It seems unlikely that any team in Britain has as important a week as Stevenage Borough have this week. Five points clear at the top of the Blue Square Premier, they face second placed Oxford United and third placed Luton Town on Saturday, before finishing off a run of three matches in six days with an away match against Wimbledon. If they win all three, they will be almost home and dry in the race for a place in the Football League. Should they falter, there is plenty of experience sitting just behind them in the table waiting for them to slip up. Even if things were to go wrong for them in the league, though, they’ve already got the not inconsiderable consolation of one trip to Wembley in the FA Trophy final, which they reached a couple of weeks ago, lined up.
Tonight’s match against Oxford United might just prove to be the last chance saloon for their guests’ chances of winning automatic promotion from the Blue Square Premier this season. Going into the match, Stevenage are five points clear of Oxford, with a considerably greater goal difference. Oxford themselves were the early pace-setters, but their form has dipped in recent weeks. Their win against relegation fodder Gateshead on Saturday was their first in six matches, and that required a decisive goal in stoppage time to hand them a 2-1 win. The harsh assessment of their recent form is that the weight of expectation has got on top of them again, and that they are in the process of handing the league championship to the club.
Unsurprisingly, the lure of Bayern Munich against Manchester United in the Champions League hasn’t had much of an affect on the crowd at Broadhall Way this evening, which is swollen by a massive travelling Oxford United support to over 5,700 people packed into a ground that has changed beyond recognition over the last fifteen years or so. They won the Football Conference once before, in 1996, but were denied promotion because their ground wasn’t up to Football League standards. There’s no danger of that happening this season. Extensive money has been spent on bringing the ground up to and beyond the minimum requirements of the Football League. It’s a testimony to the excellent relationship between the football club and the local council, who purchased the ground in 1980, four years after Borough’s formation.
Physical play is something that seasoned Blue Square Premier watchers will be more than used to and nervousness is probably to be expected from a fixture upon which so much could end up resting, but it doesn’t make for an especially edifying opening quarter of the match. Stevenage, however, settle more quickly than Oxford and pass the ball around as well as can be expected on a pitch that is starting to look a little threadbare and with wind and rain that makes anything too composed feel as if it might be a little too much effort. The difficult conditions – there has been what it would be fair to describe as a “seasonable” amount of rain falling in North Hertfordshire today – seem to be affecting the visitors more than the home side, though. Still, though, Stevenage prod and poke at the Oxford defence looking for an opening. Tim Sills has a shot well saved by Ryan Clarke and, in the best chance of the half, the lively Sills heads against the Oxford crossbar. The first half ends goalless, but Stevenage have had the better of things.
Five minutes into the second half comes a moment that may yet prove to be a definitive one in the season of both clubs, as Oxford’s David Bridges fells Stevenage’s Jake Wright from a corner taken by Andrew Drury and the referee signals for a penalty. It has felt as if a moment such as this could turn the evening one way or the other, and Scott Laird defies the palpable tension on the terraces and sends Clarke the wrong way to convert the penalty with ease and give Stevenage the lead. As the hour ticks over, Chris Beardsley is sent through but Clarke is quick from his line and blocks well.
In difficult conditions, the supply chain to Oxford’s attack seems comfortably stymied by a robust and efficient Stevenage defence. Oxford do have a couple of chances to draw level, though. Midway through the half, Simon Clist has a free-kick tipped over by the Stevenage goalkeeper Chris Day and ten minutes later Matthew Green sees a header flash just wide of the left hand post. From here on, though, Stevenage comfortably soak up Oxford’s attack and the full time whistle comes with a telling sight – the Stevenage players celebrate three points well earned, but there are isn’t a great deal of championship winning largesse on display. This is a big win in the overall context of the season, but they still have two tricky matches over the Easter weekend which could yet throw the title race back open.
The result is a double blow for Oxford United, who now seem likely to be condemned to the Blue Square Premier play-offs again. Not only have they now slipped eight points behind Stevenage with seven matches to play, but they have also been leap-frogged in the league table by Luton Town, whose remarkable 8-0 win against Hayes & Yeading United on Saturday has been followed up with a 4-0 this evening against Salisbury City which puts them into second place in the table and drops Oxford into third place. These two matches might have been matches that Luton would have been expected to win, but they have now won seven matches in a row in the league and and have scored a remarkable eighteen goals in their last three. They now travel to Stevenage on Saturday for a match which may, if Stevenage can win it, may prove to be the one that is a great leap forward for a club that was only formed in 1976. A Hertfordshire-Bedfordshire derby between the league’s top two teams with, potentially, the league title at stake awaits on Easter Saturday.