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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