I’ll admit it – I never wanted Graham Westley back at Stevenage because I didn’t think he was up to it. Shows what I know!
In fairness to me, however, his first stint at Broadhall Way was, by and large, a pretty awful affair. Dreadful football, dreadful press relations and a dreadful relationship with the fans. I remember a good friend of mine having a cut out of a local newspaper article where Westley had slated the fans pinned to his wall “just so we didn’t forget” he’d done it. I guess it worked.
However, in among the gloom of Westley’s first tenure was a glimmer of light in the shape of the 2005 Conference play-off final, which was lost 1-0 to Carlisle United. But I’d imagine that even Graham himself would admit that the club finished there more by luck than judgement.
On his much maligned return, Westley pledged that he was a changed man and he’s spent the last three years proving that to be the case. Now, two FA Trophy Finals – OK, one was lost – a Conference title, a 3-1 FA Cup battering of Newcastle, a League Two play-off victory and, for now, League One comfort later, I’m genuinely gutted to see him leave.
Could Stevenage have achieved everything they have in the last three years under anybody else? Quite simply, absolutely not.
Westley’s knowledge of non-league football meant that, on his arrival, he could bring in some unearthed gems and assemble them into a well-drilled machine. The likes of Michael Bostwick surely could not have imagined that he’d be nominated as a League One Player of the Month, just three years after being in a relegation fight while at Ebbsfleet. Could Mark Roberts, arguably Westley’s greatest signing, have imagined he’d have had such success in the short time after he was marshalling the back line at Northwich Victoria? I seriously doubt it. But that, in my opinion, is Westley’s greatest talent.
Dragging more out of a player than anyone else thought was there is something which he has done time and again, and it meant that he could find players who would go along with his regime. As a rule, footballers don’t like training from 9-5 and most refuse to do it. Westley, though, has put together a squad at Broadhall Way that, while they might not like it (but how would I know?) know that it’s best for them and know that it works. The players who don’t like it? They don’t play for Westley – it’s as simple and as ruthless as that. His methods may be unorthodox, but they get results and that is why he’s now moving on.
This does pose a worry though. When he returned to Stevenage again, he arrived at a club that allowed him to set up his own regime and he was working for a chairman who knew him well enough to back his every decision. Whether Peter Ridsdale is the type to allow that remains to be seen, but Westley is not stupid and he won’t have taken the job without assurances.
While I’m sad to him go, I don’t blame him for taking his chance. His stock is as high now as it’s probably ever going to be and I think he is totally justified in moving on to Preston North End who are, lets face it, a much bigger club than Stevenage. He’s worked wonders here and a man with his ambition is always going to push for more. If Preston can give him the freedom to run things his way, then our loss will most certainly be their gain.
The success that Graham Westley brought to this club has been a long time coming and it’s been a joy and an honour to be a part of it. All the best Graham, and thanks for the memories.
Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger
Mark tweets at @HollisMark