These aren’t particularly happy times just to the north of London. The battle for the control of Watford still threatens to rip the club in half, while Luton Town’s start to life in the Blue Square Premier hasn’t exactly gone according to plan either. Stevenage Borough, however, are on the rise. There was a time that Borough were very much arrivistes in the non-league game. They were promoted rapidly into the top division of non-league football and were denied a place in the Football League in 1996 because of issues over the condition of their ground, Broadhall Way.
They haven’t come that close again since then, but two FA Trophy wins in three years have been a clear indication that they may be capable of much better. This season, the Blue Square Premier has started to turn into a two horse race between Stevenage and Oxford United, but it is Stevenage that have built up a head of steam of late with only one league defeat since August and with Oxford’s trip to Rushden already having fallen foul of the weather, a win will put them top of the Blue Square Premier table for the start of the new year. It will only be by a single point and Oxford will have three games in hand, but it would be a start.
Cambridge United, meanwhile, continue without rudder in the middle of the table. Many felt that this could be their season after they finished second in the table last season behind Burton Albion, but the pre-season disharmony that led to the departure of chairman George Rolls and involved the sacking and rehiring of manager Martin Ling appears to have cast a shadow over the entire first half of their season. A home defeat at the hands of the Stevenage on Boxing Day means that, as the new year chimes in, the play-off positions are starting to slide from view. Without a win since the start of December, Ling’s position at the club is starting to look vulnerable.
If Broadhall Way wasn’t fit for the Football League fourteen years ago, it certainly is now. Fitted out with seating and terracing behind one goal and along one terrace each, it now holds a shade over 7,000 people and is living proof of the benefits of a good working relationship with the local council. There is an element of surprise that the pitch is playable, considering that the recent wintry weather hasn’t completely departed just yet, but it is a bright, sunny afternoon and the pitch is in perfect condition. This news is about as good as things get for Cambridge United.
The phrase “they wanted it more” is an overused one in modern football, but it seems apt to describe just one of the several differences between the two sides. Stevenage are quicker on and off the ball, they are better organised and more exact, and it comes as no great surprise when they take the lead after twenty-five minutes when Lee Boylan’s shot is blocked by the Cambridge goalkeeper Danny Potter, only for Stacy Long to put the ball back over for Yemi Odubade to head in from close range. The goal at least sparks some life into Cambridge, and they summon an equalizer when Courtney Pitt’s free-kick is flicked in by Danny Crow from the edge of the penalty area. The state of parity lasts until injury time in the first half before Borough break again on the left hand side, Odubade rolls the ball inside and Boylan strokes the ball calmly wide of Potter and into the bottom corner of the net.
Perhaps it is the timing of the goal that knocks the stuffing out of Cambridge United. They start the second half as if still in a state of shock from conceding a goal right on half-time, and six minutes in Stevenage extend their lead and effectively kill the game off. A deep cross from the right hand side seems at first glance to have been overhit, but Odubade pulls it back across the face of goal and Chris Beardsley heads in from close range. Just over ten minutes later, Boylan appears to mis-control a ball threaded through to him, but the two Cambridge defenders clatter into each other rather than clearing the danger and Boylan takes full advantage of his second chance to roll the ball past Potter for the fourth goal.
With the game all but sewn up, Stevenage don’t have any difficulty in shutting up shop and the most significant excitement of the rest of the afternoon comes with five minutes to play when the Cambridge captain Brian Saah contrives to get himself sent off for an utterly needless second yellow card after a foul on Stacy Long. It’s a dictionary definition moment – the perfect summary of Cambridge’s afternoon and, increasingly, the way that their season is headed. Stevenage are top of the table, but Cambridge United start 2010 in twelfth place in the Blue Square Premier, ten points off a play-off place and with with four of the six clubs between them and that last play-off place having played fewer games than them.
Stevenage, meanwhile, are starting to pile the pressure on Oxford United at the top of the table. Oxford may have three games in hand, but the psychological advantage now lies with Stevenage. Oxford have only lost twice this season (as have Stevenage). The difference between the two sides has been home form – Oxford have won ten and drawn one from eleven at home while Stevenage have won nine and drawn five – so much may come down to whether Oxford can keep that sort of form going. Oxford United may not be demonstrating outward signs of panic – it’s difficult to when your matches keeping getting called off – but the signs are that there is plenty of life in the race to get into the Football League left this season.