(Originally written in March 2017)
Years ago, I heard a story that made me start falling (more) in love with English soccer. It was the story of the time Newcastle United had to come play at a little place called Stevenage FC.
It was an FA Cup tie, and I just thought it was amazing that a giant club like Newcastle would have to go play in this little (I guessed) village with a tiny stadium, just because that’s how the balls came out of the basket. This was when I first heard the phrase “the magic of the FA Cup,” and also, naturally, when I first heard of Stevenage.
They held the mighty Newcastle, who actually played Alan Shearer, to a 1-1 draw, then lost the replay at St. James Park, 2-1 — on a controversial Shearer goal which many say didn’t cross the line.
Ever since, Stevenage has occupied this special place in my understanding of the English game. When I read that the ground is next to a forested natural area and known for having trees around it, I was further enchanted. Stevenage, to the amusement of my English friends and others I met along the way, moved near the top of my bucket list.
History of Stevenage FC
First, there was Stevenage Town, which existed from 1889 to 1969, when it went broke. It was replaced by Stevenage Athletic, which went bust in 1976. Then came the current club, Stevenage Borough FC, which almost died again in 2009 but was saved — and dropped “Borough” from its name. So we are talking about a club on the fringes.
They toiled around in the lower reaches of the English Football Pyramid until the mid-90s, then made the Conference and stayed there until 2010. (It was during this time, in the 1997-98 season, that they ran into Newcastle in the FA Cup. Since then, they have bounced back and forth between League One and League Two, with a highlight being 2011-12, when they made the Fifth Round (of 16) in the Cup, held Tottenham at home, and lost a replay at White Hart Lane.
They are in League Two, barely, for the 2020-21 season. They finished bottom of the table last year and would have gone down to the National League, but Bury FC went out of business and Macclesfield Town got a whopping point deduction for financial problems, so Stenevage were saved after the season ended.
A few images from my night at the club:
When I came to see them in 2017, they were in League Two, but on a great run of form and with an eye on the playoff positions.
I came in on the train from Norwich, where I had seen the thrilling East Anglian Derby two days before, then spent a day wandering that magical medieval city. I had long since come to realize, mostly from the chuckles and bewilderment of the people I met in Norfolk, that Stevenage was not really the wooded country hamlet I had dreamed of, and going to a Tuesday night League Two game there after the adventures in East Anglia was going to be something of a letdown.
Still, I confess to being a bit disappointed when I came out of the station and realized I had to walk across an expressway, the other side of which looked like a generic piece of Anyplace. To make the scene even more English, it was, of course, raining sideways.
The way into town passed through some kind of “leisure center,” the walls of which bragged about the various celebrities who called the place home. I had heard of about 15% of them.
I had bus directions to my hotel, but was utterly bewildered by the maze of stops in front of me. After 10 minutes of walking in circles, dragging my luggage with one hand and holding my hood down with the other, I bailed and got a taxi, which took me through the very definition of suburbia: big-box stores, a crowded roadway with speeding traffic, and the same house repeated seemingly without end.
I asked the driver about the town, and he assured me that almost nothing happens here; it’s basically a bedroom community for people who can’t afford to live in London and instead take a the 30-minute train ride into Kings Cross for work. Otherwise, it’s a working class place that goes quiet around 7 each night. I asked for a place to eat, and he said there was a Burger King across from the stadium.
And … welcome to Stevenage!
I noticed on the map there was an Old Town between me and the ground, and the hotel man said it had a nice Turkish restaurant, so I decided to walk the nearly two miles. The rain had also let up, and within 20 minutes or so I was walking down what, anywhere else, would be just called a High Street. It was lined with restaurants (many of them Indian), some pubs, little shops, and one inn that dated to the 16th century. I suspect this was a place where people would spend their first or second night out, having left London on a horse or in a wagon. Now it’s pretty much the same “old town” you see in any suburb, only English.
After nearly a week in the country, during which I had flown from the States, bussed to Birmingham, spent two nights there, then done a train-game-train day to Barnsley and Norwich, then come here, my sense of culinary adventure had waned.
So I settled for a pub recommended on a great guide site as having “decent pub food,” the Chequers Inn. It looked and felt like a proper old pub, and served up a pretty fine Cottage Pie with chips and mushy peas. There were a few fellows at the bar talking football, so the mood was being set.
So it’s called the Lamex, possibly my least-favorite stadium name; that’s a sponsorship thing, of course, and its real name is the far superior Broadhall Way. It is across a major road from a shopping center — and, yes, a Burger King. It’s also next to that piece of forest I had heard about, but that’s more of a reclamation project than anything especially charming.
Still, it’s a modern and cozy little ground with several of the things I like about these lower-league clubs: many people outside greeting each other by name, a ticket office worker happy to welcome an American and encourage him to “tell your friends back home we need the support,” and a club bar (think Eagles Club with less decor) filled with fans of both clubs happily knocking back a few pints and comparing notes on their seasons.
The visitors this night were Leyton Orient from the eastern part of London. I had thought it might be something of a derby, due to the proximity, but, like most Americans, I had completely underestimated the size of Greater London; the two clubs are some 35 miles apart! In fact, Stevenage counts as its biggest rivals Luton Town and Barnet, now both in different leagues.
(In 2019 I would go to a game at Leyton Orient.)
Here are the teams coming out:
The Lamex has seats on one side, attached to the offices, dressing rooms, and club offices, and terraces on the other three – a total capacity of 6,722. There would be just over 2,000 on hand for this tilt.
I took my spot on the home terrace just as the rain and wind picked up again, and there was a general movement away from the pitch to get out of the building torrent. There were other forms of comfort being pursued, as well:
All in all, I think I would rather stand on a League Two Terrace than be just about anywhere else in the world. The camaraderie is sublime, with groups of guys who’ve been standing together for years, ages from teenager to “I saw them play at Wembley in ‘49” and everything in between. It is Lad Central.
And in the middle of it all, literally, are the youngsters who, at least at Stevenage, and even on a rainy as hell Tuesday night, were absolutely having a go. There was a drummer, a tightly packed platoon of youngsters, and singing that never stopped. They sang to players, they jumped up and down, they held their arms aloft, and when the Leyton crowd in the end started with “Come on, Orient,” they drowned them out with “Fuck off, Orient!”
And, when nothing else was on, they gave Luton some:
O Luton Town (O Luton Town!)
Is full of shit (is full of shit!)
O Luton Town is full of shit.
It’s full of shit, shit and more shit.
O Luton Town is full of shit.
After three consecutive 1-1 draws, I was ready for some goals, and the boys in red and white wasted no time in delivering. Leyton were dreadful, I’m afraid, and in fact are in danger of going out of business thanks mainly to a maniacal owner who won’t even speak to the press or fans.
(Update: The owner is gone, thank goodness, and they are still in League Two for the 2020-21 season.
The Boro gave what the BBC would later call “a professional display,” meaning they went out and kicked Orient’s ass.
Here is a penalty that made it 2-0, in front of the depressed Orient fans:
Note the rain there – it was apocalyptic at times, causing the occasional scramble on the terraces.
From that point on, it was just all hopping and singing and taunting on our terrace, at least among the youngsters, and even when Orient got one back, it took the Boro about 0.7 seconds to make it 3-1. And then 4-1, which is how it ended.
I do want to share something from halftime — and say that I love halftime at lower-league English games. Sometimes they interview a club “legend” who, of course, I have never heard of, and they make the poor guy stand in the rain and tell a story he’s told 100 times to the few hundred people who aren’t standing in line for a beer.
At Stevenage on this night, they had this thing where you try to kick it through a hole for a prize, and first the crew had a hell of a time in the wind and rain getting the thing put up, so much that the whole contest was in jeopardy for time. Then this big lad went out and hit the crossbar twice! Couldn’t have done it had he tried, and after the second one, the announcer said (rightly) that it was at least worth a fiver.
I love his Sad Walk after, though.
It’s the definition of League Two, for me.
The lads, meanwhile, worked their way through their whole repertoire, singing to players and the manager and the glories of their club, about how they are going up, Orient are going down, and how “we’ll never play you again.”
They also busted out a number that I’ve only seen the Portland Timbers do – not that it was invented in Stumptown, but it was like seeing an old friend: The Tetris Dance!
Just for a better angle, and to brag about my hometown club, here is the Timbers Army doing it after a home win:
It was a comfortable and fun win, with the fans even singing “Easy night at the Lamex,” and The Boro definitely had their eyes on the playoffs, singing “We are going up!” The terraces sang the boys off into the wet night:
Here are the official highlights, shot from the same side I was on; that’s the Orient fans behind the goal on the left.
I had my eyes on bed, thank you very much – a warm, dry bed. So I got the number for a taxi company from somebody who worked at the club, then stood in the rain looking at the Burger King while I waited for my ride, enjoying the calls of “see you in two weeks” and “Are you going to Newport County?”
Let’s just say you’re staying in London sometime, and you want to see some proper footy that hasn’t been ruined by money, overrun by tourists, or turned into a millionaire soap opera by a fawning media. Go to Kings Cross, take the train north to Stevenage, walk the old town and get a bite to eat, then hail a cab for
the Lamex Broadhall Way and get yourself on the terraces.
You can be back in London for dinner, and you will have had a proper footballing experience the way it used to be, at half the price and twice the community.