Hertfordshire Police’s twitter account warned this week that any away fans found in the home end at Stevenage’s Lamex Stadium for their FA Cup 5th round tie with Tottenham on Sunday, would be immediately ejected. This might sound like standard practice for the authorities, but the chances of it happening are higher than usual.
Stevenage is full of Tottenham and Arsenal fans. Its new town status means most residents have inherited support of the North London clubs, while it’s estimated that more people travel into the city to watch games on an average weekend than the 3,000 home supporters that watch the Boro.
But whatever heavy-handed tactics the police use to chuck fans from the Lamex, it will be nothing compared to the roughing-up Spurs players will receive on the pitch. Under former manager Graham Westley, who has now been poached by Preston, Stevenage earned a reputation for physicality and hard work – and it’s paid off big time.
Since Westley returned to Stevenage for a second spell in charge in 2008, they have won the FA Trophy at Wembley twice, gained successive promotions and beaten Newcastle in the FA Cup. They are now in their highest league position in their history under new manager Gary Smith (sixth), who has won his first two games in charge, and have lost just once in 16. Only Leyton Orient have left the Lamex with three points.
Stevenage earned a reputation for physicality and hard work – and it’s paid off big time.
Their style has been thundered against by Lee Clark and Gary Megson, but their achievements, however they’ve been made, deserve huge credit for a club that have only been in existence since 1976. Darius Charles, a former centre half, is used to great effect as a battering-ram striker, while the skilful midfield duo of Michael Bostwick and Joel Byrom work tirelessly. The back five, the second tightest in League One, have been almost ever present this season and contain former Tottenham trainees Ronnie Henry and Chris Day at the heart.
Judging by the strength of Tottenham’s squad, Stevenage are likely to be facing the highest-class opponents in their history. But the compact stands, tight pitch and less-than-perfect playing surface will come as a shock to Spurs’ system. FA Cup clichés though they are, they do count for something – just ask Newcastle. Much like in Stevenage’s shock win against them last year, they’ll pressurise the key players, and load the penalty area with crosses. Hopefully though, no one will run on the pitch and punch one of the players this time.
Stevenage has become used to having big teams visit in recent years, but because of the proximity of the two clubs (30 miles), this will feel like a local derby. When the draw was made, the news dominated the front and back page headlines in the local press, and the entire town, whatever their usual football loyalties, will be watching.
I’m an Arsenal fan, but have always seen Stevenage as a second team. My dad played for them in the 70s when their home was a park pitch, and in my early teens, too young to go to Arsenal on my own, I had a season ticket. I felt an immense pride when they beat Newcastle last year, so will be ecstatic if they can repeat it on Sunday. Ideally with former Arsenal winger Luke Freeman scoring the winner.
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