It’s strange how these things seem to come around in circles, but football clubs looking at changing their names seems to be coming back into fashion. After the frankly absurd decision of Gravesend & Northfleet to change their name to “Ebbsfleet United”, seemingly in honour of a new Eurostar railway station being built in the area, another Conference club – Stevenage Borough – are now consulting their supporters over whether it would be a good idea to change their name as well.
There was a brief vogue for name changes in the late 1960s. Leyton Orient became “Orient” in 1967 (they changed their name back twenty years later), Hartlepool United changed their name from “Hartlepools United” to “Hartlepool AFC” in 1968 (they changed back to “Hartlepool United” in 1977), Swansea Town became Swansea City in 1970, and Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic became AFC Bournemouth in 1971 (reportedly in the hope that they would be placed at the top of the alphabetical list of all 92 Football League clubs – something which hasn’t come to pass, as it turns out). There was a reason for it at the time. Although the specific reasons in the cases of the above four were all nominally different, the common cause was “re-branding”. The 1960s had seen a collapse in crowds in the lower divisions with some barely reaching crowds of 1,000. The clubs that changed their names did so for (what would now be commonly known as) a “branding exercise”.
Re-branding seems to be the common reason behind the name change at Gravesend and the consultation at Stevenage. The decision at Gravesend could be seen as pre-emptive, ahead of (what is expected to be) a considerable amount regeneration in the area following the completion of the Eurostar railway station here. At Stevenage, the consultation is being taken with “a marketing and club image viewpoint” – suspicious language, if you ask me. From a footballing perspective, Stevenage is the exception rather than the rule. The town had a succession of clubs that sank without trace dating back to the nineteenth century, before Borough were founded in 1976. The name comes from two primary sources – firstly as thanks to the council, who propped the club up and fed a considerable amount of money into their ground redevelopment in the 1990s (their Broadhall Way stadium is one of the best outside of the Football League), and secondly because the town was granted “Borough” status, which is, for whatever reason, a big deal outside of major cities.
Unfortunately, the names that the club themselves have come up with are almost uniformly abysmal. “Stevenage Town” and “Stevenage Athletic” are both names of former teams in the area, but there is no link between this club and its predecessors. Stevenage is a New Town, expanded rapidly after the Second World War to accommodate the overspill of population from the east and north of London. It is a “New Town” or a “Borough”, rather than a town. “Stevenage Boro” is just plain illiterate (if they change their name to this, they will thoroughly deserve all the mocking that they would undoubtedly receive), and “Stevenage United” is similarly nonsensical, as they are not merging with anybody.
Perhaps they simply don’t realise how unique their name actually is. If you discount Middlesbrough and Peterborough United (in this case, “Borough” is merely part of the name of the town), they have an almost unique suffix to their name. Eastbourne Borough play in the Conference South, but they only acquired their name in 2001, whilst Hampton & Richmond Borough and Harrow Borough are, well, boroughs of London. That leaves just Nuneaton Borough of the Conference South and Solihull Borough of the Southern League. Why change it to become just another “Town”, “Athletic” or “United”, when you can keep a name that no-one else at your level (or, indeed, higher) has got? There is no convincing case for Stevenage Borough to change their name. They should tell their “forward looking” chairman where to stick his fancy ideas.