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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Let's Get Physical

Continuing to impress on their Football League debut, Nobes says it's time unpopular Stevenage boss Graham Westley earned some praise.

Graham Westley is in his second stint as boss of League new boys Stevenage

Graham Westley once remarked that his motto in football was that, "Attitude is more important than ability." It may as well be that "nice guys finish last" though.

The Stevenage boss won few friends during his time managing in the Non Leagues. Indeed, rival Conference fans were probably just as glad to see the back of him as he was them.

The 43-year-old made a name for himself by guiding Farnborough Town - a club where he was both manager and majority shareholder - through to the FA Cup fourth round in 2003.

They drew Arsenal at home, flipped the tie to Highbury, and pocketed £500,000. Or at least Westley did. A few days later he quit the club to join Stevenage, taking with him his assistant, goalkeeping coach, and seven players.

There can rarely have been a more bitter divorce, let alone such a one-sided one when dividing the assets. To make matters worse, a few years later, Farnborough then went out of business.

His first spell at Broadhall Way was then characterised by a physical, direct style of play which carried Boro through to the 2005 play off final. A 1-0 defeat to Carlisle ended their promotion hopes though, and he left the club a year later.

However a couple of years on and, via a short spell at Kettering and a mysterious exit from his job at Rushden, he returned to Hertfordshire to "finish the job he started."

Chairman Phil Wallace's move threatened to alienate supporters unhappy with the return of a man whose style of play they hadn't appreciated and whose comments in the press smacked of arrogance and aloofness.

Football fans are nothing if not fickle though, and three years later Westley has won around the doubters who dismissed his claims that he was a changed man.

On his return he told fans he had learnt from what they had said first time around, and admitted to having made mistakes in the past.

He's even ready to admit his own arrogance, although he argues his controversial remarks are for the good of the club he manages and done for the right reasons.

True, he's still partial to the odd post-match rant, notably earlier this season blaming a home draw against Crewe on the fact that, after their opponents had to borrow Boro's own away kit, they had been forced to "play against their own badge."

Then again, this was the man who, at Farnborough, changed the club's playing kit from yellow to red and white, suggesting that yellow had never been the colour of any successful team.

Stevenage were runaway winners of the Conference Premier title last season

Poor excuses and an ignorance of Brazil apart though, Westley does appear to have grown from his first spell at Stevenage - and the Football League newboys are benefiting from it.

They romped home to the Conference title last season - outmanoeuvring more fancied and wealthier opponents Oxford and Luton in the process. Boro were also FA Trophy winners under his stewardship in 2009.

Their transition into League Two has also been smooth. Although a place in the end of season play offs may just be beyond their reach, finishing in the top half would be a respectable achievement for the Hertfordshire outfit.

When you consider, too, that not since Yeovil in 2004 have the Conference Champions actually finished in the top half of the basement division on their debut, it shows how difficult other sides have found it when initially moving into the League.

They also boast the best defensive record in the division - with just 32 goals conceded in their 34 matches. It's testament to the manager's belief in how strength, physicality, and organisation is at the heart of any success.

Perhaps it's no surprise that they haven't struggled when making the step up to face "the big boys" then.

Although that didn't prevent Westley being riled by comments from Chesterfield boss John Sheridan earlier in the campaign comparing Stevenage to "the English body-building team."

It's true that the Boro side isn't exactly lacking in height and physical presence, but this isn't a team who overstep the mark in how they play. Firm but fair is the name of the game. Yes, they're direct also, but they can play a bit too.

Their beating of Premier League Newcastle United in the FA Cup Third Round - another date with destiny for a club who thrive in avenging history - was another fine achievement in an impressive debut season.

Westley ensured that his charges didn't get too carried away with their Cup odyssey however, winning both of their home matches between the Newcastle upset and their eventual exit at the hands of Reading.

Not that he's one for lowering expectations, having gone on record as saying he could "operate successfully" at League One level.

No wonder then, before an FA Cup tie against Boro last season, that Port Vale captain Tommy Fraser described them as being,
"Cocky from the manager down."

However, after their start to life in the Football League
, Westley can have much to be proud about. Just don't expect too many people to be congratulating him.

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