Somebody hasn’t been smiling on the football authorities at the end of this season. The one year that the play-offs have to be moved from London to Manchester – and this, for the record is not a comment on whether the current volume of matches that are being played at Wembley is anything like a good thing – ends up being the year in which the majority of clubs that would have been playing there would likely have preferred to have been playing in London instead. So it is that Stevenage FC and Torquay United make the long trip north for this afternoon’s League Two play-off final this afternoon. Not only overshone by the spectre of this evening’s clash of the titans at Wembley, the notion that providence is only aided by a major road accident on the M6, which holds coachloads of supporters up on their way to the match. A little common sense prevails, though, and kick-off is delayed by fifteen minutes to allow them to take their places.
Needle can come from the strangest places, and there is a history between Stevenage and Torquay United. In 1996, Torquay United finished bottom of the the Football League, but were spared relegation because Stevenage – who had won the Football Conference at the same time – hadn’t brought their ground up to scratch. Stevenage’s owner Victor Green, however, tried a stunt that landed his club in hot water in approaching Torquay United for money to ‘ensure’ that they didn’t sell leading scorer Barry Hayles during the title run-in. The Torquay chairman Mike Bateson, however, was recording the telephone calls during which these conversations were taking place and Stevenage received a £25,000 suspended fine for their troubles. Torquay did slip out of the Football League in the end, but won their way back through the play-offs two years ago. Stevenage followed them last season.
Founded from the ashes of various failed attempts to cement a club in the town, Stevenage’s rapid rise up the pyramid (from Division Two North of the Isthmian League to the Football Conference between 1991 and 1994) was largely funded by Green and although there is a story to be told about this ascent, there remains a degree of ambivalence towards the club from outside on account of Graham Westley’s involvement at Broadhall Way. Westley had been the manager of Farnborough Town when they played Farnborough Town in the Third Round of the FA Cup at Highbury. Westley was the chairman, manager and majority share-holder of the club at the time, but left for Stevenage shortly afterwards to taking with him his assistant, the goalkeeping coach and seven players. Farnborough Town ended up – in spite of what should have been a healthy windfall from the cup run – heavily in debt and folded in 2007.
That, however, is the past and today is all about the present. There are around 11,000 people at Old Trafford today (which arguably puts the 18,000 crowd at last week’s match between Luton and Wimbledon into perspective), but this is still more than the average crowd and they are doing their best to kick up a din amongst the seventy-six and a half thousand red tip-up seats of Old Trafford. Stevenage, the division’s form team, start strongly and within ten minutes Craig Reid’s 12-yard shot is blocked by Torquay’s Guy Branston. Three minutes later, John Mousinho receives the ball from Darius Charles(who has had an excellent start to the match) but sees his shot saved by the Torquay goalkeeper Bevan. Still, though, Stevenage push. Charles might have had a penalty for a push were it not for the over-zealous way in which he throws himself to the ground. A couple of minutes prior, he might have scored, but shot over. After forty-one minutes, though, the goal comes and it is one worthy of winning the game. Charles – again! – nudges the ball inside to Mousinho, who suddenly accelerates forward and lashes a low shot across Bevan from a slight angle and into the bottom corner. Torquay recover quickly – Branston meets a corner within a couple of minutes – and sees his header flash just wide – but Stevenage, as they did in their semi-final against Accrington Stanley, looked controlled and well-organised, and they fully deserve their lead at the break.
If the first half could have been described as cagey, then Torquay United need to open things up a little bit and, to their credit, they come out at the start of the second half with a more positive outlook, and four minutes in Billy Kee is put through, but only sees his shot, a weak one, blocked by the Stevenage goalkeeper Chris Day. Torquay continue to pour forward, and Chris Zebroski shoots into the side netting. Six minutes Zebroksi shoots over from the edge of the penalty area. The big chance comes with fifteen minutes to play, when Jake Robinson shoots from the edge of the penalty area, past Day’s outstretched hand and out off the crossbar. From there on, though, Stevenage are comfortable. There is one telling moment, deep into injury time at the end of the match. The ball is pushed towards the corner flag, but Torquay can’t work the ball towards the centre. The attack is snuffed out by six Stevenage players, all hustling to force the ball away to safety. The final whistle comes with the ball on the edge of the Torquay penalty area and Stevenage just about to, surely, add a second goal.
The performance of both of these clubs over the course of this season can be looked upon as confirmation of the theory that a spell in the Blue Square Premier can be good for a club. This time last year, Stevenage were celebrating promotion into the Football League for the first time. Next season, they will line up alongside the Sheffields United and Wednesday, Charlton Athletic and the like, and they will do so as equals. Torquay United, meanwhile, have also done very well this season to get this far. It may not mean much to their supporters this evening, but their promotion back into the Football League has also sparked a revival that may continue into next season. Edged out, possibly as a result of an over-cautious first half performance, they may look forward to next season, as long as they can keep this team together. This afternoon, however, belongs to Stevenage FC.
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