A few weeks ago, I congratulated the Nationwide Conference for scheduling a round of local derby matches for Boxing Day. Never mind that I couldn’t go: it provided a big boost to crowds at a level of football where match day revenue means more or less everything.
Bearing this in mind, why on earth did they choose to put the return fixtures on this evening? The coldest day of the winter, two days before pay day, when I’m on the late shift at work. I couldn’t even listen to it on the radio. But never mind. A first derby win against our rivals from just up the A1 in fourteen years is plenty of compensation.
I use the word “rivals” advisedly, because St Albans and Stevenage have never really had the opportunity to form a proper rivalry. St Albans’ traditional local rivals were Enfield and Hendon. Raw local rivalries brought about from years of pitched battles in the Isthmian League. The nature of non-league being more transitory than the Football League, they didn’t meet for a long time. Enfield went into the Conference in 1982, and didn’t return until 1990. By the early 1990s, Hendon were at the start of a slow and painful decline, playing in front of pitiful crowds at a decaying stadium in North London. Enfield had built a strong rivalry with Barnet whilst playing in the Conference. We weren’t their big match any more. Stevenage, albeit briefly, filled a void.
Founded as recently as 1977, they had shot through the county leagues and finally arrived in the Isthmian League Premier Division in 1992. This coincided with St Albans’ best season in at least a generation, but it was clear to see which team was going places and which team was continuing to stagnate. In 1992/93, we finished in second place in the table, but the team were denied promotion on account of the tree (not the only problem with the ground at the time, but it earned the club a fleeting moment of infamy with which we are still associated).
By the start of the following season, our squad was starting to fall to pieces at the seams, as key players left, frustrated at our inability to bring the ground up to standard. Meanwhile, Stevenage Borough Council were lavishing money on their Broadhall Way ground and sponsoring the club. Our council seemed to want us out of the district altogether. In 1993/94, they walked away with promotion to the Conference, beating us home and away on the way, and into a hilarious decade of not quite being good enough to get promoted into the Football League (and, on one occasion, being good enough to be promoted to the League and failing because their ground wasn’t ready in time).
At the end of last season, St Albans finally, after 19 years of trying, won promotion into the Nationwide Conference. But Stevenage had moved on. Established in the Conference, their “traditional” rivalries (to the extent that any football club younger than me can have anything “traditional” about them whatsoever) with Barnet and Rushden & Diamonds. Some of their supporters even turned out when we won our promotion play-off final at their ground last May. On Boxing Day, they won 3-2 at Clarence Park, but the crowd was the biggest that The Saints had seen for a League match since 1993. Tonight, we went to their place, and got some sort of revenge – coming from behind with two goals in four minutes. St Albans may or may not stay up this season (they stay in the relegation places at the foot of this years Nationwide Conference table), but it was at least another small ray of sunshine in what has been a difficult season.
Elsewhere in the Conference, Oxford United slipped further behind the leaders Dagenham & Redbridge, going down 1-0 at Woking, whilst Dagenham won at Grays. Finally, a quick word about Weymouth, who have been mentioned on here before. They, of course, lost their management team and five players a couple of weeks ago due to financial meltdown, and played Exeter City in their first match since it all went off tonight. They lost 4-0, and Lee Elam, making his debut for Exeter having signed from Weymouth… scored a hat-trick. Football can be so harsh, sometimes.