By Mark Hollis (@hollismark)
Like X Factor, The Voice and the more recent series’ of Silent Witness, #StevenageForLeagueFootball is a cheesefest.
And like X Factor, The Voice and the more recent series’ of Silent Witness, it’s got really popular. And I am nothing if not a man who likes to jump on any passing bandwagon so long as it’s not doing any harm.
Like much of the Stevenage fanbase, I grew up supporting Arsenal.
I also grew up in a working class house in Pin Green that didn’t have a lot of spare cash to throw about on trips to Highbury and so, my irregular opportunities to watch live football were at Stevenage. My Dad would take me along every now and then when I was a nipper and all I have of that time are hazy memories of the title winning season (that I’vealmost certainly embellished) and the knowledge that I was there for some of it, but I couldn’t really say which bits.
My breakthrough season came the year after. I still remember reading in The Comet about how the Conference Champions had been denied their rightful promotion and feeling like I had to be involved. I told you I love a bandwagon.
My Dad had lost much of his interest and my friends weren’t hugely bothered at first so, as a kid with barely a pubic hair to his name, I would pack up my cheese rolls and Wotsits and walk from Pin Green to the ground on my own and sit in the top corner of the unroofed East Terrace.
I’d never experienced anything like it.
Those were the days of regular 4,000+ crowds and the games against Woking, Macclesfield and Kidderminster would easily top 6,000. The atmosphere was great. Led by the Baldwins (in all their guises!) along with Boycie, Danny-Da-Bass and Nudenut. It wasn’t only loud and passionate it was also hilarious. It was everything I wanted the Barmy Army to be when I ended up a part of that extended group that would lead the chanting all over the country.
It wasn’t long before I started to be joined by friends, because those were the days where, having talked someone into coming with you, they would then actually want to come again. I even remember a period of time when my school crush would regularly attend. I never did fing… don’t worry about it.
The more I went, the more I wanted to go. I’d walk there from Archer Road via Grace Way to pick up my mates and was stopped one day in the street by Keith Berners who handed the three of us Supporter’s Association forms and got us to fil them out almost on the spot.
It might not have meant much to him or to anyone who knew better, but to me, at the age of 14 or 15, it was an invitation to join the club and made me want to be involved even more.
Finding the Supporter’s Association also meant finding the Supporter’s Association coach and the opening of a completely new world. I don’t actually remember using it much but I do remember a few coach trips away to Woking, broken toilet seats and being chased through the park afterwards by the mouth-breathers of the KRE.
The coach trips I do remember though are the ones on the Barmy Army coaches. Basically a metal shell on some bald tyres that can’t surely have ever had an MOT. I wasn’t really a part of the Barmy Army at that point but my Dad knew a man and I felt the absolute nuts to be getting on that bus.
Orient away in the FA Cup, Birmingham at home at St Andrews and Swindon. Pick up from the bus stop at The Oval. Blowing up balloons all the way and being shit-scared of Boycie’s brother-in-law who sat on the chair behind me smoking and looking mean. My little innocent world had never seen anything like it.
I realise now it was a standard away trip, but it was those moments that had me hooked.
In the years that followed, I drifted away a bit due to being of the age of Saturday jobs and the like but I found my way back via the Official website fan’s forum. “Message For BoroGent” has gone down in folklore with those who were part of it but the banter (urgh, sorry) that was dished out in that thread again saw me turn up on my own. This time to the bar to meet them.
BoroGent, Two Hats, Deano (whatever happened to him?), Guzzler, Dippers, Chairman Clive, Pitbull and the rest of the Row F weapons were all there and I ended up playing pool with them and immediately felt like I was back in the family.
From that moment, I would ensure I attended more regularly and, being the busy knob I am, ended up becoming more and more involved. I joined in with Jim Briscoe’s working groups where I could, became an SA Committee member, made TV appearances, wrote newspaper columns and developed the idea of a podcast with Steve Watkins and Deano which we were pretty sure no one would listen to.
Watching from the middle of the East Terrace in those early days saw me become closer friends with people who had previously been acquaintances and before I knew it, I was part of a group of 15/20 people that I now count as some of my closest and dearest friends. All because of this club.
Standing near the Barmy Army became ‘joining’ the Barmy Army became leading the Barmy Army. There was no left side and right side. There was no division. Just one group of knobheads.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to try and change history and claim it was brilliant every week, there were large portions where it was garbage but the terrace was pretty much always fun. It was always passionate. It always knew there was a goal to achieve.
That goal was League football.
Yeah, yeah, the FA Trophy was great and I genuinely still miss it, but League football was the goal. Always was. Always should be.
Losing in the Trophy final to Yeovil was heart breaking, but it was nothing compared to losing in the Play Off Final to Carlisle. Damn you Mickey Warner. And you too, Darryn Stamp.
I’m not going to bad mouth the Conference, we had some monumental days in non-league as Stevenage Borough.
Who thought you could ever top the euphoria of the first FA Trophy win? The FA Cup games against Orient, Swindon and Brimingham? The original Newcastle games?
Who’d almost given up on the idea of ever getting out of that league at the right end? Or certainly of winning it. I know I had.
And then it happened. April 17th 2010. After weeks and weeks of stupidly chanting “Champions Elect, my cock is erect”, it finally happened.
I knew it would be a big moment. I didn’t know quite how big. I thought maybe the edge had been taken off because we’d been nailed on to win the league for so much of that season.
How silly I was.
Other that seeing my son born, that’s the biggest high I’ve experienced. That emotion. That joy. That relief. The tears. The sobbing, sobbing, uncontrollable tears. The embraces with all of the people that I’d come to know and love over the previous 15 or so years.
Not being able to sing anymore because my throat was too dry and my mouth was all weird and contorted while it tried to figure out how to smile, sing the Dale Cavese and sob simultaneously.
I mean, I even kissed Paulio full on the mouth and just accepted it when he rammed his tongue down my throat despite the fact I know he’s riddled.
There’ll never be anything else like it.
Never, ever again.
We could win League 2. We could win League 1. It won’t touch it.
That was it – that was the moment.
So, please, when you get a bit of ribbing online for using a cheesy hashtag to try and show what this club means to you, just ignore it. It’s not harming anyone and it might, just might, put a bit of extra fight into someone.
I promise you, the feeling of a random Port Vale fan giving you some stick is nothing compared to what it will feel like to go back to the Conference.
You might have only ever experienced us be a football league club. Dropping to non-league might not seem that bad because it’s unknown. It would be a disaster for us. We’ve worked too hard to give it up.
Chances are, if we go down, we won’t come back.
Not in a hurry anyway.