In an alternate universe, Boro’s 1996-7 campaign was a historic double-winning one. In our universe, however, we fell agonisingly short. After out-dated ground rules stopped us going up to the Football League, we had to go again in the GM Vauxhall Conference as its reigning kings. Well, we’d won it once. Why not do it again? We had the players. We had the manager. And we had the momentum. We were even ready to push a couple more boundaries too.
Little did we know that it would end up being (at least the start of) the end of an era.
1996-7 GM Vauxhall Conference: The background
Under Cloughie, the 1990s had (almost) been wall-to-wall glory. He picked up the baton in 1990 and delivered four league crowns in six seasons. And we just don’t mean winning the same ones. Our success spanned four divisions; taking us from Vauxhall Football League Division Two North to the GM Vauxhall Conference in no time at all. And that rise would’ve continued into the Football League if, well, you know the rest…
Our humble abode wasn’t considered fit for the Football League in December 1995. Now, there’s a lot to pick at here. First, that’s almost five months before we’d sealed the title. It was eight before the start of the 1996-7 campaign. And you can hardly claim that Division Three had many better grounds than ours. Come on, Vetch Field? Really? Our chairman, Victor Green, took it to the courts. We lost. So, it was back in our box to defend our title.
The defence starts
The season started with what we hoped would be the first taste of silverware; winning the Herts Charity Cup at the expense of Stalebuns. Sure, it was small fry in the grand scheme of things. But winning is a habit, right? And we didn’t half hit the ground running on the first day of the new league term. Halifax Town felt the sharp end of our frustration as Boro’ won 6-0. And we didn’t even have star striker Barry Hayles to call on that day. Gosh.
Our title defence didn’t get off to the strongest start, however.
We were held to a goalless draw at Hednesford Town, before going down 2-1 at promotion rivals Macclesfield Town (remember them?). We still collected three wins in August 1995 – leaving us with 10 points from a possible 15. A solid, if not spectacular, start.
• 30 August table check – Pos 5, Pts 7; three points off top
Losing to title rivals
A 1-0 win over Northwich Victoria on 31 August was the first of five straight victories; a run that also saw the start of our FA Cup campaign at Arlesey Town. Remember that. It’ll come in handy. But it was also a run that came to a juddering hault when Kidderminster Harriers beat us by three goals. It was yet more ground lost to our championship rivals that season and needed to be put right.
• 25 September table check – Pos 1, Pts 25; two points clear
That defeat at Kiddy was on 16 September. Our next league defeat was almost one month later on 15 October. And that came down at Kingfield; Woking take every ounce of joy in a win that avenged Easter Monday. More importantly, the 3-1 defeat put us on the back foot against our title rivals again. It was the first of three straight league defeats too; losing 3-1 at Farnborough and then collapsing to a 3-0 home defeat against – sigh – Woking.
That latest defeat was also the first time we dropped points at home all season.
• 20 November table check – Pos 7, Pts 29; 10 points off top, three games in hand
Going into Christmas
We slowly got our form back on track, and the arrival of winter brought with it better times. Our 4-1 home win against Gateshead on 23 November (famous for a Carl Adams hattrick) put us onto a run of eight games without defeat. This included two FA Cup wins, including that 2-1 win at Leyton Orient. There were also some high-scoring league wins too; ending with a 6-1 victory at Slough Town on New Year’s Day.
So, would 1996 be as memorable as 1995? It was shaping up to be…
• 19 January table check – Pos 2, Pts 46; 15 points off top, five games in hand
It started with a first-ever outing in FA Cup Round Three at home to Birmingham City. Two weeks later, our FA Trophy adventure was up and running after a replay with Bath City. All the while, we were greasing the wheels of our title defence. Welling United stuck with their bogey team status in beating us 2-0 on 1 February 1997. But there was no cause for us to panic. We didn’t lead the way, but we were keeping in touch…
• 15 February table check – Pos 3, Pts 47; 15 points off top, four games in hand
The home straight…
February and March were good months. Boro’ turned up the heat on our title rivals with an epic run of six straight league winbetween 17 February and 25 March. The FA Trophy saw us make steady progress too; a 2-0 win against Colwyn Bay on 22 March putting us in the semi-final hat. It was all starting to look very promising for us. The double dream was truly on. With momentum behind us and games in hand, we simply had to keep on that course.
• 28 March table check – Pos 3, Pts 66; 10 points off top, three games in hand
… and the collapse
“December 7, 1941 a date which will live in infamy,” said US president Franklin D Roosevelt about Pearl Harbour. For us, it might as well be 29 March 1997. And that’s only if you accept that we played on that date. A big title showdown came to Broadhall Way; us at home to Macclesfield Town. The defenders against the pretenders. And when they were two goals and a man down, the win we needed looked nailed on.
The Silkmen rallied. Boro’ collapsed. The game was somehow lost. We were stunned.
Our hopes weren’t dead in the water. But it was very much advantage Silkmen after that.
We tried to keep pace. But we no longer had the games in hand to overturn the deficit. And the side from Moss Rose weren’t giving up the ghost. Nor, to be fair, were Kiddy in second. All three of us had been barred entry to the Football League. And three into one didn’t go. Not only that, but Boro’ had to somehow keep the league pressure on – while facing off against Woking in the FA Trophy semi-final.
The odds were starting to turn against us.
• 11 April table check – Pos 3, Pts 70; 10 points off top, three games in hand
Running out of steam
Boro’ picked up seven points from a potential nine during a semi-final odyssey that’d be drawn out over three games. After the two regulation legs, some bright spark decided a replay was the only way to settle it. And it went the way of Woking; the Cards collecting their third victory over us that season. One half of our double dream went with that. If we couldn’t make up the ground in the league, that Herts Charity Cup success would be our only silverware.
Boro’ had five games left and needed a miracle. What we also needed was a perfect record. And that’s not what we got. Draws away to Gateshead and at home to Stalybridge Celtic pretty much ended the defence. All our games in hand caught up with us too. We had to play 11 times during the final four weeks of the season. By the time Halifax Town turned us over at the Shay on 3 May to save themselves from relegation, we were already too far adrift.
• Final table check – Pos 3, Pts 82; 8 points off top
What happened next?
In short, Macclesfield Town went up to the Football League – two years later than they ought to have. Woking lifted the FA Trophy at Wembley by overcoming Dagenham & Redbridge – then of the Ryman Premier League. And we had to watch it all happen from our living rooms.
To be honest, that wasn’t the worst bit.
No, what hit hardest was the fact that we’d come to the end of an era. The team that took us to such dizzying heights started to break up over the summer. Some players got their well-earned breaks in the Football League; Barry Hayles moving to Bristol Rovers and Efe Sodje heading up to join the Silkmen. We simply couldn’t fill the big shoes that were left after that; the end of the 1997-8 campaign seeing us limp into 15th – 36 points behind champions Halifax Town.
There was that FA Cup tie against Newcastle, but…
1996-7 GM Vauxhall Conference: Stats…
- Goals For: 126 (87 league and 39 cup)
- Goals Against: 73 (53 league and 20 cup)
- Most Appearances: Mark Smith (60 out of 62)
- Top Goalscorer: Barry Hayles (25 from 43 outings)
- Biggest attendance: 6,489 vs Kidderminster Harriers, 25 January 1997
- Players Used: 32
- Points Per Game: 1.95
- Average Attendance: 2,855 (higher than our 2009-10 title campaign!)
Season Details: 1996-7 GM Vauxhall Conference season
With thanks to the Stevenage Football Archive