Graham Westley and Stevenage Are Not Disappearing Yet
Iin a fascinating article in the most recent issue of The Blizzard , one which largely debunks the idea that football has any real likeness to the game of chess, Scott Oliver bemoans ‘the obsessive measurement of atomised players’ individual contributions’ measured by way of ‘output’, suitable perhaps ‘for ‘the neoliberal market’ but not for ‘the socialist midfield’.
Graham Westley, that lower league bogey man, might concur. In Westley’s world view, the individual is ruthlessly subjugated for the wider good of the team and while that seems to be no reflection at all of the man’s personal and political views – his Machiavellian ditching of Farnborough Town is evidence of that – on the pitch at least, all notions of creativity are suppressed in favour of the collective.
Stevenage Football Club make more use of the channels than BskyB. On Tuesday against Preston North End, I lost count of the amount of times the full backs launched curved, aerial balls up the touch line, each hoist carefully bent in to allow the club’s wingers to jostle for possession.
For most of the game, this ploy worked very badly indeed for Preston North End are one of the most vigorously physical and well organised teams I have seen this season and that includes most of the level above. Each and every one of the players – well, apart from Paul Gallagher – loves a tackle and each and every one would rather juggle with red hot pokers than be caught not tackling back.
So PNE dominated all but the last quarter of an hour of the game; Gallagher and Chris Humphrey in particular making good use of the space created by the Trojans around them, to leave their opponents at the Lamex Stadium chasing shadows. Still, after Tom Clarke fired them into an early lead, chances would be few and far between and as the game’s ending approached, it became clear that the home side could steal a point.
That Stevenage enjoy the sport’s physicality is also a given – and this was exemplified midway through the first period when new signing Bira Dembele flattened Joe Garner in a classic ‘got the ball first’ challenge – one half expected the prolific striker’s molars to be left strewn across the Broadhall Way turf. Dembele signed as a free agent in January having most recently turned out for French club Sedan and you would need to a Sedan Chair to recover after one of his challenges.
Dembele and Swansea loanee Curtis Obeng are new to Stevenage and Westley has engineered a great many comings and goings since returning to the club last year, a repeat of the policy he undertook at Preston. That said, the majority of those who started against the Lancastrians are tried and trusted – captain Jon Ashton has 200 appearances for the club while the likes of Darius Charles and Luke Freeman, impressive on the night cutting in from the wing, are also part of the furniture.
Fantasy has been provided by that wanderer François Zoko, a tricky presence with 10 goals to his name and scorer of the winner in a hard fought win over Crewe recently. In truth, Zoko struggled against Preston’s centre back pairing but did have some joy when pulling wide to harass Clarke – the former Huddersfield full back is definitely more effective in the opponents’ defensive areas than his own side’s.
Suddenly, Stevenage are out of the relegation zone, their season kick started with a shock win at Doncaster in the Cup, an equally surprising victory at Bradford and a comfortable 3-1 win at home to Tranmere. Here, a failure to clear cost Preston dear in injury time, Jimmy Smith driving a low shot through a crowd of players while Charles could even have won it with a rasper at the death, wonderfully tipped away by Declan Rudd.
Provocatively, some fans might push the thesis that The Boro obtained something out of the game despite the instructions of their foreman, generally keeping the ball on the grass during that successful final period. Indeed, throughout, the midfield vision of ex-Tottenham man Dean Parrett was noticeable – Parrett joining the fray because John Mousinho was disallowed from featuring against his parent club.
So an encouraging evening indeed for Westley and his team and the atmosphere was as good as you would expect for a miserable attendance of 2,400. That said, at times the class of their opponents often threatened to expose the rudimentary nature of Westley’s blueprint and there is still work to be done to avoid a slide into League Two.