Saturday, 12 October 2013

League One Revisited: Stevenage 2-1 Brentford

There are a vast number of reasons that I'd rather Charlton were in the Championship as opposed to League One, but there is one particular drawback we have to endure.

The Preamble:

International weekends have always been difficult to cope with. Not only are fans of the top two leagues deprived of their three o'clock kick offs, but there's no Super Sunday to watch either. League One downwards does not suffer this inconvenience, and as a result, the flow of the season is not disrupted.

Waking up this morning I realised that I had an entire day of boredom at uni awaiting. No sport to watch, or play, and not even international fixtures to watch given the recent change which has moved games to Friday evenings. I decided to trawl through the BBC fixture list and find the closest game to Cambridge that I could find. The U's were away to Chester, so a trip to the Abbey had already been ruled out. There was little else given the second FA Cup qualifying round was taking place, but the Stevenage v Brentford fixture stood out. It was on the way to London, so not too far to travel. Entry to the ground was also quite reasonably priced. And so it was decided. Broadhall Way beckoned.

It's quite an interesting experience to plunge yourself into a completely different footballing environment for an afternoon. Non-league games at Bromley do have that element of familiarity to them, despite my rare attendances. Stevenage, however, was completely new.

It had only ever been a town that had flashed by whilst on the train back to London, as well as the place that Charlton lost their first game in the 2011/12 promotion season. Now I felt like I ought to develop some sort of attachment to its football club. That proved a tricky task, given the functional, long-ball nature of Graham Westley's side, but I decided to stand on the home terrace nonetheless. (Price was the determining factor...)

Not even the monumental shambles that First Capital Connect had managed to create could stop me making the journey. The somewhat irrational desire to watch whatever football I could find had taken hold. The train south was delayed by a calamitous signal failure at Finsbury Park, and everyone was packed in like sardines. But I was going to watch some football, so I didn't really care.

It's quite hard to explain why you have such an attachment to a sport. On the surface at least, football appears to be an incredibly simple game, yet there's something about how it manages to become such an important factor in people's lives. The loyalty, the highs and lows, the friendship and the banter all seem to play a part in creating an atmosphere. It's easy to pick teams you like by watching them on the tele, but by investing time into a side you discover far more. Behind the simple desire to watch a game of football and avoid a dull afternoon was a wish to experience a whole new footballing environment. Looking back, I'm glad I went. 

A moody backdrop as a fan tries to read the word 'Stevenage'

After a fairly lengthy walk from the station, Broadhall Way came into view, though it's called the Lamex Stadium these days. Quite a small and compact ground, it was fairly modern and smart. After a quick visit to the shop to buy a programme and a pin, I chose the East Terrace as my stand of choice. I took up a position close to the edge of the penalty area and waited for the start.

A quick glance at the programme revealed some interesting phraseology used by Graham Westley. He was apparently very pleased with his side's "attacking display of both football and defending." Attacking defending is one of his more interesting concepts.

The Match:

Stevenage were struggling at the foot of the table, with just one win all season and one point from five home games. Fran├žois Zoko had been snapped up by Borough following his release by Notts County in August, and an impressive display in midweek had the terrace murmuring with slight optimism. Brentford, meanwhile, were stuttering in mid-table, hoping for a win to reinvigorate their playoff push. They had former Addick David Button in goal, as well as the one and only Alan McCormack, who somehow has managed to become captain. They also had former Birmingham defender Martin Taylor at the back - still a towering presence - in an attempt to disrupt Stevenage's long-ball style. 

Home fans await the start of the game, as Brentford warm-up

Brentford started brightly, whilst the home side were struggling badly. Within two minutes Donaldson had been played in by a simple through ball, wrong footing the entire back four, but a good save from Day denied him. The rebound eventually fell to McCormack who shot tamely at the keeper.

Another half chance for the Bees was soon followed by a deserved opening goal. A simple through ball caught out the left back, and Douglas chipped niftily over the keeper towards the far post, where Donaldson bundled the ball home into an empty net.

Stevenage looked bereft of incision, with Burrow up front struggling to lay the ball off for Zoko. But out of nowhere the home side were level. A number of the crowd, including myself, had allowed their attention to drift from the ball, given it was with Button in the Brentford goal. The keeper realised he was under pressure, and tried to trick past the advancing Zoko. He tackled the keeper, with the ball going straight into the back of the net. Everyone was stunned! Just the eight goal that Stevenage have scored this season, and comfortably the strangest.

Westley's side grew into the game, hassling Brentford much more effectively, which broke up their passing game and forced them to aim down field for Donaldson. Soon came a third goal. A Stevenage corner was partially cleared, but the ensuing cross was poorly dealt with, and after a scuffed shot was saved, the ball fell again to Zoko, who hit his shot down into the turf so that it bounced up into the top of the net. Joy for Borough!

A Brentford set-piece

The mood on the terrace was a happy one, but that didn't halt the cries of many aimed at the linesman. His lack of offside decisions led many to turn on him, such that he was informed his next game would be in the Sunday league. Encouragement for the home side continued to be dealt out.

Tempers flared as half time approached, with what appeared to be a strong body check by Douglas going unpunished, a cynical challenge by Diagouraga receiving yellow. Donaldson had another chance from an angle after a through ball released him, but Day dived superbly to tip the effort past the far post.

The second half is not one that will go down in history for its quality. It quickly became evident that Westley would defend his side's lead, and sparingly commit players forward on the counter. Jones and Ashton at the heart of the Borough defence were immense, winning everything in the air. The intense pressure that the Stevenage midfield put Brentford under when they had the ball forced them to look for the long ball, with limited success.

A couple of times Stevenage felt it necessary to commit fouls to break up Brentford's attacks. Amidst the loud mutterings of discontent after the ref awarded one of these free kicks came a loud shout of "DON'T PANIC" from further down the terrace. A glorious line. As with most of the away side's efforts, the cross came to nothing.

One ball forward did find its way to Donaldson in a threatening area. He managed to round the keeper but the resulting angle was too acute, and the effort crashed into the side netting.

Donaldson had gone ground too easily on a couple of occasions earlier in the game. When back defending in front of our section of terrace, one inspired shout came from the stand - "Why are you still on your feet Donaldson! I can't do justice to the frequency and quality of the heckling, but I doubt I've witnessed a finer terrace display before. 

McCormack challenged

My personal highlight of the half came when a good shooting chance fell to Alan McCormack. He got under the ball and cleared the stadium's roof. It was one of eight balls lost during the game, and led to some amusingly rude chants aimed in his direction. I rather enjoyed that.

Westley's men closed out the game successfully. The result seemed fairly inevitable, but clearly that's not the case when you consider their home form this season. That said, Stevenage were imperious when dealing with the long ball, and also time-wasted relentlessly. Whilst I can never really accept this practice, it was clear why Westley felt it useful.

The crowd erupted when the final whistle went - the referee never really got to grips with the time-wasting, and the frustration of the away fans had turned to apathy, with many filing out before the end. A first home win of the season for Westley's men, who came over to the core support of the East Terrace to show there appreciation. It was a big mutual love-in, with Westley looking pumped up and overjoyed. He might come across as a bit of a clown, but it was evident that he had built a very good team spirit. He creates a siege mentality which has found success at Borough. The players did a warm-down, which appeared to be a lap of honour, but the crowd were heading home happy by that stage.

Stevenage applaud the home support after the full-time whistle

Uwe Rosler spoke afterwards of individual errors costing Brentford dearly, and he was right. They had the chances to win the game, and without the alarming error from Button at 0-1, they would have been good value for a draw. He is said to have locked his side in the dressing room for an hour and a half post-match to undergo a frank review of where they are at as a team. Understandable, given the way the game went for them. But as a few years in League One demonstrated to me, its not about what you deserve, but what you achieve. Its a physical league where results have to be ground out, however ugly. This was what Charlton did so well towards the back end of their promotion season, when teams were less willing to attack them. Broadhall Way is a very tough place to get a result, given the way Stevenage play their football, and it proved especially frustrating for Brentford today, who instead of taking three points home with them, had to endure long-ball tactics and time-wasting before eventually falling to defeat. 

The Summary:

The addiction to football may seem tragic from a distance, but my trip into the unknown today was one I would thoroughly recommend. Stevenage is by no means the nicest town you'll ever see, but its more the unearthing of a new footballing environment that provides the value. You find yourself far less cynical than you would watching your own side, as you aren't as consumed by the desire for victory. You also discover a new set of players, as well as legends of the terraces.

Most importantly, though, you get your fix of football for the weekend. It might not be the most high-quality 90 minutes you'll witness all season, but the whole package is one that most would find enjoyable. Even with the style of play employed by Stevenage, I'd happily return for more. But not instead of seeing the Addicks, of course...

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