Usually we bring you a Q&A from a blogger of another Premier League club before matchday. However, since Stevenage are not a team we get to see too often, we are happy to bring you a double feature - we interviewed Mark Hollis, who is the Public Relations Officer at the Stevenage Football Club Supporters Association, as well as Pete Hayman from BoroGuide, an excellent Stevenage resource on the internet to rival the club's site. Our thanks to both for taking the time to answer our questions.
RBM - Stevenage FC, founded as Stevenage Borough FC in 1976 is a relatively newer club. How big is the fanbase and where is it mostly located? Tell us about Broadhall Way ground.
MH - As you can imagine for a relative newcomer to the footballing world, the fanbase at Stevenage is right up there with the smallest in League 1. Being so close to London and the associated Premier League clubs we have to fight for every fan we get and even then it’s rarely good enough! Not to be deterred by number though, we more than make our presence felt in terms of noise. I just hope it doesn't get lost in that big ol’ stadium of yours!
As for our stadium, for years when we were non-league, The Lamex (or Broadhall Way as it was then) was the envy of many of our peers. However, following the success of the past few years we’re now a poor relation. It’s a small, compact stadium with a lot of character and, having visited some the big identikit stadia since our promotion to the Football League, that’s just the way I like it!
PH - The fanbase question is an interesting one and something that we've debated quite a bit in recent years. At the moment, it is probably around the 3,500 mark and we haven't really had the chance to build upon that since coming up from the Conference in 2010. Getting two successive promotions, it is only now that we have the chance to let the fanbase catch up. We're up against strong support for Tottenham, West Ham, Arsenal, United and even Luton Town in Stevenage - our fanbase is primarily from the town itself, as well as surrounding areas such as Hertford, Welwyn, Hatfield, Royston and over the Herts borders into Bedfordshire.
I think our ground is something we can be proud of at the moment - it more than meets the demands of our attendances and we like to think away supporters get an excellent view of the action. The North Stand is the last remaining stand in need of redevelopment and the chairman is working towards that at the moment - but the timeframes are yet to be decided until funding is in place.
RBM - The Boro currently sit in eighteenth place in League One. A bit of a tough start to the season with three losses, what's been going on?
MH - Big squad changes over the summer as Graham Westley went about re-stamping his authority has seen us struggle to gel a bit and subsequently lose our opening three games, albeit by the narrowest of margins in each game.
The opener against Oldham saw us claw back on to level terms having been 3-1 down, only to be on the receiving end of a very harsh penalty decision to lose 4-3. We then lost 1-0 away at Swindon in what was a pretty poor performance before seeing Leyton Orient nick the points at our place last week. Hopefully this weekend’s 1-0 victory at Notts County can set us on a bit of a run up the table now!
There is still a fair bit of squad tweaking to take place but that is entirely dependent on whether we can free up some budget by offloading the last few players who don’t feature in Westley’s future plans.
PH - In some respects, we were unfortunate against both Oldham and Leyton Orient but now we're off and running with victory against Notts County. The manager appears to be taking a look at what player combinations are working best after making a few changes during the summer and that hasn't been helped by injuries both during the pre-season (Jimmy Smith, Ben Chorley) and since the start of the season (Sam Wedgbury, Luke Jones). But under Graham Westley, starting seasons slowly is not an unfamiliar thing - the year we won the Conference, it took us four games to get our first league win.
RBM - After an impressive sixth place finish two years ago, Boro fell to eighteenth last season. What were the expectations of the team at the beginning of this campaign?
MH - Last season was pretty grim for us Boro fans. We’d seen our double promotion winning team decimated and replaced with players who, despite clearly being talented, just weren't up for the fight. Unfortunately, when you work on the sort of budget we work on, you need a little bit more than footballing ability and we’ve always done a good trade in passion, desire and commitment. Last season, that was lacking in abundance! With Graham Westley returning to the club, the expectation at the start of this season was to have a team of players who gave everything for the shirt. We look like we’re well on the way to that. How that converts into a final position, I don’t know but I think we’ll be Top 10 by the end of the season.
PH - It depends on who you ask! After the dramatic slump last season, supporters want to see the passion and commitment that comes from a Graham Westley team and which had appeared to go missing under Gary Smith. That will help us push our way back up the table and, personally, I'd be very happy with a progressive mid-table finish - there are certainly four teams worse than us (at least!) - then again, Westley will tell you there's no reason why we can't challenge for promotion. That will be extremely impressive given some of the teams we have to get past for that to occur.
RBM - Manager Graham Westley has only been at the helm since March of this year. What kind of playing style has he established? How have the fans taken to him?
MH - He’s only been at the helm for this stint since March, but of course this is his third time of taking on the job. We are very well aware of what Westley and his teams bring and there weren't many people who were sad to see him return for a third time.
PH - After Westley was released from Preston and we took the decision to relieve Gary Smith of his duties here, it wasn't the greatest surprise to see GW return for a third stint as Boro' boss. The appointment was met with approval in most quarters - we know what he expects of his players and that was what we were in need of. It was difficult to think of a single other candidate at that point who could turn around our fortunes within the restraints of our budget - particularly after a season with not much cup success and declining attendances as the form dipped. There are many observers of GW who don't like the football he employs, labelling it lazily as strong, big and physical - opponents who usually call us that before a game normally end up 'outfootballed'!
RBM - How was Stevenage's offseason? Any additions or subtractions of note to the squad?
MH - Quite a hectic pre-season as Westley outed a lot of the fringe players from last season replacing them with his own signings bolstering or changing our squad in almost every position! As I mentioned above, there is still some tweaking to do but we work under a tight budgetary constraint so their final 2-3 transfer listed players will need to accept moves elsewhere before we can make moves to bring anybody else in.
PH - The off-season was quite encouraging. We were accomplished against lower league opposition and had some very good tests against QPR XI, Manchester United XI, Leeds United and Watford. Our recruitment has been mainly done from League Two this summer, but for the addition of Jimmy Smith from Leyton Orient and the loan signing of Michael Doughty from QPR - who looks quite a talent. We've opted for young, hungry players with a point to prove - an approach that GW has used to good success before with the likes of Chris Beardsley, Joel Byrom and Michael Bostwick.
RBM - Who are some of the players that have caught your eye this season? What kind of form have they been in lately?
MH - There’s not really been too much to see so far but having our inspirational centre half, Jon Ashton, return from injury is a huge boost for us. Luke Freeman looks reinvigorated down the left hand side and we look to have strengthened our full back options in the shape of Sam Wedgbury and Peter Hartley who has recently joined us from Hartlepool. Our attacking options are varied this season too with a mixture of pace, artistry and brute strength on offer as and when we need it! They’re all yet to show they can actually score goals though!
PH - Since the return of Graham Westley last season, Luke Freeman appears to have been revitalised on the left hand side and Sam Wedgbury looks like he could have a huge role to play at right back. Peter Hartley has settled in nicely from Hartlepool, but the squad will only get better as they become more familiar with the players they are lining up alongside.
RBM - Boro disposed of Ipswich Town handily in the last round of the League Cup. How about a score prediction for Wednesday's game at Goodison Park?
MH - This is entirely dependent on the sort of squad you put out and the sort of mindframe your players are in. We’ll certainly be turning up with every intention of an upset and we’ve shown in the past we’re more than capable of providing one!
My head says you’ll win 2-0 or 3-0 in normal time, but my heart looks back to our games against Newcastle, Tottenham and Reading and says we’ll take you to penalties – who knows what happens then!
PH - I don't think we're expecting Everton to put out their fullest strength XI but whatever team you put out, it'll be a very tough proposition. The longer we can keep the game level, the more confident we'll become in taking you to extra time or even more. But I personally think it'll be a step beyond us, and can see us going down to a valiant two-goal defeat.
Thank you again to Mark Hollis and Pete Hayman for your responses, here's to an excellent game of Cup football tomorrow!