D3D4 Stevenage enthusiast Reece Donnelly gives his take on the coming season through his red and white tinted glasses…
Last season Stevenage made huge strides in Darren Sarll’s first full season at the helm and looked like genuine contenders for automatic promotion as they approached the home straight on a blistering run of ten wins from 13 matches. However, they ran out of steam and finished with a whimper, taking only two points from the final six matches, leaving Sarll barely able to contain his frustration. Last season for Stevenage brought a real mix of pride and disappointment, it was a strong mix of both. Disappointment first and foremost because of how close we were to making it into the play-offs, having seemingly got one foot in the door only to slip painfully out of contention while others around found their form at the right time. Taking a step back and looking at the season as a whole, there is great pride and more importantly, hope to be had. There were so many ups and downs, our position didn’t tell the full story but all at the club can take the positives from the season and use it as a building block, or spring board, if you like, for a sustainable challenge this coming season. The good spells shone through and we developed a style of play that, despite falling short, was a reward to the fans in itself. Sarll was adamant that a lack of stamina and athleticism had been the root cause of the late collapse and that focussing on these factors should see the side improve. If the team can impose themselves sooner and sustain a good run for longer, they will be there or thereabouts.
Expectations for Stevenage are being ridiculously underplayed this year by most pundits and onlookers. Many have us low mid-table or worse which, in my opinion, is nothing short of a joke. Sarll, management, players and fans would admit last season’s aim was just to improve and consolidate after the car crash of a season that was the Teddy Sheringham tenure. Good recruitment which I will come to, a highly capable manager, a determined squad that, under Sarll’s better management, produced that run in January and February including beating the champions twice all gives cause for optimism. There is something heartening about losing 4-3 to Doncaster knowing you’ve really had a go at it compared to the painful 1-0 loss under Teddy Sheringham where we never looked like scoring or showed any belief. So although winning is important, playing good football is, arguably, more so and resonates with the supporters who have to turn up week in week out to watch it.
It’s very dangerous to make predictions or set expectations as a Stevenage supporter and, truth be told, we are expecting so many ups and downs again this year but the general consensus is a play-off push for 2017-18. Sarll has enforced in his staff and his team the mentality of taking it one game at a time and with us, that is probably sensible considering last season’s inconsistency. The fans are, of course, imbibed with optimism as is always the case in pre-season but if I try and look at the squad in an objective way it is hard to see us not challenging for the play-offs again.
In terms of style, Darren Sarll wants to play a non-stop high tempo game with everyone working for 90 minutes every game. He places an emphasis on youth and passing football and is fairly demanding. This style can lead to the odd rugby score but both Sarll and the fans will be happier accepting a 4-3 loss than a 1-0 defeat in which the style was dire. It’s better to watch granted but he must be careful. League Two can be unforgiving, this isn’t the Premier League, we can’t afford to do a Swansea under Landrup or Rodgers. Our place in the Football League is a stake here. We had a tendency to struggle against sides that gave us respect or sat back leading to frustrating games where we couldn’t break teams down only to get hit on the counter. Things needed tweaking and from the looks of our training sessions they’ve been fixed or improved on at least. Sarll is looking to recruit players that fit in with his philosophy and style and that it the way it should be. We are attracting players that are far better footballers than in the past and that is a huge plus for all the fans!
Sarll is just the kind of manager that a team like Stevenage need. He is young, unproven granted, but has a great attitude and drive. With experience coaching support from the likes of Day, Roeder and Shorey he’s shown he can be successful. There is no reason that he can’t do a Tisdale and be at the club long term, after all, stability at a club like Stevenage would be a great asset. I think his local and youth team links are valuable too, we’ve seen him trust the academy products more than Graham Westley which is important for the club with a budget like ourselves. I have never been as immersed or excited by a Stevenage manager as I have by Sarll. Every time I see him he smiles and shakes my hand and it makes my day. Stevenage made huge strides in Sarll’s first full season at the helm and both he and the club are epitome of a dark horse. There’s an inner focus and determination about him that passes under the radar of most commentators. He has great attention to detail and works to a clear plan that enables him to make sensible snap judgements. He doesn’t want to be mediocre and he doesn’t want Stevenage to be mediocre, he wants us to be great, something for the fans and community to be proud of. Sure it may take us a bit longer and we may have to work a little bit harder, after all we are Stevenage, but we are miles ahead of where many thought we would be in terms of development and recruitment.
The change in personal was necessary, ten so far but I don’t think anyone can complain. They are as follows:
- Alex Samuel– from Swansea- winger/striker- Newports (their fans hate him now) player of the season in their great escape- controlled and classy out on the wing. Position that needed strengthening.
- James Ferry– from Brentford- central midfield – tall and controlled, still raw to first team football a plus point in many ways
- Harry Beautyman – Northampton- central midfield-very energetic and does some great stuff on the ball and will get some goals if he play’s regularly – bit of a coup for the club
- Danny Newton – Tamworth- striker from the Vardy academy, Vardy likened him to himself and he’s nickname is the wasp due to his persistence. Scored for fun last season a risk worth taking
- Joe Martin– Millwall- left back- massive coup for the club to sign someone who played the majority of games in both Millwall’s playoff pushes in a higher Division. Very controlled and brings the experience we haven’t had in that position for a while!
- Blair Turgott– Bromley- winger- also from the Vardy academy Blair is skilfull and brings an element to the team we didn’t have last year. If he does anywhere near as well as he did in the National League we are in for a treat.
- Joe Fryer– Middlesbrough – Goalkeeper- likely to be Sarll’s starter. Reactions are top notch – nice to have a reliable GK for once.
- Terence Van Cooten -Reading (free agent)- right back that impressed on trial – a good option and strength in depth.
- Chris Whelpdale– Wimbledon,- winger- Time at Wimbledon didn’t work out but all fans know what he can do and on his day has the ability to strip defences to pieces – try find me one unhappy fan about this move I dare you.
- Kevin Lokko – Maidstone – Centre Back – played in the England C set up and looks a strong candidate to challenge for a first team place. Part of the Norwich academy at 21 has plenty of potential.
This is not the end of the business for Stevenage in this window, Sarll reassured fans of this. The spine of the team still needs improving. But not one person can go look at us and say they haven’t done enough to make a decent run at the play-offs. The fact Charlie Lee, Jobi McAnuff, Steve Schumacher and Jamie Jones have gone without uproar is commendable and a sign of Sarll’s good man management. He has truly set us up for battle and rightly so in a Division that saw the side in 5th only separated from the side in 12th by 5 points!
In the short term we have to continue to unearth younger players who have the right drive and attitude because we don’t have the budget to compete with wages and transfer fees of many of our rivals at this level. The academy products are vital too. Long term we need to build the fan base which the club is working really hard on, with all the junior initiatives etc. That’s a generational project though, not something that will bear fruit short term. Godden was a big part of it last year but Kennedy contributed hugely too. The team working for one another and believing in each other was key to our successes last season and Sarll will continue to use this to his advantage.
If I was to send a message to the players I would say “I’m proud to call myself a fan of Stevenage football club, we are a club who tries to do things the right way, spending within our means and building for a sustainable future. I’m always proud to watch our team using togetherness and dedication to beat teams with bigger budgets, better paid players. You demonstrate what can be achieved with the right attitude and application! Now go out and enjoy the season, we’re behind you every step of the way!”
We can trust Sarll to do what is in the club’s best interest as he is a fan himself and will always love the club and its fans.
Can we do something special this year? Absolutely, it’s there for the taking!
The final words I want to end on is a conversation I had with Darren Sarll at the end of the season. I simply said “thanks for nearly killing me in that rollercoaster of a season” and he responded with a smile and said “try being the manager!”
So we must remember they want it as much as we do, Sarll definitely does. Every emotion we’re dragged through, they are too. We are all in this together!
I believe and you’ll hear me from the terraces every single minute of the way COME ON STEVENAGE!!!!
words Reece Donnelly