Many a preseason favourite for the title have struggled to start their campaign in the manner that the media hype would suggest, but few have done so quite as spectacularly as Stevenage Borough.
Returning manager Graham Westley had made a number of eye-catching and proven signings over the summer, including Lee Boylan and Mark Albrighton from Cambridge, Eddie Anaclet from Oxford, and Iyseden Christie from Kidderminster.
The squad looked impressive and had many pundits tipping them for the top, but three heavy defeats and two draws see Stevenage in the bottom four, and if Westley was sacked tomorrow few Boro fans would shed tears at his departure.
The promotion that never was
Boro have existed in their current guise since 1976 after Stevenage Athletic folded. Since then they’’ve slowly worked their way up the pyramid, including an incredible season in 1990 that saw them walk away with the Ryman Division Two North title, amassing 107 points along the way.
Promotion after promotion followed and soon Stevenage were in the Conference, where they in 1996 they briefly became a cause célèbre among football fans (bar Arsenal supporters, who’ve always favoured Barnet, while Spurs fans prefer Boro).
That year Boro stormed to the Conference title in just their second season at that level, but due to FA rules were denied promotion to the football league because their ground wasn’t up to scratch.
Their plight attracted much sympathy but any goodwill fans of rival clubs had towards Stevenage went with the arrival of Graham Westley.
Westley: not the most popular man in football
The years running up to the Millennium hadn’’t been kind to Boro and they were rescued from financial meltdown by former Boreham Wood chairman Phil Wallace. But the club had now gone from title challengers to relegation strugglers and needed a new manager to save them from the drop.
Enter in 2003, stage right with bags of dosh, Graham Westley, swiftly pursued by a baying mob of Farnborough fans.
Westley had an unremarkable playing career, starting out at QPR before slipping down the leagues and turning out for a number of non-league teams. But he also had a pretty shrewd business brain, making plenty of money through outside interests to the point where he had enough to buy a controlling stake in Farnborough Town. Modestly, he installed himself as manager.
Arsenal fans may remember Westley had this point. In 2003 Farnborough had reached the fourth round of the FA Cup and had been drawn at home to the then-Premiership champions. Wanting to boost the profits from the game, Farnborough switched the game to Highbury (a move that lead to an FA rule change) and went down 5-1.
A few days later, Westley did one to Stevenage with much of his cash and plenty of the first team, leaving Town in £200,000 worth of debt. A few seasons later, they went into liquidation.
Even in the dog-eat-dog world of football, the nature of Westley’s arrival left many Boro fans somewhat uncomfortable but had reason to be grateful to him as he turned around certain relegation and started to re-establish them at the top of the Conference.
It’’s fair to say Westley was not a popular man in non-league circles, and not just for the manner of his departure from Farnborough. The outspoken boss had a habit of winding up opposition managers, clubs, and especially fans with an unerring ability to pinpoint the exact way of getting under their skin.
But while this made Stevenage the club everybody wanted to beat, and Westley the man everybody loved to hate, there was still a grudging respect. He took Boro within 90 minutes of promotion to the league and was ever-present in the top 5. As his newspaper column tagline said: love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.
The post-Westley years.
In 2006 Westley had run his course and announced he wouldn’t be seeking a new contract with the club. While he went off to Rushden and Diamonds, where he was sacked after 13 games due to a major falling out with the board, Boro appointed the up-and-coming Mark Stimson.
Stimson had achieved miracles at Grays Athletic, where he’’d nurtured a young set of players to successive promotions, two FA Trophies, and the play-offs in their first season in the Conference. Boro was a chance for him to go even further.
Yet it didn’t quite start as hoped, as Stimson looked to rebuild. Stevenage had a lethal attack but a hopeless defence and his early matches were usually high-scoring affairs, but produced few wins. Rather than promotion, Boro had to settle for mid-table but there was plenty of promise.
The next season Stevenage laid down a marker to the rest of the teams as Stimson’’s squad started to come good, adding defensive nous to a lethal attack, and by autumn it looked as if they would be serious title challengers.
But success at a lower level has bigger clubs taking interest and the lure of managing in the league was too much for Stimson. In October he left to take up the hotseat at Gillingham, and come January several Boro players followed suit.
But chairman Phil Wallace had an ace up his sleeve and Stimson’’s replacement was announced as none other than former England caretaker Peter Taylor, newly-sacked from Crystal Palace. It was a statement of intent to show Boro still meant business.
Except it didn’t quite happen that way. Faced with a substantial mid-season rebuilding job, Taylor couldn’t quite get his team to gel and they made the slow, agonising slip from play-off certs to also-runs, failing again to make the top five.
Taylor, on a short-term contract and freed up again to manage in the league, was never likely to stick around and left to take charge of Wycombe, leaving Wallace searching for a third manager in as many years.
Enter, stage right, Graham Westley, following his short-lived time at Rushden and Diamonds, and a spell at Kettering.
The not remotely prodigal son returns
Westley’’s return was not exactly welcomed by the Boro faithful, many of whom had grown tired first time around of his constant feuds with other clubs and a deeply unattractive style of hoofball. Some even threatened to rip up their season tickets.
Yet Westley said he’’d learnt lessons and wanted to play a more attractive style of football, while keeping mercifully quiet during his first couple of months in charge.
Indeed, during the close season it looked as if he might be on the way to proving his doubters wrong again. A host of proven Conference players, plus a few promising young players and a decent pre-season gave Stevenage a menacing look.
The look didn’t last as Wrexham thrashed Boro 5-0 in the season opener at the Racecourse Ground, followed by a 3-1 home defeat to Conference new boys Eastbourne.
A 1-1 draw at home to Weymouth was next on the cards before a 4-0 loss at Ebbsfleet, a match the FC Boro blog described as “woeful” and “the worst Boro performance in some time”.
At the start of the season, yesterday’s draw with Crawley would have been seen as disappointing but at the moment fans will take comfort in the improved performance and numerous chances on goal, even if it was a defensive mix-up that led to Crawley’s equaliser. The return of star striker Steve Morison is also cause for optimism but it’s clear defense is the priority.
If it’s any consolation for Stevenage, the Blue Square Premier has a decidedly odd look to it with unfancied Salisbury topping the table this morning, and supposed whipping boys Barrow sitting pretty in third, while other pre-season favourites Torquay and Oxford have also failed to get going and sit just above the bottom four.
Westley, then, has the biggest challenge of his managerial career so far. He described the loss to Wrexham as a ‘fluke’. Since then, there have been far too many of these for the Broadhall Way faithful. Next up are tough trips to in-form Barrow and hard-to-beat Kettering before Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion at home. Westley will be desperately hoping to end the flukes and register Boro’s first win of the season by then.