Some of you may be shocked to read this given our reputation, but Stevenage is not an attractive town.
It’s an identikit post-war new town with too much concrete, too many roundabouts and too high a rate of teenage pregnancy. Oh, and a Chicago Rock Café. Despite this though, people flood to fill the new housing developments in the town every year, and why?
Is it because most of them are available through the housing association and are therefore cheap? Probably.
Is it because of the good rail links with London? Possibly.
Is it because they want to cut down the commute to the football club they visit every week? Is it buggery.
Stevenage FC has long been establishing itself as an attractive and modern football club, building success slowly over a number of years which, as we all know, has culminated in a very profitable past two seasons with back-to-back promotions and blah blah blah…
However, they still can’t seem to increase the home attendance above the 2,000 – 2,500 mark it has been at for years.
The success of the last 2 years has helped to highlight the club to a wider audience, but those around the town will know that Stevenage have been an emerging force for some years now and there is some local interest in the club.
In 2007, they won the FA Trophy in front of 53,000 people. Around 30,000 of them were there because of a passing interest in Stevenage Borough FC. Granted, many of that 30,000 saw it as an excuse to be among the first to visit the new Wembley, but they would not have been at the match had Kidderminster Harriers been playing Grays Athletic in the final.
In that match, Stevenage put in one of the greatest Wembley comebacks of all time, winning 3-2 after being 2-0 down at half time. They did so by playing some fantastic attacking football.
Despite this the club’s average attendance hasn’t grown since our days in the Conference. You can guarantee there will be 2,000 home fans every week at The Lamex but to greatly increase that number, there needs to be something pretty special happening; even the chance of revenge over Newcastle United in the FA Cup wasn’t enough to sell out the stadium.
My neighbour recently peered over the fence to ask if he’d need to book tickets for him and his lad for the then upcoming match against Hartlepool. I genuinely thought he was winding me up and was shocked when he told me he thought the ground more or less sold out every week.
So why don’t the people of Stevenage turn out for games and what can we do as a club to entice them in?
Many of you reading this are immediately thinking of adding a witty comment to the bottom suggesting that we could try playing better football, so to save you the job I’ll explain that the style of our play has nothing to do with it.
I’ve admitted openly on here that Stevenage don’t always play fantastic football, but only a few years ago they consistantly did under the stewardship of Mark Stimson. They attacked with pace and flair and played some beautiful one touch football with a team including George Boyd and Steve Morison. But not only did it not get them anywhere; it didn’t significantly boost attendances.
There’s the usual argument that Stevenage is a 30-minute train journey from London and therefore the club are competing for fans with the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham. It’s a fair argument in some respects, but how many of the football going population of Stevenage realistically travel to watch those teams play weekly? I’d guess fewer than 10% – so what is the other 90% doing?
They’re certainly not visiting the other sights of Stevenage because there aren’t any. Unless you count a trip to UK Discount Warehouse, Primark and QD in the town centre as alluring.
Is it a marketing problem? Possibly, but the club are working hard to address their standing and visibility in the community and are actively trying to encourage people on match days.
For example, the recent home match with Rochdale fell on an international weekend and with League 1 being the highest tier playing, the club put on an initiative that offered all Premiership and Championship season ticket holders entry to the match for £5.
I’ve not seen any word from the club as to its effect, but from my vantage point on the half way line, it had little-to-no impact. In the long run, trying to entice people in to watch Boro’ when they hold a season ticket elsewhere is pretty pointless, but at least it was a nice idea.
Stevenage also offer free entry to all under-11s in the hope that a parent will start bringing them along, but this is a long term plan to raise attendances and in reality the club needs a quick fix which – despite recent successes – I just can’t see coming.
On Tuesday, they play a match that two years ago would have been a fantastic FA Cup draw; Sheffield Wednesday at home. However, this is no FA Cup match. Stevenage are playing them on their own merit and, were I wealthy man, I’d bet every single person reading this a tenner that The Owls don’t beat them and another £10 on top that the attendance is around the 5,000 mark, with 1,400 of them travelling down from Sheffield.
Has someone got any ideas?
Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger
Mark tweets at @HollisMark