town has a Football League club. For a town that has always struggled to project an identity of its own, the success of its football club goes a long way to putting it on the map.
The journalist Gary Younge, who also grew up in Stevenage, came up with the best line about the town. He called it "a good idea at the time". The time was post-war Britain when Clement Attlee's government envisaged happy workers cycling to work on the town's comprehensive network of cycle tracks to factories set in a designated industrial area downwind of the housing estates.
These days, it is more famous for being the hometown of Lewis Hamilton, although the old joke goes that, by relocating to Switzerland, Hamilton has accomplished the seemingly impossible by moving to somewhere even duller than Stevenage. Aston Villa's Ashley Young and the golfer Ian Poulter, a decent schoolboy footballer himself, are also Stevenage boys.
Like a lot of British towns in their post-industrial state, with identikit high streets and chain pubs, developing an identity has been a problem for Stevenage. Built around a small Hertfordshire village in the space of 10 years, it lacks a certain character. The town has precious little opportunity to distinguish itself from other London satellite towns apart from through its football club.
In English football, you should never underestimate the emotional connections to local clubs. Even in an age when you can watch the Premier League's big four live on television most weekends – or Spanish football on Sky Sports or Serie A on ESPN – that sense of attachment remains fierce.
Like many non-league clubs, Stevenage compete with the attractions of bigger clubs – Arsenal and Tottenham are both less than 35 miles away. Yet Stevenage's derby with Luton Town this month drew a crowd of 7,024.
By comparison, that was almost 800 people more than the crowd for the game on Friday between Avignon and Didier Drogba's former team Guingamp in Ligue 2, the second tier of French football. The average attendance this season for Ligue 2 is 7,090, only around 100 more than the average gate for Luton, who are the best-supported team in the Blue Square Premier. There are teams in Serie B in Italy who never draw more than 7,000.
Many European countries have one top league and little else beyond that, apart from a mix of amateur and feeder teams watched by few. The English football hierarchy, by contrast, remains solid. It has stayed true to a system that is rooted in civic pride, which places great store in clubs trying to move upwards towards the top four divisions.
But there is another dimension to the success of the Football League and it is not just the chance to watch your local club. It is about the survival of English towns and cities in our collective psyche. Most people could not tell you much about Rotherham or Chesterfield, but they could tell you that they both have professional football clubs. The Football League is a map of industrial England as it once was.
The four divisional tables are a roll call of hard-bitten old towns and cities: Rochdale, Huddersfield, Bradford, Plymouth, Grimsby. In many cases, the clubs in question were formed at the end of the 19th century or the start of the next by the workers in that particular town or city's traditional industries. Nowadays, the clubs are all that remain of that old identity.
In comparison to many of these places, Stevenage is a relative baby. But it still values the prestige of a place in the four professional leagues of English football. Given the choice between being the town known for having a lot of cycle tracks or the town that has its name read out on Sports Report on Radio Five every Saturday afternoon, I know which one I would take.
For Stevenage, it has been a long journey. They won the old Conference in 1996 but were denied promotion because their stadium improvements were not ready in time. They famously took Newcastle United to a replay in the FA Cup fourth round in 1998 and managed to upset the club's then manager Kenny Dalglish along the way.
So congratulations to the Stevenage chairman Phil Wallace (no relation) and manager Graham Westley, whose team may yet do the double if they win the FA Trophy final on 8 May. They have not just won a league title and a place in the Football League – they have opened up the possibility that the next time people like me say they grew up in Stevenage, the smart-arse in the room won't mention roundabouts.
No way to announce your club's arrival among the elite
Working on the basis that pride comes before a fall, the White Hart Lane stadium announcer's ludicrous gloating at half-time of the Arsenal match on Wednesday seemed to guarantee a second-half Arsenal comeback. To his credit, he apologised for it at half-time of Saturday's match.
Memo to those clubs who aspire to be part of English football's elite: you don't hear Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool using the Tannoy to rub their opponents' noses in it.
Bale's emergence bolsters Welsh challenge
Not for the first time, English football looks at a Wales international with a golden left foot and wonders what might have been had he grown up east of the border. For years, it was Ryan Giggs who was the missing piece in England teams and now Gareth Bale is the man Fabio Capello would love to call upon.
Given the form of Bale this season – and provided Aaron Ramsey can return to full fitness in time – England's Euro 2012 qualifying game in Cardiff next March looks the toughest in the group.
Finger points to Arteta ban
Mikel Arteta's finger in the eye of Morten Gamst Pedersen looked a lot more dangerous than the usual handbags – he deserves a retrospective ban.
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