Stevenage v Argyle - Going Way Back

FOR Argyle collectively – Green Army and Greens alike – Tuesday’s visit to Stevenage was a rare first: a visit to a Football League ground where they had never previously played League football.

For your correspondent, the surroundings were all too cosily familiar and the match was, in sense back to where it all began. Or, more accurately, down the road a little bit from where it all began.

Forgive the self-indulgence, but I am reaching the age when nostalgia is definitely not what it used to be and, more than 30 years ago, I was a bright-eyed cub reporter for the North Herts Gazette and Express group of newspapers. 

Like my bright eyes, the North Herts Gazette is long gone, but the memories remain. As does the same Press seating at what will be forever in my mind be Broadhall Way, from where I reported on my second ever football match. The first was at Baldock Town, where the voluble chairman’s propensity for shortening players’ names once memorably led to him to calling his iconic midfield playmaker ‘Eee’, which is, of course, short for ‘Ian’. For most people, ‘Ian’ would be short enough. At exciting moments in games, the chairman’s repetitive calling to his star player made him sound like he was auditioning for the part of King Rat in the Baldock Players’ annual pantomime production of Dick Whittington.

Although, like Kevin Phillips, I started my sporting career at Baldock, Stevenage was once my patch. I worked out of a district office in the Old Town area of the new town (the only part of Stevenage which had no roundabouts and lots of traffic-lights, as opposed to the planners’ approach to the rest of the area which surprisingly worked very well) with Val, my senior reporter, a wonderful mentor inside the office and out of it, and Jody, a reporter a couple of years my senior who once dated Hugh Grant before Four Weddings, Liz Hurley and general associated foppishness. For a time, I was very jealous of Mr Grant.

Initially, I did not intended or desire to be a sports reporter. I emerged from the Westminster Press residential training scheme, based in that news hotspot of Hastings, with ambitions to be the next Woodward and Bernstein combined, exposing injustice, uncovering corruption and picking up Pulitzer Prizes by the armful. Sport, which I loved as a spectator, was just too easy an option.

So, my formative years were spent learning the trade under good journalists and better people: really talented and inspirational hacks like John, a non-nonsense News Editor who managed to craft my nonsense into sense, and Kit Galer, a brilliant writer whose various claims to fame included writing for the Two Ronnies and being the last journalist to interview Mama Cass before her untimely death. There were many others.

My transition from news to sport began when the group’s regular Sports Editor, ‘Biffo’ Bateson, checked the terms of his contract and discovered that, despite what the Editor has led him to believe, it did, indeed, permit him a holiday. I was sitting in the main Hitchin office one morning, wondering where everyone had gone, when said Editor walked in, looked around, and said: “You’ll do.” Which is how I became temporary Sports Editor for the duration of Biffo’s vacation.

Actually, I did not mind. I had reached the stage where, although I was still determined to bring down crooked governments with a combination my Pitman 2000 and one of the office’s battered sixth-hand typewriters (or ‘tripewriters’, as we disparagingly called the antiques), I wanted to add a string or two my young bow. Learning to sub-edit would be a useful string indeed and one that I would be able to tune from behind Biffo’s desk.

Of course, I never looked back. I did okay, despite the fact that I somehow managed to let the word ‘Dimsal’ creep into a headline to describe a poor performance from Hitchin Town. In 72 point. My two-week spell among the good and the great of North Hertfordshire sport whetted my appetite for more of the same and dimmed ambitions to expose the bad and not so great; when Biffo returned, I effectively became his number two; when he left for the fresh new pastures of the Independent, I migrated fully over to the dark side. 

Broadhall Way became a regular haunt, despite the fact that Stevenage Borough, as they were known pre-council stand-off, were not the most senior team in our circulation area. That honour belonged to Hitchin Town, then managed by former Luton Town star Alan West, who was combining dugout duties with his calling to be a church minister. He still mixes his two loves as chaplain at Kenilworth Road.

In 1985 – days, if my memory serves properly, of Brian ‘Taffy’ Williams’ management, when the local striking hero was Martin Gittings – brash new-town Boro edged closer to their more genteel neighbours by winning Division 2 North of the Isthmian League; the following season, Argyle won promotion to what we now call the Championship; on Tuesday night, the two sides met in Hertfordshire as equals for the first time, a match that seemed highly unlikely on the August day in 1987 I left the Home Counties for Home Park. A Home Park which had just witnessed Argyle go top of the second tier by beating Huddersfield 6-1.

Times change, and we change with them. Stevenage are in just their fifth season in the Football League but have spent 60% of that time playing at higher level than Argyle and took a point from their first visit to Home Park earlier in the season. Only a late, late Deane Smalley penalty prevented it from being three.

So, Argyle went into Tuesday’s match having neither beaten nor lost to their hosts in their history. They also kicked off in the knowledge that, remarkably, they had not been beaten away from home on a Tuesday night since November 2012, a run going back ten games when a Bradford side which included Carl McHugh did for them 2-1 at Valley Parade. That match will otherwise be remembered for the debut, as a substitute, of Tyler Harvey.

Ty was also on the bench this Tuesday night as the Pilgrims sought to extend their quirky streak to 11 matches. He saw his team-mates start brightly after the disappointment of the previous Saturday’s 2-0 home defeat by Bury, with Bobby Reid hitting the crossbar, before one of two former Pilgrims in the Boro side (they retain the nickname, although not the name) started causing problems.

Midfielder Dean Parrett’s ten-game loan spell from Spurs at Home Park five years ago will be largely remembered for two things: a fantastic free-kick goal in a league victory over Bristol Rovers; and a senseless sending off in a 4-0 FA Cup drubbing by Swindon Town. After the red card, Pilgrims’ manager Peter Reid sent Parrett packing back to White Hart Lane, even though the loan was only halfway completed.

Parrett had once been marked for great things, even being memorably tipped by a national newspaper at the turn of the millennium to be anchoring England’s 2018 World Cup side, but, like so many starlets before him, has found a level somewhat lower. When, on Tuesday, he started pulling the strings and powering in a couple of shots with a minimum of backlift, you could see what the tipsters had themselves seen.

He was not helped by a pitch that resembled a fourth-day fairway of an Open Championship played in 90 degree heat. That was at kick-off. By the time the second half started, it was equally one third divots, one third sand and one third grass.

They were not the sort of conditions that you would think would suit Jason Banton, but the Argyle number eight, who has not had a particularly enjoyable season, was happy as a sandboy after being introduced from the substitutes’ bench midway through the second half. One shot, after some implausibly close control, scudded wide; another, better, one, brought a sprawling save out of Boro goalkeeper Chris Day.

It looked as though Banton’s cameo, so redolent of his 2013 best, would tilt the game Argyle’s way. However in the end, it was another substitute, Stevenage’s Portugeezer Bruno Andrade, who settled matters, hitting Argyle on the break with a goal 30 seconds from the end of the 90 minutes. 

Agony. Kismet. Dimsal.