Jake Farrell5 Comments


Jake Farrell5 Comments

As you pull into the train station, heading north, you are greeted with the sight of what is officially, and generously, called “The Kings Park”. It's pan-flat, grey and crushingly boring; essentially a car park studded with identikit retail units. Known to the locals by a more prosaic name - “The Leisure Park” - it's a sad, synthetic centrepiece for a town, a place to fill the hours and lighten the wallet, teeming with soulless restaurant chains, a looming multiplex cinema and, typically and inexplicably, a ten-pin bowling alley.

The station roughly divides this industrial centre and to its east a web of dual carriageways and terraced housing sprawls without incident, eventually reaching rolling Hertfordshire countryside. Returning commuters are usually the only people who get off the train . For the others it’s just a place to go through on the way to anywhere else. As the doors beep and hiss open you hear a recorded announcement which, but for the sterile voice that says it, might have the confrontational, defiant feeling of a football chant: “Stevenage. This is Stevenage.”

Stevenage sits thirty miles north of London - but even at that distance the capital’s long shadow is still keenly felt. Built in the aftermath of the Second World War, and bestowed with the odd distinction of being “The World's First New Town”, it is a place indelibly marked by the unique historical, geographical and social circumstance that created it. 

Through its evolution and growth it has faced a challenge to define itself in relation to its surroundings, struggled against a context that has sometimes made it feel broken and forgotten. The primary force in combating these issues over the last decade hasn't been economic investment or political intervention – it has been Stevenage Football Club. 

In less recent history, prior to the war, Stevenage was little more than sparsely populated farmland and a dozing high-street, a town held in stasis since the carriages from the Great North Road dried up and the trains rolled in. The peace was broken by the 1944 Abercrombie plan. It, and the government that introduced it, sought to deal with the urban nightmare of war-ravaged London by substantially altering the “satellite towns” clinging to its fringes. Stevenage was about to change.

Plans were drawn up, the residents were consulted (with 52% voting that they were against the expansion) and Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning in the Clement Attlee government, told a booing, resistant crowd outside the town hall “It's no use your jeering; it's got to be done. It was a ballsy PR strategy even for back in the day, and Stevenage residents took to calling the town “Silkingrad”. Now there is a jarring memorial to the minister that adorns the clock tower in the town centre. It’s faded and covered in bird shit.

People poured in from London, tempted from shell-shocked Holloway, Hackney and beyond by the massive amount of public housing being built in the town. Offices for the "Stevenage Corporation" were set up in a number of areas of the capital. Word spread. They were offeringthree-bedroom council houses with gardens and driveways. Brave, ambitious, young couples decided to leave their derelict council lodgings, theirshared bathrooms,  the relative poverty of London, and move to, as my Grandad once described it, "the middle of fucking nowhere".

By 1960, four of the six estates that comprised the “new” Stevenage had been finished and were rapidly being occupied. It was government-led community engineering on a massive scale.

As Gary Younge, a columnist for The Guardian who grew up in Stevenage, says: “The town felt planned. It was colour-coded, with each neighbourhood assigned a specific shade so that you always knew where you were. In Bedwell, for example, where my mother had taught, all the street signs were blue. In Broadwater, where I grew up, they were brown. Designed to promote a sense of community, each area had its own small shopping centre with butchers, green grocers, launderettes, news agents and chip shops.”

You can almost feel the warmth of the kindly, but slightly demented, idealism behind it all. This was intended as a socialist utopia steeped in progressive urban planning ideas from the continent where there would be serenity and contentment away from London for the working classes. Initially the reality was somewhat different.

Accounts suggest that the new natives didn’t settle well, and the grievances they listed imply that even if it was tidy and quiet it wasn’t home. Early inhabitants complained about how the “countryside” didn’t agree with them; about the dampness of their homes or a purported plague of earwigs. There were high reported levels of psychological problems and single mothers spoke of crippling boredom. There was a significant level of alcohol abuse. The local doctors called it “New Town Blues”.

Looking at the way the town was organised it seems an attempt to knit the dissonant influx of residents together was made a priority. At the very least there seems an impulse to judge the success of the “New Town” experiment on human, as well as infrastructural, terms.

Retrospectively, it seems hard to imagine how such regimented, but somehow quaint, attempts at implanting a town into the Hertfordshire countryside could succeed on this score. How could itin the face of the powerful notion of “home” that those moving in inevitably brought with them from London, Dublin or even the West Indies?

Sam Wallace, Chief Football Writer for The Independent, is a Stevenage native and remembers the disconnecting effect that the quasi-mass-migration had on the first wave of people moving into the town: “I remember older people saying they were 'from', say, Islington or Poplar because that was where they grew up before relocating to a new town. That generation has probably passed on now and there is a much greater sense of belonging”.

This “belonging” clearly would have taken time to cultivate in a town that kind of 'opened' rather than grew. Descriptions of it make it seem so neatly and carefully manufactured that it must have had the freshness, and maybe the disquieting quality, of a holiday camp at the beginning of a summer season. As Wallace suggests: “Like a lot of British towns in their post-industrial state, with identikit high streets and chain pubs, developing an identity has been a problem for Stevenage”. How then, did it happen?

Well, institutions began to colour the local's sense of self into the outlines of the town. There was a Catholic church, for instance, in the Irish inflected area of Bedwell as early as 1953[6] - years before some of the housing on nearby estates had even been finished. Among these institutions the football club would eventually become among the most important.

But it would take until 1976 for a football club that fully reflected the huge changes wrought in Stevenage to be established. Footballing history in the town until that point, despite stretching back to the 1890's, was chaotic. After starting life on a roped off pitch in a public park Stevenage Borough F.C, two years old at the time, moved to the Broadhall Way ground, vacated consecutively by their two defunct predecessors, in 1978. The move was the start of a steady ascent through the footballing pyramid.

Most importantly it was fully theirs - something which the people formed, ran and supported of their own accord rather than something given, or left waiting for them, new and blank on their arrival in North Hertfordshire. Stevenage Borough Football club's emergence was integral in bringing a coherent town identity gradually into focus.

They won the United Counties League and Cup double in 1980-81 and spent time in the UC Premier before moving to the Isthmian League Division Two. From there the ascent to the football conference was rapid. In the 1995-96 season they achieved what in hindsight was a miraculous feat and won promotion to the football league. Under Paul Fairclough they’d won four championships in four years, though this crowning glory was denied by stringent FA rules relating to the standard of football league grounds. Though Champions, Stevenage remained in the conference.

Fairclough went on to manage at Barnet and still manages the England “C” team, carving out a more than respectable career in the game. What he achieved with Stevenage should be particularly lauded. It’s thanks to the foundations laid by the successive promotions of his tenure that the club are in the position they are now.

That this success also had an influence over the town in a wider sense is hard to dispute. Whilst other “New Towns” of a similar size like Harlow or Basingstoke languished, and continue to languish, in the lower reaches of the footballing pyramid, this period of success played a part in making the town feel whole, in giving it roots. It wasn’t an inevitability of population growth or simply the passage of time – they had no inalienable right to the upwardly mobile culture that has gone on to typify the club. It was earned.

It could be said that “The Boro” were emblematic of a moment in which a community, used to the top-down influence of government intervention, began to bloom naturally from within. An ownership and a greater sense of identification with the town, that the Stevenage Development Corporation had sought to engineer from day one, was finally emerging.             

That it took decades for Stevenage to resemblethe “New Town” the Labour government had in mind is unsurprising. Time and attachment had an effect on the sense of community that colour-coded signs and well-meant shopping parades never could.

Whilst Stevenage, as a football club and community, was swimming towards the surface, up through the United Counties, throughout the Fairclough era and the 80s and 90s, other concurrent influences and events were dragging it back down.

Success on the football pitch is positive but never a total antidote to wounding government policy, and the town found out, throughout it's early and middle history, that the hard-fought gains which helped to form community were often eroded. Just when the parts that made up Stevenage were beginning to coalesce into a meaningful whole, things began to change.

It could be argued that two major factors dovetailed to stunt the development of a greater sense of identity in Stevenage, creating a community imbalance at the moment the town was growing into it’s new clothes, those clothes provided by Atlee and the other pipe-smoking idealists years before.

The first was the massive increase in train speed at the beginning of the sixties and the subsequent electrification of the East Coast Mainline, which continued over the next twenty years and linked Stevenage to the capital. London had always been in reach but gradually the pull of its orbit became overwhelming. By the late 70’s,125 mile per hour trains were massively reducing journey times, arguably turning the town into a housing complex for commuters rather than a destination in its own right. Stevenage became the last stop before Kings Cross and not much more, a grey suburbia only witnessed through a train window.

This technological advance has to have had some impact on Stevenage’s essential makeup and its relation to the wider world; of course, people had always commuted to London, but now it was so easily attainable as to become the defining feature of the town.

Paired with the lurching shift that government housing policy took from 1970 through to the passing of the Housing Act by the Thatcher government in 1980, I feel it’s not too great a leap to marry up the two concurrent changes and assess how they affected, and maybe regressed, the burgeoning sense of community and identity in Stevenage.

Largely, housing had always been, and was always intended to be, social stock for the communities that the New Town welcomed. Under Thatcher and Heseltine that ideology was off the table – anyone could have a piece of this still cheap but very well connected town. When people move to a place because of the speed at which the train lines take them away from it, community probably doesn’t follow.

Perhaps those people who had been there at the start, the community who had moved in while the paint was still drying, who bought and sold their houses, or just bought them and let them accrue value - and in doing so contributed to taking the town away from its essential purpose - fractured the sense of community and forever altered the only identity that the town had in the first place. But who could blame them?

The subtle and irrevocable shift in what Stevenage was becoming is succinctly summed up by Younge when he says: “The notion of public goods and the public good – the very concepts on which the town had been built – could not compete with the attractions of private materialism. The very creation of Stevenage new town was underpinned by the notion that there was indeed such a thing as society, that it thrived through community and that government had a role in nurturing and sustaining both. Thatcherism was guided by the opposite.”

People were being offered a stake in something that, on a purely economic level, they had never dreamed possible. The debilitating social effect that it could conceivably wreak on the town was another issue, as is the chronic lack of social housing in Stevenage today, and one that wasn’t within their capability or responsibility to anticipate.

Regardless of where blame should be apportioned - things changed significantly. Early marketing videos present Stevenage as a self-contained place where there were jobs and services in the town for the people who lived there. The rights and wrongs of this relatively inward-looking policy aside, it is understandable why the New Town was presented in such a way.

The communities that people were coming from were urban, sometimes chaotic places. What could be more tempting than a designed town with the guarantee of housing, a good education for your children and a job? Shots from the video I mentioned show orderly lines of cars chugging from housing estates to industrial estates - your town was your home, your colleagues were your neighbours. It's a romantic image but that was the utopian vision. Sam Wallace sums up how the town was designed to, and did, look for a number of years: “Clement Attlee's government envisaged happy workers cycling to work on the town's comprehensive network of cycle tracks to factories set in a designated industrial area downwind of the housing estates”.

The more pragmatic, or maybe cynical, Stevenage native/observer might suggest that this vision was never achieved and that to bemoan its decline is to lament an era that never existed. Whilst people probably still locked their doors, didn't welcome their neighbours like long-lost family members or have street parties once a month, I'd struggle to envisage how the once- prevailing system of skilled, well-paid careers residingin the town, rather than a £22 privatised railway ticket away, made for a more atomised culture than the grey, myopic one I experienced throughout my childhood there.

The Stevenage that flowered out of these changes, the Stevenage I remember, was a facility rather than a community. Stripped of the defining characteristic on which it was founded, it seemed an empty echo of the place it could have been in a more romantic world - the refuge from post-war urban decay for a generation of upwardly mobile working-class families.

There were obstacles that had to be surmounted before the football club became, as Younge says, "central to the flowering of an organic identity in the town". The flow of the political current against the growing community and the lack of local pride was amongst these obstacles. Gradually the tide began to turn, and the football club has helped.

These changes have come against a backdrop of economic uncertainty. Since the crash in the banking sector in 2008 there has been stagnation in the town, illustrated in a 2013 report which somehow managed to simultaneously declare that Stevenage was a “successful economy” and also that “the Borough’s resident workforce is characterised by below average skill levels and educational attainment”.

Perhaps the secret of this somewhat perplexing statement lies in the fact that, according to the same study, “Stevenage operates as two distinct (but overlapping) markets: 1) the market in which firms in the Borough seek labour which is generally working well, and 2) the market in which residents seek work, which is working much less well.” It seems that Stevenage is successful for the corporations that reside there but less so for the people that live there.

National and local government cuts have exacerbated this sense of despair and, as in many other communities, have dragged people further into the mire. In 2014 Stevenage made headlines when retired soldier David Clapson died in his flat after having his benefits sanctioned due to missed meetings. The veteran had been unable to preserve his diabetes medication after the electricity was cut off and died with “an empty stomach and £3.44 to his name”.

Although it hasn’t changed these facts and cannot alter the harsh environment many people are facing, the continued success of Stevenage football club has been a bright spot in the town over the last decade. It has become something which has been able to, unlike the formative efforts of the club's early and middle history, go someway to banishing the "nowhere" gloom.

It hasn't given people their jobs back or decreased teenage pregnancy but it has been something to be proud of. It is a success which gives the town a point of pride and identity like it has never truly had before. And it has been done in a slightly fantastical, Roy of the Rovers way - Stevenage has achieved relative consistency that is pretty miraculous for a club of its size, fanbase and the fact that it was only founded in 1976.

These effects, and the sea change in the role of the football club within the town and community, have a direct point where you can say there was a "before" and an "after" - that point being when Stevenage entered the Football League for the first time.  As Sam Wallace says, such an achievement is often: “about the survival of English towns and cities in our collective psyche. Most people could not tell you much about Rotherham or Chesterfield, but they could tell you that they both have professional football clubs. The Football League is a map of industrial England as it once was.”

There has always been pride, there has always been a loyal fanbase and there have always been stories of Juliano Graizioli-inspired almost Giant Killings against Alan Shearer's Newcastle before that - a wealth of history and folklore right back to park pitches and long-shorted amateurs. But it was that moment of being part of the Football League for the first time that meant so much more, maybe because it was happening to a town where a lot of the inhabitants could still remember it being a town for the first time.

Making it into the League was a long and arduous process with more than a few near misses. Stevenage had long been "there or thereabouts", to use a classic football cliche, making the Conference play-offs in 2004-5 and 2008-9 but missing out on both occasions. There was a cast of characters that made League Football a possibility and players who are folk heroes despite never having worn the shirt in a League match. When it finally happened though, there were a few individuals who could claim to have exerted massive influence over the Boro's fortunes.

Perhaps first and foremost, Chairman Phil Wallace has been instrumental since he bought the club in 1999, managing it in a financially prudent and creative way. Under his stewardship there have only been 6 managers, one of them managing for two stints, and a succession of clever buys from the lower leagues.

Stevenage buy young, hungry players for a pittance, turn them into the core of a good side and then sell them on for a massive profit, with a sell-on clause thrown into the mix. George Boyd, Steve Morison, Michael Bostwick, Lawrie Wilson and, latterly, Luke Freeman have all gone this way, either having been plucked from obscurity or given a chance to resurrect their careers after failed first attempts at established clubs.

The 2.5 million pound training facilities are immaculate and the youth setup is starting to create players with a real chance at making, and improving, the first team. First amongst them is former Under 21 Captain Ben Kennedy, scouted from Northern Ireland and resident in the town for the last two years, who made a huge impact in the first team last year, starting in the play off Semi Finals and scoring 4 goals in 12 games during the run in.

In a moment that was pretty bittersweet for me, and I'm sure many other Stevenage fans, there were articles last year linking him with moves to Tottenham and Arsenal. I cannot remember a Stevenage-produced young player being talked about like this before - probably because until about 7 years ago we didn't have a fully functioning academy. It's a time of firsts, and even firsts like "having your best young player bought by a Premier League club" are enthralling.

As well as putting the logistical and institutional keystones in place Wallace can claim to have made another huge contribution - he hired the manager that took Stevenage into the League.

That manager is Graham Westley, a man who, even amongst the colorful cast of lower league football managers, was “a bit of a character”. A successful businessman with little experience of high-level football prior to becoming a manager, he now has a pretty impressive resume of League Football management.

On becoming Stevenage manager in 2003, after a spell as owner manager of Farnborough Town, he struggled initially. The team mostly fought to stay in the Conference Premier during his first spell and he eventually departed in 2006 when his contract expired. It was on his return to the club in 2008 though, bringing with him a core of players that would go on to compete at a much higher level, that his methods began to work and Stevenage’s ascent started to gain huge momentum.

Westley is known as a bit unorthodox and thought to have an ego, a reputation that he always seemed to revel in. There was a touch of the David Brent about him but also, as his nickname suggested, there was also a bit of "the lower league Mourinho".

He talked a good game, caused ripples by instigating a 9 to 5 daily training routine and there were suggestions that Stevenage players sometimes came down with an opportune "knock" around the 60th minute when he needed to impart tactical wisdom.

Whatever the truth of the rumours or the effectiveness of his training regime - it brought results. After a slow start to the 2009-10 season Stevenage went on a run of 14 wins in 16 games and won the Conference at a canter.

The same obstinate, winning mentality was carried over into the next season and led by exceptional performances from the likes of John Mousinho, Michael Bostwick and Scott Laird back to back promotion via the play offs was secured.

After never having been in the football league throughout their history Stevenage had reached the dizzying heights of League 1 football. They were also awarded "Team Performance of the Year" at the Football League Awards for a 3-1 demolition of Newcastle in the FA Cup, neatly providing a second chapter to the story of their first game against the North East giants who they had lost to in a replay, and until that point the biggest game in the club's history, 13 years previously.

With the team riding high in League 1 during the next season the big time came calling for Westley and he left to join Preston, a team founded 113 years before Stevenage whose most famous son was capped over 100 times by England. In terms of history Preston were in a different stratosphere - maybe that long sense of establishment rather than youthful hunger contributed to his difficult time there. He was sacked after 13 months in charge.

Whilst Westley was struggling in Lancashire his old team came within two games of Championship football. The affable Gary Smith was recruited from MLS, where he had won the League in impressive fashion, and made a distinct effort to move slightly away from Westley's somewhat stodgy brand of football.

Smith's Stevenage took Tottenham to a replay in the FA Cup and scored first at White Hart Lane only for Gareth Bale to prove the difference between the sides. They rallied late in the the same season to make the play-offs and ran Sheffield United agonisingly close in the Semi Finals, losing by a single, late Chris Porter goal at Bramall Lane in front of a crowd of over 20,000. Stevenage's average attendance that year was a shade over the 3,000 mark.

The abiding image of that season came at the end of the Sheffield United game. Captain Mark Roberts went give some valedictory applause to the Stevenage fans, patently exhausted and emotional. Roberts had served the club throughout it's most successful ever period, Captaining them to the Conference title and the League 2 play-off win.

Roberts was the kind of figure it's almost impossible to have in the mayfly world of Non-League level, where the contracts are often as short as a manager's tenure and an entirely new squad is assembled most summers. During his time with the club he was an inspirational captain, and sometime player manager, who led the team to a 5-1 away win at Rochdale during the wait for Westley's reappointment, and was nominated for the PFA "Player in the Community" award.

The next season did not go as well for Smith, and after starting the season 10 games unbeaten and igniting hopes for a title push his team’s form divebombed. He was replaced by the returning Westley, a reliable figure whose services had been dispensed of by Preston. He managed to keep the club up but, in a period of rebuilding and forming a new squad, relegation felt strangely inevitable when it happened the very next season.

When the return League 2 occurred there was the momentary sense that without the club stabilising the League adventure would be over quickly, a brief but historic moment in the sun. Westley's rhetoric never touched on stability or playing it safe however (he was rumoured to have a bonus clause in his contract for attaining Premier League football when he re-signed after promotion) and, in all fairness, a return to the play-offs came quicker than expected. Very quickly, true to his management consultant verbiage about player "buy in" and "learning processes" the team began to look like, for better or worse, a Westley outfit again.

Recruitment began to follow a similar trend to the days of consecutive promotions - with a two good examples being Tom Pett who was brought in from Wealdstone, and his teammate, the left back Jerome Okimo. Okimo became a mainstay in defense and Pett grew in confidence throughout the year, scoring a 30 yard thunderbolt away at York to really signal the possibility that Stevenage could get promoted, and then the opener away to Southend in the Play Off semi final. He was rewarded with a new contract this summer along with youngster Adam Marriot who scored 40 goals in a season at non-league level and showed promise in his first, injury-scarred season.

As well as blooding new players the club were also recognised for the work in the community where the charitable arm of the football operation, the Stevenage Foundation, is an active and engaging presence. Last year they spent over 4,000 hours with young people in the town and were nominated as Family Club of the Year at the Football League awards.

Stevenage ultimately missed out on the chance of promotion last year, losing to Southend before the Wembley final. Westley was effectively let go in slightly cloudy circumstances after the defeat as the option to renew his contact was passed on by Wallace. Regardless of the uncertainty created by his departure, and by talk of halving the club's budget and relying on producing rather than buying new talent, the club had another season of real meaning - not just surviving at League level, but living, as it were, and challenging for promotion. It was a long way from roped pitches in King George's park.

With Westley’s exit another new and distinct chapterstarted- even further removed from those amateur days. Teddy Sheringham, treble winner with Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, was appointed manager shortly after the play off disappointment. Sheringham's appointment had the feel of a clever box office move and a canny calculation on Wallace's part.

The retired striker is beloved by fans of Tottenham and West Ham, perhaps the two most well supported Premier League clubs along with Arsenal in Stevenage (Spurs have an official club shop in the only shopping centre in the town) and it felt like the stardust of his appointment was being leveraged in order to fill more seats, with his lack track record mitigating by his starry career as a player.

In his home debut his team were industrious but a little naive and were soundly beaten by a Notts County. Things never really picked up from this inauspicious start and Stevenage have floundered all season, gutted by injury to key players and stymied by a revolving door of ineffectual loan signings.

Sheringham looked somewhat dazed in the face of it all, appearing suddenly on the touchline seconds before kick-off at home games after leaving all the preparation to his assistant Kevin Watson and seemingly unable to affect change during matches.

After losing 2-1 away at bottom team York Sheringham was sacked. This felt almost inevitable with the team feeling listless and bereft of confidence since well before Christmas. The grand Sheringham experiment, regardless of his bad luck with injuries, had failed. Now Stevenage face a tough battle to avoid relegation out of the football league.

Former youth team coach Darren Sarl has been brought in on a temporary basis to try and dig his home town club out of a hole. Whether he succeeds and is given the job full time remains to be seen.

These years crowded with promotions, relegations, play off matches and outsized success in a tiny ground reached their natural next step with the Sheringham experiment. His tenure was meant to consolidate the club as a League staple - financially and at a leadership level they certainly have the means to remain a league club. Instead the club are looking over their shoulder towards the trap door out of the league. The next few months will determine whether Stevenage are to continue the vitality of their recent history or look back on it as the Golden Years.

For the town, the excitement of a successful football team continues to fuel the "flowering" of an "organic identity", making it different and less pale even in a small way. Remarkably it comes at a time when so many other people are doing a similar thing for Stevenage but in different areas.

Whether it is representing Stevenage in the sporting arena at a higher level, as Lewis Hamilton and Ashley Young do; or writing eruditely in the national press, as Gary Younge and Sam Wallace do - people from the town are doing exceptional and inspirational things. Their achievements contribute to a hopefully growing sense of pride in the town just like the events taking place at Broadhall Way.

There are incredible things, too, happening in the artistic and intellectual life of Stevenage, things that have arbitrarily coincided with footballing success. In a weird, false correlation the artistic maturation of a new town has begun to occur at roughly the same time as its football teams.

Punk band Bad Breeding are good example of this. Currently coming to national prominence for their riotous, righteous live performances as well as their incandescent perspective on national politics, the band put on shows where to be in the audience is akin to slowly watching a man, in this case lead singer Chris Dodd, disintegrate before your eyes. This process, married with razorwire guitar and a taut rhythm section, is urgent, compelling, important and more fun than it sounds.

The band’s attitude toward Stevenage is ambivalent at best; the town in their sense of it is something to be escaped not celebrated, which makes it all the more fascinating that they are changing perspectives on it as a place which can give rise to such naked and essential art.

Things are also happening for young people who have benefited from the safety and education that Stevenage was designed to provide. People like Solveiga Pakstaite, who studied at the same secondary school as Lewis Hamilton and Ashley Young, are ignoring the relative paucity of creative outlets in the town making innovative things at University and beyond.

Pakstaite won the James Dyson Award for design last year after making Bump Mark[23] a silicon product that decayed at the same rate as meat and changed texture as it did so, providing a far more accurate indication as to whether it had gone off than the often super-cautious sell by dates. The product could potentially save millions of pounds in food wastage and several major retailers are interested in utilising it.

As Sam Wallace once wrote: “The town has precious little opportunity to distinguish itself from other London satellite towns apart from through its football club.” Yet, slowly, it is starting to find alternatives.

Stevenage, to state the obvious, isn't renaissance Venice and the streets of the brutalist New Town aren't paved with gold. That said, small but increasingly numerous examples show the stirrings of something happening in the town that wasn’t happening before. Stevenage Football Club didn't cause or even correlate with these achievements and successes but they are an important part of a holistic picture.

The club has gone from a somewhat ramshackle Non-League fixture to a settled League club and over the last few years Stevenage fans have had more than their fair share of notable days out; as well as consecutive promotions, a manager who is a relative legend in the recent history of the British game, a Stadium and training ground that they own, no debts to speak of and an application lodged with the Football Foundation to add another impressive stand behind the south goal at the Lamex.

The council’s budgets are still being sliced however and the town's population still has the worrying, and beautifully British electoral tendency, to vote against its own self-interest. Unemployment and small-mindedness aren't ever going to fully banished from Stevenage's, or any other small town in Britain's, high street.

And yet - the tale of Stevenage Football club over the last 10 years is, in however small increments, increasing a sense of pride, identity and community amongst the 80,000 souls that live there, in a town that wasn't even fully established 70 years ago. Its achievements are proof positive that a places that can feel a bit hopeless have a huge capacity to produce good things. It is not just a small-town club doing well; it is a positive force that makes Stevenage a better place and shows, as has been shown countless times before, the transformative effects of football.

Jake is @jfarrellwords

Picture credit to Stevenage Borough Council.