I had been warned. “What are the joys that await us in Stevenage?” I asked Steve, a veteran of many trips to Broadhall Way. “Absolutely none,” came the reply. And the evening before, a colleague who hailed from nearby Hitchin had warned me about the proliferation of chavs around the town. The sense of anticipation was more to do with the match between 4th and 6th in the Blue Square Premier as opposed to spending any great amount of time in Stevenage.
The trip got off to a promising, if frantic, start. I’d just stepped off the Victoria Line and onto the King’s Cross concourse when Tom rang me. “The train leaves in three minutes from platform one. Run and you might just make it!” he yelled.
After approximately 59 seconds of swearing at the ticket machine as my credit card processed, I mustered all the speed that propelled me to victory in the sports’ day 100m 12 years ago and leapt aboard the train just as the doors were closing, much to the surprise of Tom and Steve, who’d been preparing to text me directions from the train station.
Said station had installed barriers – “that’s a new addition” – and was a lot cleaner than the last visit of the Exeter faithful. Visually, it was as good as it got.
The site that awaits the visitor to Stevenage is one of a huge industrial estate-cum-lesuire centre. No popular establishment had been ignored. McDonalds, KFC, Hollywood Bowl, Jumpin’ Jaks nightclub, Liquid nightclub, Envy nightclub, Cineworld (the only place that asks you to “please enjoy drinks here responsibly.”), a Pizza Hut and a venue that the aforementioned battle-hardened Stevenage veterans described as “the best bar in Stevenage’. That bar was better known as Chicago Rock Cafe, Stevenage, and was empty, save for Denzel. Nonetheless, the barmaid had great difficulty processing an order for two Carlings, one Becks, and a Guinness.
The four of us settled into one of the many booths and were soon joined by Stuart. Occasionally, you forgot you were drinking in an empty chain bar with a less than classy reputation nationally. But then the staff placed a blow up doll on an empty chair, and Tom found a balloon with the words “Hen party: no cocks allowed” and a picture of a rooster, and we were immediately brought back to reality.
Nonetheless, the day got better before we departed for the 5.15 Setanta Sports-enforced kick-off, when news flashed on the screens that Plymouth Argyle had lost at home to ten men Charlton. We swiftly toasted the Addicks, then the Grecians, then departed to Denzel’s car for the short drive from the industrial leisure estate to the ground. Aesthetic distractions were thin on the ground in these seven minutes.
I’ve been to the grimly depressing Northfleet, and the run-down and vaguely threatening depressing Grays, and Stevenage is a lot less grim than both. But the lack of run-down council houses in immediate eyeshot are easily compensated by industrial estate followed by dual carriageway followed by industrial estate. There was variation at the last industrial leisure estate-cum-car park we passed: it had a Burger King and possibly a Land of Leather. There are no houses as far as I can see. It’s as if all the commuters, desperate to escape London for somewhere more pleasant than the capital, took one look at Stevenage and thought “sod it, we’ll move to Knebworth. Or even Hitchin.” The concrete leads to a complete lack of soul of any chance. If James Brown were still alive, even the Godfather of Soul would admit defeat to find anything remotely funky about the town, and would slink off, a mournful funeral march trumpet playing behind him.
Thankfully, Stevenage Borough’s Broadhall Way stadium is a lot nicer than many other grounds at this level. They away end is even all-seater, which feels wrong. So wrong, we move to the back and stand for the majority of the game, apart from two brief requests from the stewards to sit down “until we get down to the bottom of the steps”.
Having a group of City fans standing and leading the singing makes for a cracking atmosphere in the away end. The fans spend nearly the entire game cheering on Exeter, which isn’t always the case, especially not at St. James’ Park where almost as many people moan as sing. And there’s plenty of good banter towards the away fans in the songs. “Small town in Hitchin,” is given an early debut while the highlight is a chant that’s quickly adapted by the City faithful.
“You’re just a motorway,” quickly changes to “you’re not even a motorway,” to “you’re just a dual carriageway” before settling on “you’re just a B-road.” Stevenage fans are a lot quieter, although make sporadic bursts of noise.
Not even Setanta escape the terrace humour. Just before half-time, the channel’s monosyllabic pundit, ex-Manchester United full-back Paul Parker, gets his own chant of “Paul Parker, ohhhh-o-woah, Paul Parker, ohhh-o-woah. He works for Setanta. He ain’t got good grammar. Paul Parker, ohhh-o-woah.”
The game itself matches the atmosphere. Both sides know nothing less than a win will suffice. Exeter need a victory to keep in touch with the play-off race, while Stevenage know if they lose, their opponents will be just behind them in the table.
But it’s Exeter who come out of the blocks quickest, deploying an unexpected 4-3-3 formation. Stevenage’s defence is having problems dealing with two strikers pulling wide, with the midfield then running into the gaps left. There’s a feeling City could get an early goal and they don’t disappoint. On ten minutes, Richard Logan nods down a ball into the box and fellow frontman Steve Basham wraps his foot around the ball to send it into the bottom corner. One-nil to the Exeter.
The rest of the half is a more cagey affair, but still decent stuff. Stevenage try to push forward for an equaliser but have difficulty getting anywhere near Exeter’s box, while City have some good possession but fail to turn it into anything significant.
Just before half-time Exeter are hit by a minor setback when Basham’s forced to come off with a calf strain and is replaced with Grays loanee Ben Watson. Even so, Exeter have a decent chance to extend their lead when Stevenage fail to deal with a corner properly.
Half time and Stevenage’s manager, and one-time England caretaker, Peter Taylor rings the changes with an attacking double substitution, and it has an immediate impact as Stevenage enjoyed over five minutes of near-constant possession. But again, bar a couple of wide shots, they create nothing of significance and Exeter start to come back into the game and it’s not long before the home side are pinned back in their penalty area by a series of successive corners.
From one of these corners, chaos ensues. Exeter defender Matt Taylor is tugged back in the box and the referee points to the spot before booking a couple of Boro players for dissent for good measure. Up steps regular penalty taker Richard Logan, only to hit a tame shot that’s easily parried by Stevenage keeper Alan Julian, and he runs towards his team mates to celebrate.
But Julian’s joy is short-lived when the referee blows up and orders the penalty to be retaken for encroachment. Further protests from the Boro players ensue and it takes a good minute for everything to calm down. Logan steps up again. And hits an identically tame penalty that is once again saved by Julian.
It’s at this stage that the game threatens to boil over and a Stevenage defender is booked for a nasty tackle on Exeter left-back George Friend and is cautioned, but slowly the game settles down with Exeter controlling the play without either side really creating anything.
As the minutes tick down, it’s clear City, and the fans, are becoming nervous, and when the board goes up to signal four extra minutes, there’s a few groans. City have been here before and let in a late equaliser. “Corner in the 94th,” says Tom and sure enough, Exeter flap at a couple of balls and Boro get the corner. Up trots teir giant of a defender and connects perfectly with the ball, only for Matt Gill to head the ball off the line. There’s no time for another attack and the away end goes nuts as Exeter record their first victory at Broadhall Way and move to within spitting distance in the table of their hosts.
We trudge from the ground elated, and there’s precious little sign of the chavs who, I’m reliably informed, line the underpass to taunt the away fans on their walk back to the car-park. We’re so elated that a return to Chicago Rock is proposed; it may just be my sense of joy at finally winning at Stevenage, but the place seems fuller and more welcoming. That is until the 40-year-old schoolgirls turn up and I nearly gag on my pint at the truly horrific sight that beholds me.
We leave Stevenage with a parting message from this small group of Exeter fans. Foolishly, Chicago Rock have a service that allows your text messages to be displayed on all the screens in the venue so for half an hour, Exeter-related propaganda flashes up on the screen. The natives barely seem to care about the small, clearly non-local, group of drunks making a lot of noise whenever an Exeter-related texts appear on the screen. Stevenage, it appears, has truly sucked any remaining notion of soul and passion from the concrete industrial leisure park.