2013-4: Behind The Numbers

By Pete H

Our 2013-4 League One campaign ended in something that no Boro’ side had gone through since the 1987-8 season – relegation. It’s never nice to get that sinking feeling. Of course, it won’t shock you to learn that some other teams have a lot more experience of going down than us. But that’s no consolation when it happens to you. And it especially doesn’t help if you’re still keeping the flame of survival alive right up to the very end.

2013-4 League One: The background

Boro’ were always going to top out at some point. After promotion to the Football League in 2010 (finally), we maintained our momentum; staging a second-half-of-season charge to get into – and win – the League One playoffs in 2011. Even when in the third tier, we didn’t quite feel ready to call it quits. It took a late Sheffield United winner to end our dreams of a third straight promotion in 2012; Boro’ going down in the semi-finals.

Yet, still we wanted to punch hard above our weight. The opening part of the 2012-3 season saw us hot on the tail of leaders Tranmere Rovers; a wonderful start to the campaign under Gary Smith daring us to believe once more. But then Smiffy took his finger off it, and we fell hard. Out he went and in came Graham Westley, keeping us clear of any potential relegation danger after a dramatic slump in form. The summer of 2013, then, a chance to regroup.

All change, please

GW took the summer as his opportunity to build a squad that he thought would be capable of maintaining our place in League One. Out went some of the least remarkable lads to ever grace the field in a Boro’ shirt (who was Andy Iro?). In came six new faces in time for the new season; Peter Hartley becoming the seventh arrival shortly after matchday one. Perhaps the most significant transfer activity was the departure of iconic captain Mark Roberts.

One problem was that GW also had to find jobs for guys who had signed under the previous regime – and who were on longer contracts. So, it meant we couldn’t simply bin them all off in summer 2013. You can also ask whether the likes of Sam Wedgbury and Oumare Tounkara were ever good enough for a League One side when they arrived at the Lamex. It wasn’t long before we got to learn quite what shape we were in.

The writing on the wall early?

Looking back, the die was cast in those initial fixtures of the season. Our 2013-4 League One campaign got off to a muted start at best. We began with a 4-3 home defeat against Oldham Athletic; a match where left back Lee Hills had to be hooked very early on after picking up a yellow card and looking nailed on for a second before too long. More importantly, it was the start of a run that would see us lose seven out of our opening 10 matches.

Goals were bloody hard to come by. After scoring three in that topsy-turvy opener, we’d take seven more games to double our tally. By the end of September, we only had seven goals to our name – and it was mid-October before we reached double figures. The same is also true of our points haul. And yet, for a brief moment in the middle of October, Boro’ would spring into life; a sign – perhaps – that we’d get another famous second-half-of-the-season surge.

2013-4 League One table – 28 September 2013
20Bristol City100641521-66
21Crewe Alexandra10136825-176
22Sheffield United10127616-105
24Tranmere Rovers10127921-125

Cup joy, league despair

Boro' had the audacity to take the lead against at Goodison Park – but lost in extra time
Photo: Empics

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in the opening exchanges of the 2013-4 League One campaign. Mind you, a cause for optimism came in an entirely different competition. After defeating Ipswich Town in our Capital One Cup Round One tie, our reward was a trip to Everton. We even had the audacity to take the lead against our Premier League hosts. But they got on terms just before the break, before pouncing on a James Dunne error to win it in extra time.

We had some joy in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy too. By beating MK Dons and Leyton Orient, we made our way to a southern semi-final at Swindon Town. Unfortunately, we went down on penalties and the prospect of a Wembley appearance was snuffed out.

Back in the league, Boro’ delivered three wins in four in mid-to-late October. It raised hopes of a belated run of good form that’d get us out of the mire. Alas, it was a false dawn and the path to winter became a very dark and dismal one for us; yielding one win and two draws in nine games between 2 November and the end of 2013. The arrival of Francois Zoko gave our Goals For column a leg up. But the Goals Against column was also bulging ever larger.

The arrival of Francois Zoko gave our Goals For column a leg up. But the Goals Against column was also bulging ever larger.
2013-4 League One table – 29 December 2013
20Tranmere Rovers2365122743-1623
21Bristol City2341093336-322
22Crewe Alexandra2356122046-2621
24Notts County2453162738-1118

Hope of unlikely salvation

Here’s a damning stat for you. Boro’ were the only team in the bottom four at the turn of the year to eventually be relegated. Yep – that’s right. Bristol City (who smashed us 4-1 in our last match of 2013), Crewe Alexandra and Notts County all survived. So, what stopped us from achieving that same escape? Well, January and February were rubbish months again for us for a start. That didn’t help.

Bristol City (who smashed us 4-1 in our last match of 2013), Crewe Alexandra and Notts County all survived
Photo: Kevin Coleman(?)

In all, Boro’ played eight times across the first two months of 2014. We won three – but lost the rest. Maybe it was a lack of draws along the way that undermined any hope of staying up. After all, four out of those five defeats in January and February were by the single goal. For the entire season, we lost 26 in total – 15 of which were by one goal. In another universe, finding a way to draw just half of them could’ve made a difference.

2013-4 League One table – 25 February 2014
20Crewe Alexandra3397173762-2534
21Bristol City33614134755-832
22Shrewsbury Town32710153143-1331
23Notts County3393214255-1330

A 1-0 home win over Crewe Alexandra on 25 February 2014 wasn’t enough to lift us off the foot of the 2013-4 League One table. Oh, yeah. We were no longer able to hold out in second bottom by this point. But what does stick out like a sore thumb is that we’d still got things in our own hands. A prolonged FA Cup adventure had built up a couple of games in hand. And a couple of (unlikely) wins would put survival back on the map.

The FA Cup run, by the way, saw us get to Round Four. For the second time in the same season, we met Everton. This time it was at home. And this time it wasn’t close

The final and fatal collapse

The win against Crewe at the end of February saw us go into March on a bit of a wave. Maybe, after all, Boro’ had found that crucial form? We were unbeaten in the next five; winning two and drawing three. It was a run that got us off the bottom and into 21st – one point adrift of safety. It was a run that included a famous win at Bradford City; the one and only time we’ve managed it (to date).

Next up for us was a home game versus playoff-chasing MK Dons. Yet, hopes were high that we could maintain our good form.

2013-4 League One table – 15 March 2014
20Carlisle United36108183857-1938
22Crewe Alexandra37910184269-2737
23Shrewsbury Town36713163447-1334
24Notts County3794244567-2231

It’s also deeply annoying to note that we were six points ahead of Notts County with a game in hand at this stage. And they ended up surviving.

Anyway, Boro’ put in a good shift against the Dons and held a two-goal lead going into the last 10. The injury-forced substitution of Dean Parrett around the hour mark could be seen as an omen in hindsight. The visitors started to come back into it as the game entered the final stages. And then? The killer blow. Three goals in the final 10 turned a win into a defeat; hope into despair. It was perhaps the moment we were relegated.

We just didn’t know it yet.

The ‘relief’ of relegation?

The Dons disaster was a line in the sand. The next time that Boro’ won a match would come after relegation was confirmed. We scraped a grim two points from the next six outings, while others around us – quite simply – did much better. It meant that, come Easter Monday, Boro’ welcomed Bristol City to the Lamex knowing that anything other than a win would spell relegation.

It’s also worth noting that all four defeats in that period were by a single goal. Again.

2013-4 League One table – 18 April 2014
20Crewe Alexandra431210215279-2746
21Carlisle United421111204268-2644
22Notts County43134266076-1643
23Shrewsbury Town43914203955-1641

Based on the form guide, we were dead in the water anyway. So, in some ways, the 3-1 home defeat against the Robins was academic. Our three-year stay in the third tier of English football was ending in damp, meek fashion. And GW didn’t exactly do much to help the collective mood when he claimed to be “relieved” that it had been confirmed. The work – his work – that had gone into getting to that level had been undone.

What happened next?

With our fate now sealed, we overcame Walsall at home the following week. Siri, show us the definition of “too little, too late”. Then, a comfortable loss at already-promoted Brentford brought the curtain down on the 2013-4 League One campaign. It was easily the worst Boro’ campaign in memory up until that point. Well, it returned the highest number of league defeats and goals conceded if nothing else.

Final 2013-4 League One table
20Notts County46155266477-1350
21Tranmere Rovers461211235279-2747
22Carlisle United461112234376-3345
23Shrewsbury Town46915224465-2142

To be fair, Boro’ weren’t worst across all metrics come the end of the season. Our win count went into double figures, unlike Shrewsbury Town. Six sides above us conceded more than us. And our goal difference was only the joint third-worst. But these stats – much like average attendances and the like – count for sod all in the bigger picture. It all came down to points and we didn’t get enough of them. By far.

To be fair, Boro’ did regroup over the summer. GW worked his transfer magic yet again to build a squad that surprised a few during the 2014-5 League Two season; qualifying for the playoffs and a chance to make an instant return to League One. Sadly, we’d fall short after a hotly-contested semi-final with Southend United. GW was then ousted in favour of the Teddy Sheringham experiment in summer 2015. And the rest is history.

It was the closest we’d come to League One until Steve Evans guided us to automatic promotion in 2023. Let’s hope the 2023-4 season is not a repeat showing 10 years on.

2013-4 Stats…

  • Goals For: 64 (46 league and 18 cup)
  • Goals Against: 85 (72 league and 13 cup)
  • Most Appearances: Luke Freeman (54)
  • Top Goalscorer: Francois Zoko (16 from 40)
  • Biggest attendance: 22,730 vs Everton (A), 28 August 2013
  • Players Used: 39 (plus two unused subs)
  • Points Per Game: 0.91
  • Average Attendance: 2,964

Season Details: 2013-4 League One details

With thanks to the Stevenage Football Archive

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