The New Town Effect: Brutalism & Abrasive Personalities At Crawley And Stevenage

By on Jan 31, 2012 in English League Football, History, Latest | 10 comments

If the draw for the Fifth Round of this year’s FA Cup was notable for anything in particular, what really stood out was the presence of two clubs for whom an appearance at this stage of the competition would been inconceivable just a couple of decades ago. Last weekend, both Crawley Town and Stevenage chalked up notable wins in the Fourth Round of the competition – both by a single goal, with Crawley’s coming at Hull City and Stevenage’s against Notts County - and the reward for each is a home match against Premier League in the next round, in the form of Stoke City and Tottenham Hotspur respectively. Both are clubs that have only recently been promoted into the Football League and both are sides that had something of an adventure in last year’s competition, with Stevenage beating Newcastle United and Crawley almost holding Manchester United to a draw at Old Trafford.

Yet both sides remain treated with ambivalence by the supporters of other clubs. Crawley’s FA Cup run last year was treated with a collective shrug of the shoulders from the supporters of other smaller clubs, while Stevenage also remain the recipients of ambivalence in some quarters. There are solid and prosaic reasons as to why this be. The continuing presence of Steve Evans at Crawley Town is a convincing reason as to why the Sussex club has not touched the hearts of many – a subject that we have touched upon before on this site – but Stevenage may find that their stock rises amongst the supporters of other clubs following the departure of the similarly disliked Graham Westley for Preston North End earlier this month. Upwards ascent and a disagreeable manager, however, aren’t the only things that these two clubs have had in common, because both Crawley Town and Stevenage FC are a result of one specific piece of legislation – The New Towns Act of 1946.

The seeds of this act were lain at the very end of the nineteenth century with the Garden City movement, which was formluated by Sir Ebenezer Howard. Garden Cities were intended to be a utopian vision of what a planned community could be like – planned, self-contained communities surrounded by “greenbelts” (parks), containing residential, industrial and agricultural areas which would be entirely self-sufficient by the time of their completion. Only two were completed in Britain – Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, just to the north of London – but their influence was clear when, at the end of the Second World War, New Towns were planned to redistribute and relocate people that had lost their homes during the war. Seventeen New Towns were introduced by the act, mostly around London and in the North-East of England, with more being designated at later dates.

Significantly, these communities were expansions of communities that already existed and this expansion very much suited Crawley Town, who in the immediate post-war years were members of the Sussex County League. The expansion of the town – the population of which increased from around 9,500 in 1946 to over 107,000 by 2010 – allowed the club to take a step up to Southern League in 1963, and the club would stay in in this league until winning the Southern League Premier Division in 2004 took the club up into the Football Conference for the first time. What was important in this step up was their move from their old Town Mead ground to the council-owned Broadfield Stadium in 1997. Although on the outskirts of the town this coincided with an increase in attendances, but the club would find itself getting into considerable difficulty before a wealthy backer – or backers –  came to their rescue.

The history of football in Stevenage is a little more convoluted, with Stevenage Town, extant since 1894, merging with another club called Stevenage Rangers in 1956 to form Stevenage FC, before reverting to Stevenage Town in 1960. They joined the Southern League in 1963 and turned professional, but folded five years later and were replaced by another club, Stevenage Athletic. Athetic were allowed into the Southern League in 1970 but they went the same way as Stevenage Town and folded in 1976, to be replaced by Stevenage Borough. This club started out in the United Counties League, but its rapid ascent began towards the end of the 1980s with quick promotions from the nether regions of the Isthmian League to the Football Conference, but some of this success came at the price, to an extent, of the reputation of the club.

Having reached the fifth division of English football, Stevenage’s chairman at the time, Victor Green, was informed by officials of the Football League that the club’s Broadhall Way ground would not meet the required standard for the club to be promoted at the end of the 1995/96 season. It was subsequently reported that Green then approached Mike Bateson, then the chairman of the Football League’s bottom club Torquay United, with a bizarre offer – if Bateson paid Green £30,000, then Green would not sell striker Barry Hayles, the reckoning being that the striker would prove crucial to Stevenage’s title challenge and that if Stevenage won the Football Conference, Torquay would be spared relegation from what was then called Division Three. Rather than accept the offer, Bateson reported the matter to the Football Association and in 1997 Stevenage were handed a suspended £25,000 fine and were ordered to pay £10,000 in costs over their part in this little caper.

Despite an FA Cup run that took in two matches against Newcastle United – and more publicity, this time regarding the venue of the match, courtesy of the seemingly publicity-addicted Green – by 1999 the club was in financial difficulty and Green announced that he would close the club if he couldn’t find a buyer. Fortunately, there was a buyer out there in the form of businessman Phil Wallace, but the arrival of Graham Westley at the club in 2003 gave Stevenage-sceptics fresh reason for disapproval. Westley, one of football’s original blue sky thinkers, had previously been both the owner and manager at Blue Square Premier club Farnborough Town, but the circumstances of his departure would go on to have serious ramifications for the club that he left behind. Farnborough’s run to the Third Round of the FA Cup in 2003 saw them drawn to play Arsenal in a match that was estimated to have earned the club around £500,000. Within days of the match – which ended, perhaps predictably, in a 5-1 defeat – though, Westley was off to Stevenage with his assistant manager, the goalkeeping coach and seven players.

New owner Vic Searle stepped in at Farnborough shortly afterwards, but according to him, “There was a reported £500,000 made out of the Arsenal game. As far as I’m aware, none of it came into the club”, before adding that, “I was under the impression that I was taking over debt free, while in truth we owe around £180,000 – and that is crippling us.” Westley stayed at Stevenage for three and a half years. By May of 2007, Farnborough Town had folded, but Westley returned to the club in 2008, winning them the FA Trophy in 2009 and taking the club into the Football League a year later. By the time he left the club for Preston North End, they were in League One and in with an excellent chance of making a play-off place at the end of this season. Stevenage Borough, meanwhile, dropped the “Borough” from their name upon promotion into the Football League.

Westley is a manager whose gamesmanship has been a source of constant criticism down the years, but the same also applies to the Crawley manager Steve Evans. Even those that have reconciled themselves to the fact that those who predicted that they would be “bust by Christmas” were premature to say the least, Evans’ continuing involvement at the club remains enough of a reason for the cub to have borderline pariah status. His crocodile tears in court over his tax fraud at Boston United, coupled with almost everything about his demeanour since Crawley Town came into money, including the way that he has behaved in front of rival players and the managers of other clubs has frequently overstepped the mark of what should be considered acceptable from anyone associated with a football club. Articles such as this reflect terribly badly upon the club, and their supporters deserve better from somebody that is, whether they like it or not (and whether fairly or not, because this is a matter of outside perception rather than fundamental truth of any sort), reflecting their club in a very bad light. They may well not care about this while everything is going well at Broadfield Stadium – they may find, however, it matters more should their recent progress start to stall.

For all the criticism of Evans, Westley, money and whatever else may be responsible for regarding the lukewarm reception that their clubs receive, though, there is a possibility that displeasure at their success may have something to do with something a little more structural. Both Crawley and Stevenage developed as towns in the post-war era, when brutalist architecture, with its severe angles and exposed concrete, was very much a la mode. Few of the New Towns built after the Second World War, therefore, are particularly easy on the eye and there is a possibility that a degree of the stigma attached to these towns has transferred itself to its football clubs. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the reputation of Stevenage FC revives now that Gary Smith – a manager with no baggage in England – is in charge of the club or, more hypothetically, whether Crawley’s reputation would improve if Steve Evans were to leave the club, or at least show a little more grace and humility.

Ultimately, however, the question of how a football club chooses to be perceived is entirely its own choice. Can any club, however, outside of the top half dozen in the Premier League truly afford to alienate anybody? Even if the answer to this question was, in the case of either of these two clubs, “yes”, English football’s greatest asset is its meritocracy and the cases of Crawley Town and Stevenage FC might, in a parallel universe, be a cause for the celebration of that. Whilst there might have been a degree of good old fashioned snobbishness directed at the towns concerned with regard to these two clubs, however, it has long felt as if the ire aimed at them has had more solid foundations, based upon the behaviour of certain individuals connected with those clubs. The good news for both is that people can be replaced, that deals with the devil don’t have to be signed. Stevenage’s reputation may rise now that Graham Westley has gone elsewhere. Perhaps the question that the owners of Crawley Town will end up asking themselves is that of how long they are prepared to put up with the histrionics of Steve Evans, every single week. While they’re winning, it may remain a trade-off worth making, but very, very few clubs continue to win indefinitely.

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    10 Comments

  1. Slightly biased perhaps, but my views of Stevenage are somewhat clouded by a rather fractious FA Cup tie against the Mighty U’s. After kicking us off the park at the Abbey Stadium they then proceeded to con the ref into sending off to of our players. in fact so piss poor was Brian Coddington’s performance in the middle of the park, he never refereed another matching featuring Cambridge United… But as we say, Stevenage Borough, Peterborough – just sh*t holes on the A1…

    As to Crawley – the Conference Prem is so much better without them. A team that bank-rolled itself out of the league with a complete lack of financial transparency. managed by the most odious convicted criminal in football. Now Steve Evans to Stevenage… there’s a thought.

    SteveinSoCal

    February 1, 2012

  2. I have no time for either club, however they are not the worst New Town football, erm, thing not by a long shot.

    Dermot O'Dreary

    February 1, 2012

  3. It seems that you base your dislike of Crawley purely on the fact that Steve Evans is the manager here? Many teams have managers whom it is easy for opposition supports to dislike, and I can even think of a Premiership manager who is in a spot of legal bother for his tax troubles. Most supporters will tolerate any manager so long as they’re winning no matter how ungenial they are.

    I think most supporters’ real problem with Crawley is perhaps jealousy derived from both our sudden rise up the leagues and the fact that we are a ‘New Town’ – both completely understandable.

    As written, we have had torrid financial times ourselves under the Majeeds so we’re just happy to not have to worry about going bust (yet….!), winning is just a bonus.

    Keep up the good work.

    Sam

    February 1, 2012

  4. The basic problem I have with both Crawley and Stevenage is the ‘Johnny-come-lately’ element – and the feeling that their success has been bought rather than earned. I don’t think either club was much liked in non-League circles – certainly not in those which I frequent. In addition, Crawley’s well-publicised financial difficulties should really have seen them demoted a few years ago, before the present backers (who may well be entirely honiurable men – and women) and Mr. Evans (of whom I offer no opinion) came on the scene. Mr. Westley may do well at Preston, but he may equally put a lot of folk’s backs up.

    mike

    February 3, 2012

  5. Unfortunately Mike you are ill informed, as Stevenage have not brought their success. We have no real money, and run debt free as our chairman who is wealthy doesnt put money into the club, as he rightly believes it should pay for itself. The only time our club makes money is through cup games or finishing positions. All profit is then put back into the club either buying players or ground improvements

    Dave

    February 6, 2012

  6. “and the feeling that their success has been bought rather than earned.”

    Mike, that comment can only be levelled at Crawley. Stevenage are in a sound financial state but this is on the back of the club being run in a prudent business-like fashion by our Chairman Phil Wallace. This has been helped by the sales of George Boyd and Steve Morison (including a sell on of IIRC £500,000 when he moved to Norwich) and the income received from our 3 recent Wembley appearances in the FA Trophy, our recent FA Cup runs and league successes.

    Crawley have made several big-money signings on the back of money received from their backers, often out-bidding clubs from a higher level, whereas Stevenage’s record signing was Craig Reid for an undisclosed fee that could potentially have reached 6 figures, but that included 2 players in part-exchange. Most of our squad were signed on frees or fairly small sums of less than £20k

    Ian

    February 6, 2012

  7. Mike,

    How on earth can you say Stevenage’s success has “been bought rather than earned”? What are you basing that comment on? Utterly bizarre comment. If anything, it’s the absolute opposite. How Stevenage have achieved their success is the polar opposite to how Crawley have achieved theirs.

    Stevenage’s current squad of players, of which most were part of the Conference winning squad in 2009-10, have worked tremendously hard over the last few seasons (putting in 9-5 shifts in training) – this is what has given them an advantage, a USP, and a constant fighting chance of upsetting the odds as they have been doing. Comparing our budget to a lot of League One, and indeed League Two sides, it is clear to see that Stevenage are punching well above their weight.

    You go through the squad:-

    - Alan Julian (free transfer)
    - Lawrie Wilson (free transfer)
    - Scott Laird (small undisclosed fee)
    - Darius Charles (“small four figure” tribunal fee)
    - Jon Ashton (small undisclosed fee)
    - Phil Edwards (free transfer)
    - Darren Murphy (free transfer)
    - Stacy Long (free transfer)
    - Craig Reid (record transfer signing at £50k)
    - Jennison Myrie-Williams (free transfer)
    - Ben May (free transfer)
    - Joel Byrom (£15,000)
    - Mark Roberts (£4,000)
    - Luke Freeman (undisclosed fee – but under £50k)
    - Chris Day (free transfer)
    - Peter Winn ( free transfer)
    - Don Cowan (undisclosed fee – but under £50k)
    - Michael Thalassitis (youth player)
    - Chris Beardsley (free transfer)
    - John Mousinho (free transfer)
    - Chuks Aneke (loan)
    - Rob Sinclair (free transfer)
    - Michael Bostwick (free transfer)
    - Ronnie Henry ( free transfer)
    - Robin Shroot (free transfer)

    Throw in the fact that Stevenage have had three recent FA Trophy Finals (at Wembley), two FA Cup runs that have generated the best part of a £1Million, two play-off campaigns, and a number of bumper 4,000+ crowds, and it is clear to see that Stevenage have been extremely prudent with their dollar.

    What’s happening at Stevenage right now is a MASSIVE modern day success story in football – a small team built on a small budget and a strong work ethic, upsetting the odds by sitting in the play-off places in League One, indeed nestled alongside Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Huddersfield – all of which have signed players recently that equate to three times the amount of the whole of Stevenage’s squad put together, throw in the wages on top of that, too.

    As you can probably tell, ignorance like Mikes really gets my goat, but then again, it’s probably easier for him to spout such ill-informed garbage than to actually research the facts.

    Tahn

    February 6, 2012

  8. I can certainly understand why Westley puts people’s backs up…but the notion ( Mike ) that its been achieved by throwing money at it simply isnt true. Stevenage have never had ‘big gates’ for their level..even in the Conference to be honest..these days they average around 3800…in League 1 !! You cant buy and pay the wages of players with silky skills with that kind of gate money..The chairman isnt a Russian Billionaire and the books balance so theres no bank rolling. The achievements are on the back of team spirit, fitness and hard work. Its true the tactics are sometimes ‘in yer face’ ..but if all these other lovely clubs play such nice football…they should be able to cope with that surely ? No the fact is that Stevenage are the Stoke city of League one..not pretty but effective. I hope that now Westley has moved on some grudging admiration might come Stevenage’s way. After all we all had a soft spot for The Crazy gamg at Wimbledon..and there are lots of comparisons.

    Dave

    February 6, 2012

  9. As Dave said, there are many parallels with Wimbledon. Good on Stevenage!

    sssalop

    February 7, 2012

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