The 2020-1 campaign – if anyone asks in years to come, you’ll tell ’em it was a weird one, right? But we can’t just let it go without a proper send-off. So, before it becomes little more than an abandoned chapter in a book, let’s take it for one final ride. Here’s the first part of our Stevenage review of the season; from cup heroics to a revival of fortunes and the fond farewells that we said as the curtain fell. We start with August to December 2020…
Stevenage Review of the Season: August 2020
Well, what a ruddy long summer it was. For much of it, we didn’t even know which league we’d be in; the Football League and its independent panels dragging out the Macclesfield Town saga for all it was worth. Let’s face it – we were all but ready to kick off the National League season. And we had to rebuild an entire squad with no idea of a) how good it had to be or b) where the money was coming from. Covid-19 hadn’t gone away, you know.
In the end, a dismal 2019-20 campaign didn’t cost us our place in the Football League; an awful season in which we saw – all together now – more gaffers than wins. And, yeah, we stayed up on a technicality. Just a bit awkward. Anyway, any lingering fears of yet another 11th-hour decision by the EFL were erased with the Carabao Cup Round One draw on 18 August. Our reward? A home game against Portsmouth.
Not that home advantage meant all that much in the season now gone. An empty Lamex Stadium greeted the lads and our League One oppo on 29 August. But something wasn’t quite right. Boro’ sprung out of the traps and scored twice in the first 10 minutes. We’d be kept waiting 10 games for two goals in the 2019-20 season. Oh – wait. A third came, and the half-hour mark was still on the horizon. What had we been up to over the summer?
In the end, it counted for nothing; Pompey also netted three and won the tie on pelanties.
August 2020: Transfers
By the end of August, most of our recruitment was done:
- Femi Akinwande (Billericay Town)
- Inih Effiong (Dover Athletic)
- Elliot Osborne (Stockport County)
- Ross Marshall (Maidstone United)
- Billy Johnson (Norwich City)
- Romain Vincelot (Shrewsbury Town)
- Tyrone Marsh (Boreham Wood)
- Ben Coker (Lincoln City, loan)
- Luke Prosser (Colchester United)
- Jamie Cumming (Chelsea, loan)
- Marcus Dinanga (Telford United)
In all, 22 players had gone; Paul Farman being the final one out the door when he went to Carlisle United in mid-August. In came 12 new faces, of which three were loans. Some of those players were experienced hands from the EFL. Many others were making a step up from non-league. And a couple were (and still are) ones for the future.
Stevenage Review of the Season: September 2020
Our ‘reward’ for staying in League Two was a season opener away to Barrow. It’d be their first game back in the Football League for like a billion years or something. And it was our first meeting since that FA Trophy final 10 years before. Unlike the previous season, Boro’ didn’t serve up three points to welcome to the newcomers (Salford City, 0-2). We nearly did. But Inih Effiong‘s late penalty spared our blushes and earned us a point.
The next week saw us back home for Oldham Athletic. A balmy autumn afternoon saw an unwanted record come to an end; three second half goals carrying us to a first win at the Lamex for nearly a year. And, to prove it was no fluke, we doubled up with our Papa John’s Trophy success over Southampton Yoof three days later. It felt as if things were on the way up. But old habits die hard.
Our last match of September took us to Valley Parade and hot off the press was the news that three of our lads had tested positive for the ‘Rona. With all due protocols followed, the game went ahead as planned. And it started well enough; Elliott List blasting us in front in the first half. But then history started to repeat itself.
The last time we’d gone into half-time ahead was 11 February 2020 up at… Valley Parade. That night, we ended up on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline. This time, it wasn’t quite that bad. But two second half goal turned the match on its head and secured the points. Given the situation, it was tough to swallow. And it’d have a lingering effect on us; our bright start giving way to a run of results that felt all too familiar…
September 2020: Transfers
Alex Revell bolstered his squad with the arrival of Arthur Read on loan from Brentford. In the opposite direction went young striker Joe Leslie; his career taking him south (in more ways than one?) to Woking.
Stevenage Review of the Season: October 2020
Boro’ played eight times in October as the campaign started to take shape. One of those eight games was a 3-2 defeat at home to MK Dons in the Papa John’s Trophy. The other seven were league outings. And we didn’t manage to score in a single one of ’em. Three goalless draw and four defeats saw us plummet down the table; dropping points at home to Grimsby Town on Halloween. The Mariners eventually finished bottom of the table.
All the while, there was no immediate sign of crowds returning to the Lamex. The money worries were growing. Who knew how the bills were going to be paid. A campaign to get fans back into grounds started to gather pace; Phil Wallace appearing and appealing on Sky Sports for the lifeline that EFL clubs so badly needed.
At the same time, Liverpool and Man United made their first power grab of the season by announcing Project Big Picture. In the short term, it promised the funding we needed. But the long-term picture was less rosy for English football. The ‘Project’ was scrapped – and EFL clubs were instead offered £50m. This “conditional” offer fell short, and was rejected.
By the end of October, any immediate hopes that fans would get back at the Lamex were dashed. Details of a new ‘national lockdown’ were announced as Covid-19 refused to sod off. So, we still had no matchday income apart from iFollow sign-ups. But the show, as far as the EFL were concerned, would go on. And, on the pitch, Boro’ needed a rocket up the proverbial arse. The problem was the blue touch paper was very slow to light.
October 2020: Transfers
In the opposite direction, the new non-league football season was up and running. And that meant chances for our young lads to go out on loan. Jamie Fielding and Liam Smyth went to Braintree Town, while Luis Fernandez had the chance to turn out for Oxford City.
Stevenage Review of the Season: November 2020
Boro’ were still waiting for our league fortunes to improve as November rumbled on under a new lockdown. It started with a 3-1 defeat at Colchester United – another side that went on to wobble as the season wore on. But a 1-1 draw at Morecambe on 14 November now looks pretty impressive in hindsight.
We had a two-week gap between those games. It wasn’t, thankfully, because an outbreak of Covid-19 had forced the squad to self-isolate. Instead, it was actually the start of our FA Cup run that had wedged itself into our schedule. And Concord Rangers indoors provided a handy chance for us to start moving through the tournament. Or that’s what we thought. An unconvincing performance saw us stagger to a 2-2 draw – and a 5-4 win on penalties.
Soon after our return from Morecambe, we relieved ourselves of any further responsibility in the Papa John’s Trophy. Losing to Northampton at home on penalties sent us out at the group stage. And that’s good because our long involvement in the 2019-20 tournament is clearly the reason we struggled so much in the league. Or something.
It didn’t have an immediate effect as we lost at home in our first-ever meeting with Bolton Wanderers on 21 November. But – hold on! At last! Port Vale came down three days later and we finally won another game of football. And, because we were in such a good mood after that, we then created a few waves in the FA Cup the following weekend; putting Hull City out (on penalties again) and moving into the Third Round.
Off the pitch, EFL clubs rowed back on their rejection of the Premier League’s £50m cash bailout in early November; deciding instead to take up the big clubs on their ‘kind’ offer.
November 2020: Transfers
Just one deal took place in November and it was confirmed right at the start of the month. Two years after departing for Lincoln City, midfielder Tom Pett came back on a short-term loan. It turned out to be an inspired move…
Stevenage Review of the Season: December 2020
The last month of a turbulent year started with Boro’ seeking stability; Lennie Lawrence leaving his role and Joe Dunne coming in as assistant to Revs. On the pitch a day later, we made it two unbeaten in the league with a point at Walsall. It wasn’t the shabbiest result as such. But we took our eyes off the ball late on and three points turned into one.
At the time, we were thrashing about; trying to escape the watery clutches of the bottom two. The win at home to Port Vale, 14 fixtures in, took our points haul into double figures. Yeah – a point is better than nothing. But it didn’t feel as if we were much better off when compared with the 2019-20 season. And the run-up to Christmas would be anything but uneventful. Luckily, it started off on a positive note as fans made their return.
Our home match against Southend United on 5 December was a big opportunity to mark the return of the Boro’ faithful with three points against our fellow strugglers. In the end, it was the drabbest of drab games; one of our goalless specials that did neither team much good. We were still bumbling around at the wrong end of the table. And the only time our fans got to see any action in person didn’t seem to make the wait worth it.
It got worse before it got better too.
First, we lost Joe Dunne one week after his appointment due to personal issues. And then we were tonked 4-0 at Carlisle United; the only time during the whole season (we believe) that we got a good duffing up? Anyway, that trip was a bum note for us to go into an enforced two layoff. Our games away at Tranmere Rovers and at home to Exeter City had to be postponed due to another ‘Rona outbreak.
It meant we went into Christmas second from bottom. And, to be honest, we were bored of being there. So, it didn’t help that our 1-1 draw at Cheltenham Town on Boxing Day wasn’t enough to stop us falling to the bottom; Southend going above us after beating Colchester at home. Luckily, a late Christmas present was on the way. And it’d be our old friends from the Abbey Stadium who would deliver it; Boro’ beating the Us 1-0 on 29 December.
More importantly, it meant we didn’t end 2020 bottom of the division like we ended 2019.
December 2020: Transfers
The start of the month saw our only transfer activity; striker Inih Effiong going out on loan to try and turn Barnet’s National League season into less of a laughing stock.