‘We’re not all arseholes in the Conference’: Bad blood between Newcastle and Stevenage

Posted: February 2, 2020 in Uncategorized
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The temptation to sound the Ronnie Radford bugle is always going to prove irresistible to football writers and broadcasters whenever an FA Cup draw pairs Newcastle with a non-league club. Sure enough, the build for this fourth round tie initially ticked off all the usual tropes. Inevitably, the cost of the entire Stevenage side (£30,000) was compared to that of £15m man and recently deposed World’s Most Expensive Player Alan Shearer, while naturally, the Conference players had to be routinely patronised for having day jobs. “Aww, that one’s a painter-decorator! Look at the adorable delivery van driver! Eh Martin, get a picture of me with this foundry supervisor!”

Stevenage Borough, however, were not prepared to conform to the cuddly underdog stereotype, and relations between David and Goliath dissolved amid a hilariously unseemly squabble that somehow dragged in rival managers and Jeremy Paxman…

Fading Powers

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In January 1998, Newcastle were just easing themselves back into Crisis Club mode. Kenny Dalglish had steered The Magpies to a second place Premier League finish in 1996-97 in the aftermath of Kevin Keegan’s dramatic mid-season resignation. Yet the more the Toon Army saw of Dalglish, the less they liked him. Almost going out of his way to assume the mantle of wicked stepfather, he scrambled to sell as many icons of the Keegan era as he could. Les Ferdinand, David Ginola and Peter Beardsley all left during his first summer. Faustino Asprilla, despite a memorable hat trick in the Champions League against Barcelona in October, would be marginalised and then returned to Parma before the end of the campaign. These heroes were replaced by various 1980s Shoot Annual cover stars long past their prime (34-year-old John Barnes, 35-year-old Stuart Pearce, 36-year-old Ian Rush), or overseas gambles like Feyenoord’s Brian Pinas, who, er, flopped. The football wasn’t just dour but ineffective, and Newcastle found themselves part of the relegation conversation by the new year.

Nevertheless, Stevenage weren’t thought to represent any kind of banana skin. Rising from the eighth to the fifth tier during the first half of the decade under Paul Fairclough, they’d actually won the Conference title in 1995-96, only to be denied entry to the Football League when their ground, Broadhall Way, was deemed not to meet the requisite security criteria. An appeal to the High Court was rejected, and though their case would see the rules relaxed and they would be the last club to suffer this fate, it was scant consolation. Disheartened, a malaise set in. Their best players, like striker Barry Hayles and centre back Efe Sodje, left them behind to join the ranks of the professionals. Though they’d booked their date with Shearer and co with a stunning scalp of second-tier Swindon at the County Ground, they’d won just six of their previous 25 games by the time it took place.

Location, Location, Location

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It seemed a no-brainer that the tie would be switched to St. James’ Park, given Broadhall Way’s certified unsuitability and the fact that their FA Cup tie with Birmingham City the previous year had been moved to St. Andrews. The Stevenage players even let it be known that they were looking forward to playing in such illustrious surroundings. That was until the Borough chairman, one Victor Green, caught wind of Sky’s interest in televising the game, and, to the astonishment of his own players and manager, insisted that Broadhall Way would host the tie. Newcastle were not amused.

Their belligerence wasn’t entirely unfounded – safety concerns were understandable given they were expecting to take a healthy mass of travelling Geordies, and Broadhall Way had a capacity of just 6,700. The way they handled the situation, however, was appalling, and exploited gleefully by their would-be hosts.

First, a bemused Fairclough received a phone call from a furious Dalglish demanding the game be switched – which he’d initially assumed was a wind-up (maybe he thought it was Steve Penk, apparently 1998’s premier impressionist). Then, Newcastle sent their safety officer and Director of Football, entirely uninvited, to inspect Stevenage’s ground, the press there to greet them after Green tipped them off. “I think they expected to see a ramshackle, broken-down cow-shed with sheep eating the grass because we couldn’t afford a mower.”

It was a spectacular PR own goal for Newcastle, the high and mighty Premier League club accused of ‘Big Brother‘ tactics against the paupers from the Conference; their uppity display in Hertfordshire was even discussed on Newsnight, where Jeremy Paxman asked: “Is Kenny Dalglish a big girl’s blouse?”

With a temporary stand constructed to swell capacity to 8,000, Broadhall Way was declared fit to host the tie by the police and the FA. Determined to enjoy their big day, the Stevenage players trained with loud speakers blasting out crowd noise to ready themselves for the atmosphere. Their visitors, meanwhile, were feeling the pressure. Winless in eight games, they’d needed a last minute winner to overcome doomed Bolton in the midweek before the cup tie, goalscorer Temuri Ketsbaia unleashing pent-up fury on an innocent advertising hoarding in an act that remains his signifier on these shores to this day.

Match Day

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By the time the grand occasion rolled around, everyone was determined to have their fun at the expense of the haughty millionaires in town. Shearer was making his first start since August following ankle surgery, and the stadium announcer pretended not to be able to make out his name on the team sheet. The number nine would be singled out for rough treatment from the hosts, as would Italian defender Alessandro Pistone, apparently based on the belief they could get a rise out of the fiery Latin temperament he surely had, unless all those 1980s Dolmio ads had lied to them.

It all seemed for nought when the visitors took an early lead. Defender Mike Love’s slip created altogether worse vibrations than his Beach Boys namesake, allowing Keith Gillespie to burn past him and sling over a cross for Shearer to nod in just three minutes into his return. England’s number nine made sure to sprint past the dugouts and flash a grin at Fairclough on his way past.

Stevenage’s preparations paid off, however, and unruffled they proceeded to dominate the rest of the half, with Shaka Hislop repeatedly called into action and Rob Lee nearly forced into an own goal before on-loan Giuliano Grazioli, hero of the Swindon tie, had a goal disallowed. Four minutes before half time, the hosts forced another corner, the ball was flicked to the back post, and the predatory Grazioli was there again to force a header into the net, forgetting his planned celebration in the chaos that engulfed him.

The scoring ended there, the second half largely a non-event, one side stunned by their achievement, the other by their own incompetence. Stevenage would play at St James’ Park after all. “We’re going up to Newcastle a couple of days early,” a gleeful Green crowed, “just to check whether their ground is safe”.

Dalglish ill-advisedly tried to add a positive spin, claiming it was a result gained in difficult conditions, and that the windy weather and “bouncy ball” favoured the non-leaguers. Rather inconveniently, it transpired that the bothersome ball was a Spalding Top Flite 2000 – a brand he’d publicly endorsed a few years earlier.

Just the fax, ma’am

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In the hours and days after the tie, the Stevenage team embarked on a lap of the celebrity circuit, from Denise van Outen’s Big Breakfast bed to Crinkly Bottom, where they met Noel Edmonds and Mr Blobby. Some started to wonder, however, if they weren’t enjoying their notoriety a little too much, particularly the chairman, no stranger to sapping sympathy from his cause, who was by this point quite the rent-a-quote. “As we say in the conference, they didn’t like it when we got inside their pants…I’ve never seen Shearer get out of his pram like that,” he told anybody who’d listen after the game.

Fairclough concurred that Shearer, after his early goal, was “in the pocket” of his centre back Mark Smith. Interviewed years later, Steve Howey still quietly seethed about Stevenage. “Green and Fairclough were two of a kind,” he told The Daily Star. “Both loved the sound of their own voices and seeing their pictures in the papers…even their players were mouthing off about what they were going to do to us…their behaviour left a lot to be desired.”

It was a sentiment shared by certain peers of the Conference club, as would become clear when, on the day of the replay, Newcastle received a fax that read:

‘Good luck. We’re not all arseholes in the Conference.’

After mysteriously finding its way into the Stevenage dressing room, the fax was attributed to former Spurs UEFA Cup hero Graham Roberts, by this point manager of rivals Yeovil Town. A former Stevenage player, Roberts reportedly held a grudge after his appointment at Huish Park as player-manager was held up by the Hertfordshire club delaying transfer of his player’s registration.

Yeovil, already increasingly weary of their manager’s conduct, were appalled by the stunt. Roberts was suspended, then sacked.

The Replay

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It was a bruised Borough who strode out at St James Park, greeted by the vitriol of 34,000 unimpressed Geordies. A number of their best players were missing, most notably Grazioli, who’d crocked himself at Gateshead the previous weekend (where he was allegedly spat at as he was stretchered off by Newcastle fans in attendance).

If the replay started much the same way as the first, with Shearer quickly opening the scoring, yet more controversy mushroomed from it. It appeared that Smith had managed to get back and acrobatically clear the striker’s downward header at the last moment, only for the linesman to signal for the goal. Rudimentary computer reconstructions subsequently suggested the whole ball hadn’t crossed the line.

It seemed academic when Shearer added a second midway through the second half, but Gary Crawshaw’s goal 12 minutes from the end sparked a late Stevenage flurry that threatened to send the game into extra time. The clock ultimately beat them, but not before they gave the Toon another fright. “I looked across at their bench when we scored and I could see fear,” insisted Fairclough. At full time, Shearer refused to swap shirts with his tormentors, though he did later send Smith a signed one.

With Newcastle finally safely delivered to a fifth round tie against Tranmere Rovers, all that remained was to magnanimously wish the plucky upstarts from the Conference well, but a still-incensed Dalglish couldn’t quite bring himself to do it:

“On the pitch, Stevenage have been a credit to the Vauxhall Conference and their town, but off it they have left a lot to be desired. If they were a Premier League club they would probably have been up on a disrepute charge…We wish them well in the FA Trophy. We hope they get beat in the next round.”

Stung into responding, Fairclough branded his counterpart “a very, very sad man”, lamenting: “As a non-league manager, I just wanted someone as big as Kenny Dalglish to say ‘well done’. He didn’t”.

Newcastle would reach the FA Cup Final, where they succumbed to Arsene Wenger’s double winners at Wembley. In the league, they laboured to a 13th placed finish. Stevenage similarly underwhelmed in the Conference, ending up 15th. It was both clubs’ worst league performance since their respective promotions, and by the time the strains of Prince and the Revolution rather predictably ushered in 1999, both Dalglish and Fairclough had been sacked.

Stevenage would exact their revenge 13 years later, dumping The Magpies out of the cup in the third round in 2011, but so frequently crisis-bitten had Newcastle become, it barely registered as an upset. That victorious Stevenage side isn’t nearly as well remembered outside Hertfordshire as Grazioli and the boys of 1998.

At least they didn’t have to meet Noel Edmonds.

 

 

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