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Thursday, July 22, 2010

What if... Stevenage had been promoted in 1996?

In the first of a brand new series, Nobes looks at how different life would have been for Football League debutants Stevenage had they been allowed to come up in 1996.

Stevenage made it into the 92 after winning last season's Conference

They say a year is a long time in football, so 14 of them must feel like a lifetime for fans of Stevenage.

The Hertfordshire club are gearing up to make their debut in the Football League next month after securing the Conference title last season.

However, it was the second time they had won Non League's top flight. Their first success came in 1996 but, due to the condition of their ground, they were refused entry into the 92 club.

What if they hadn't been though? What if Stevenage had been able to their rightful place in the Football League? How different could life have been for that club - and how different a situation would they have gone into compared to the one they face in 2010?

To find out, let me take you back to the summer of '96.

The summer that 'Football Came Home' as England hosted the European Championships. Gazza's magic, cruising past the Dutch, Seaman's Spanish heroics, and more German penalty heartache.

The summer Dolly the Sheep was cloned, the summer when everybody's favourite TV pundit, Alan Shearer, became the world's most expensive footballer when he moved to Newcastle from Blackburn for £15 million.

Damon Hill was Number One in Formula One, and Atlanta was hosting the Olympic games as President Clinton was playing host to a young White House Intern he'd later refer to as 'Miss Lewinsky.'

We said goodbye to the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jon Pertwee, AKA Dr Who, both of whom died in the summer of '96.

In music, the Spice Girls burst into the nation's consciousness, and in the news, the Government had just announced the site for an exciting development to mark the beginning of the 21st century. We came to know it as the Millennium Dome.

For the town of Stevenage, it was the summer they would have been gearing up to experience life in the 92 for the first time.

Back then, their local team still had 'Borough' after their name, and Paul Fairclough's side had comfortably seen off the challenge of Woking to take the Conference title - and earn their place in the Football League.

It was a Football League still adjusting to the new Premier League - which had only recently downsized from 22 to 20 teams. It was also a Football League that looked quite different to the one Stevenage are now entering.

QPR had just been relegated from the top flight - they've never been back since. Also coming down were Manchester City. Unthinkable considering their billions now, but City had just taken the first of two relegations in three years.

Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday, currently both in League One, were still long-standing members of the Premier League. They were joined by Wimbledon, and we all know what happened to them.

The summer of '96 - when Football Came Home and Stevenage missed out

Among the teams in the second tier were Port Vale and Southend - teams who Stevenage will be lining up against in League Two for 2010/11. Also at that level were Luton and Grimsby - both now below Boro in the football pyramid.

As for Nationwide Division Three, which was how Stevenage's new division was branded 14 years ago, it included the likes of Chester and Scarborough - two clubs who have since gone out of existence.

It also featured Wigan Athletic and Fulham - two clubs who have got used to rubbing shoulders with the big boys in the Premier League in the past decade.

Back then, they were still humble members of the basement division - and Stevenage's peers. As were Cardiff, Swansea, and Doncaster - teams who all finished in the top half of last season's Championship.

Not to mention Hull City - who couldn't have believed in 1996 that they'd ever end their top flight duck, let alone be joint top of the professional game for one week in the autumn of 2008.

However, despite numerous clubs punching under their weight, the prospects for Boro doing well were still good. A couple of years later, Conference Champions Macclesfield would clinch back to back promotions.

That's because this was a Football League that didn't impose rules that always favoured the big boys. There was no 60% rule dictating how much you could spend - although some would argue that was probably a bad thing.

The phrase 'emergency loan' hadn't even been dreamt up, let alone put into action.

There was no transfer window that allowed richer clubs to carry bigger squads. If a club needed to recruit a player because of injuries, they could. If they needed to sell a player for money, they had the freedom to.

Fighting it out with richer clubs with bigger budgets will make competing now, in the long run, more difficult than it would have been 14 years ago. Stevenage will be a small fish in a pond that has got bigger.

As for 'incremental revenue' and the need to move to purpose built stadiums - very few had caught onto the moving bug.

Downtrodden, terraced grounds lacking roofs and proper facilities were widespread across the lower leagues. Not so many generic 'Legoland' stadiums had popped up yet.

It was trips to Layer Road, Feethams, Belle Vue, and even Brighton's old Goldstone Ground that travelling fans from the Home Counties would have encountered.

Next season they will make pilgrimages to the New Meadow, the b2net Stadium, the Pirelli Stadium, and the Globe Arena and, barring the colours of the seats, they will struggle to tell them apart.

Doncaster's Belle Vue was the typical basement division ground in 1996

The football was often poor to watch though - sides crammed with as many six footers as possible playing on shocking pitches and preferring to launch it long to the big man.

Now the lower divisions are more progressive. Young coaches with a more positive approach to playing better football with teams of young players who can be sold on to make their club vital money.

Stevenage fans will find their Football League experience more enjoyable to watch now, too.

More comfortable, more safe, and more family friendly than 14 years ago. They will however, because of all those improvements, also find it more expensive.

The profile and coverage of the basement division was also a world away in 1996, too. If you wanted to catch highlights of a game you missed you'd have to wait until the early hours one night in the week to catch a TV show - or you could always video it if you had to get up early.

There was no internet coverage, no club websites, no BBC iPlayer providing quick and easily accessible match action, no Saturday evening programme on the telly to watch, not even a Soccer AM/MW blog to enjoy.

Now, local businesses can sponsor a hoarding, a shirt, shorts, or even the whole stadium and know they will get incredible national and local exposure through the power of the media.

After all, who didn't want to know exactly what or where the enchanting-sounding 'Sparkworld' was when their name was plastered across the front of Torquay's bright yellow shirts?

As Boro will find out with their League Cup tie against Portsmouth - live on SKY TV - the gate is now open to opportunities that only come the way of the 92.

The 2010 Football League Stevenage are entering is a place where money can, and will, be made. However, it is a place where money need to be spent wisely just to survive, let alone progress.

Points deductions for going into administration were an alien concept in '96 - now they are an annual feature of English football. It is a Brave New World that offers financial temptations Stevenage will find both dangerous and exciting.

One day, too, they may find it a more difficult world to remain in. Two-up two-down between the Football League and Conference is a lot more appealing when you're battling to get promoted rather than fighting against relegation.

It has also led to an increased number of former Football League clubs plying their trade in the Conference. Boro will be used to games against big teams bringing large numbers of fans from long distances.

It will probably mean the 2010 Football League is a lot less fresh and not quite as different to the Conference, which is practically League Three, as it would have been 14 years ago.

It's also difficult to dress up games against the likes of Burton, Morecambe, Accrington, and Aldershot as new and particularly exciting, either. They are all opponents who have spent years in the Non League circle.

After 14 years in the making though, Stevenage fans would probably disagree. They certainly won't care.

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