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The sporting read: Stevenage enjoying the challenges of life in England’s League 2

London is only 20 minutes south on the fastest trains and Stevenage’s existence is influenced heavily by Europe’s biggest city. When it comes to football, that is a blessing and a curse.
Photo of the outside of the Stevenage FC stadium. (Andy Mitten for The National)
Photo of the outside of the Stevenage FC stadium. (Andy Mitten for The National)

Men in Barcelona and Liverpool shirts walk towards the London-bound trains at Stevenage rail station, past images of local heroes including Lewis Hamilton and Ashley Young.

With 11 European Cups between them, the two world famous clubs are due to meet in a Wembley Stadium friendly which is attracting plenty of interest from the inhabitants of this Hertfordshire borough.

London is only 20 minutes south on the fastest trains and Stevenage’s existence is influenced heavily by Europe’s biggest city.

When it comes to football, that is a blessing and a curse.

Stevenage grew as Britain’s first post war new town in the 1950s, when working class families from North London were rehoused in leafy surroundings to ease overcrowding.

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These newcomers moved to support Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and other established London clubs. They still do, but some of their children and grandchildren have turned to the local team.

During the 40 years since their foundation, Stevenage Football Club has risen to England’s third tier, where they hold their own against better funded teams with stronger identities garnered over 130 years of history.

From Crewe Alexandra to Oldham Athletic, Tranmere Rovers to Walsall, smaller English football clubs in the shadow of giants face a struggle to attract fans.

West Ham United, with a new 60,000 stadium to fill, has been offering reduced priced season tickets to Stevenage residents.

With a huge new television contract, Premier League clubs can afford to drop ticket prices after two decades of rises. That does not make it easier for Stevenage, who cannot.

Watching Manchester United and City, Liverpool or any of the London clubs at the Olympic Stadium may be more attractive than lower league outfits, yet these comparative smaller clubs still enjoy healthy attendances.

In 2009-10, the average crowd in England’s fourth tier was 3,846. Now, it’s over 5,000 with almost year on year rises.

It helps that Portsmouth, with average crowds of 17,000, are in the division, but the trend still remains positive, with the fight to keep fans coming to their local club continuous.

Stevenage are in League Two and Saturday’s match against Crewe Alexandra is the season’s opener.

Around the sorry-looking shopping arcade of the largely concrete town centre, more Liverpool and Barcelona shirts are in evidence, plus those of Arsenal and Manchester City.

The first red and white Stevenage shirt appears close to the tree-lined, modern football ground, located by one of the town’s many roundabouts favoured by 1950s urban planners.

Broadhall Way – now known as the Lamex Stadium after the chairman’s food company – holds 6,700 fans, more than enough for the club’s 3,300 average attendance last season.

In the boardroom, chairman Phil Wallace explains the realities of being in charge of a club living close to the bright lights of far grander Premier League names.

“It costs about £3-4 million (Dh14.3-19.1m) per season to run this club,” explains the man who heads a food company with an annual turnover of £1.5 billion.

“Which is £500,000-£1,000,000 per season more than we get in.”

So why does he do it and make up the shortfall?

“It’s a personal challenge,” explains the club’s chairman of 16 years. “To be as successful as your fanbase will allow.

“We came from non-league and reached League One for three years without a huge budget. We had three Wembley appearances in four years. Along the way, I enjoy the camaraderie and being part of football.

“It’s a young man’s game, this business, but I loved waking up this morning ahead of the first game of the season.

“You know there are going to be ups and downs, but I can’t get feeling that in my business. My business is predictable, football is not. The ball can hit the post and go in. Or hit the post and come out. That can decide the result.”

Wallace has enjoyed his time, the highs of back-to-back promotions in one of Graham Westley’s three stints as manager, the lows of relegation.

“The fans have been good with me,” he smiles. “If you’re not doing the right thing for their football club then you know about it.”

Last season did not go well. Stevenage used 47 players, five more than any other club in any of England’s top four leagues.

“We were battling to survive, but we did survive and we’ve turned a corner,” explains Wallace. “We brought Glenn Roeder in [as a managerial assistant], a great appointment.

“His experience helps because our manager Darren Sarll, a local boy, is the youngest manager in football. But we might surprise a few people this season.”

Club director Stuart Dinsey explains how Stevenage attract fans to games.

“Match-going Arsenal fans from Stevenage are not the problem,” he says. “There’s probably 500 of them and if they’re going to football, good luck to them.

“The challenge is the armchair fans watching on TV. It’s football marketing and people coming here and not respecting the level of professionalism and fitness because they’ve been watching Barcelona on television.

“Because there’s so much football on TV, it’s an effort to get out of your chair, pay £20 and go and watch it. But we want people to come and watch football. At this level it’s about the contest and experience.”

Stevenage have been successful, but they face unique challenges.

“We’re a new town football club,” explains Dinsey. “If you looked at Burnley (a similar sized town of 88,000), you’d have an incredibly high number of people who support their local club and always have done. “At Stevenage, most people in the town supported someone else until Phil came along. I’m on the board and was brought up as a Chelsea fan. Now, though, more kids are proud to say they support Stevenage because they’re in the Football League.”

Stevenage’s rise from non-league stalwarts to the cusp of England’s second tier, the Championship, eventually ran out of steam.

“Eventually, your budget will find you out,” says Wallace. “You can’t be consistent with a consistently lower budget than anyone else.”

Stevenage reached League One with momentum and stayed up. By impressing, they won admirers – and suitors who wanted their players.

“If someone is on £1,000 a week and another club offers then £4,000 a week then they’re going to want to go. And should you really stop them going so as long as you can agree terms?”

The average playing budget for a team in League Two is £1.3m per season. In League One it’s £2.3m. In the Championship, it’s £12m.

“There’s the jump,” continues the chairman, who is proud that the club are solvent, with no debts. Proud too that his players all get paid. “We never miss a payment,” he points out.

Stevenage invest in youth – and these youngsters get a chance to play rather than labour in reserve teams at Premier League clubs.

They have nine under 21 internationals from various countries in their youth set up. Their excellent training ground is popular with players and being near London places them close to Europe’s largest body of people, but realistically, their ceiling is League One.

“If we were to push for the Championship then it would have to be with a (bigger) new stadium,” Wallace explains. “People would come to a winning club, it’s an entertainment business …”

But he knows it’s a stretch without substantial investment.

As fans click through the turnstiles - an under 12 child season ticket costs £25 - the stirring theme tune to the film Rocky plays on the public address system.

All four sides of the ground are covered, usually to protect again the wind or the rain. Today, it’s the sun.

The mood among home fans is confident. “I’d be surprised if we don’t score a few today,” explains a club official.

The green pitch contrasts with the blue sky, the opening day of the English football season a time for dreaming about what might happen.

The game kicks off, but in the stands, midfielder Steven Schumacher sits with his young children.

A Liverpudlian who started out at Everton but never made the first team before a career took him to Bradford City and Bury; he ruptured his cruciate ligament last autumn.

“It’s been very difficult,” explains Schumacher, 32. “I moved my family down south for the first time too. But I hope to be back soon.”

Crewe pop the bubble of optimism, the 350 travelling fans coming to life as their team create chances and take the lead.

With 10 minutes left, substitute Alex Kiwomya, a striker on loan from Chelsea who has great potential but a questionable attitude, beats several defenders to score a superb solo goal.

Two-nil down and Stevenage’s optimism has evaporated with the prospect of a first defeat of the season.

“He was offside, linesman,” shouts an angry Stevenage fan from Row 8. The linesman shakes his head, provoking a febrile response of: “Don’t shake your head at me, I’m in the crowd!”

Stevenage score a late consolation, but it is not enough and the disappointment is palpable.

Manager Sarll nevertheless remains upbeat after the match. The local boy, whose own career as a player did not rise above semi-professional status, is articulate.

“We’re disappointed, we’d had a really smooth pre-season,” he explains by the side of the pristine pitch an hour after the game.

“Human nature has a tendency to give you a kick up the backside from time to time and we’ve had that today. That’ll push us in the right direction.”

Sarll who once had a season ticket at Manchester United is proud of his hometown team.

“This is a young club, just six years in the Football League, but now a well-run and well-established Football League club,” he says. “Financially, we cut our cloth accordingly.

“It’s a friendly and ambitious club. The players have a relationship with supporters. We can afford to be humble and unguarded in what we do because we want to open our football club, to make it welcoming to outsiders.”

Sarll’s words are genuine and if he lacks in experience or the reputation of previous manager Teddy Sheringham, the former England striker, who lasted only 33 games and won just seven last term, he excels when it comes to knowing the club.

The night before the match, the club opened the ground for a group of supporters to pay respects to 43-year-old Lee Evans, a loyal fan who died recently.

“There was about 50 of us and we unveiled a plaque by the side of the pitch,” explains Dean Thompson, a hotel manager who also commentates on the club’s home games for BBC Three Counties Radio.

“It’s a community club where everyone knows each other, it feels like family. Lee’s ashes were scattered by the touchline, the club couldn’t have done more. It’s a club where the chairman says hello to fans. “What we don’t want is a Blackpool situation where the club’s fans have turned on their chairman, who has been running the club as an ego thing.

“It’s not like that here. Here when things don’t go right on the pitch, the fans go quiet rather than turn nasty. It’s down to the players to get the fans going.”

One of those players, Michael Tonge, 33, is coming to the end of his career. Born near Manchester, Tonge was at United as a youngster before playing for Sheffield United in the Premier League, costing Stoke City £2m in 2008 and playing at Barnsley, Leeds and Millwall. He was Stevenage’s best player last season.

“We’ve not had a great result today, but I still love playing football and I just want to play as long as I can,” he explains as he grabs bottles of water to rehydrate.

Tonge represented England at under-20 and under-21 level.

“I used to think that I could have stepped up and played at a higher level,” says Tonge, “but you have to be grateful for what you’ve achieved rather than what you’ve not achieved.”

Tonge’s achieved much, making it as a professional and playing over 500 professional games, most in England’s top two divisions. That level is beyond Stevenage, but for now they remain small but perfectly formed, success for them to be in the Football League. On Tuesday, they play their second game of the season, a cup match at Ipswich Town.

“The difference between a Premier League and Championship club is that at the higher level you might find more ego,” explains Tonge.

“At Stevenage, there’s no space for that. Everyone has to pull in the right direction to achieve anything. The squad is smaller, the group tighter. Lads are playing for win bonuses which make a difference to their lives.”

No country in the world has the depth of well- supported clubs in levels four, five and six like England does, ticking along with the support of the local community despite more glamorous options available nearby.

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Updated: August 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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