Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Clash of the New Towns

The Football Front’s Lower League expert Matt Bruce discusses the short history of Milton Keynes Dons and Stevenage.

On Tuesday night, Stevenage host Milton Keynes Dons for the first time in a league encounter. This won't be the first time the two sides have met, with MK Dons edging to a 1-0 victory at Stadium MK earlier this season and Stevenage emerging victorious on penalties in an FA Cup tie last season.

Nevertheless, there is little history of fixtures between these two – who are two of the youngest sides in the Football League.

Rather than any history or rivalry between these two clubs, what makes this fixture interesting is that MK Dons and Stevenage represent two 'new towns' which traditionally have had no Football League representation. Senior level football has had a faltering history in the new towns of Britain and these two clubs are the result of many false dawns and failed attempts. However, their respective paths to League One could not have been more different.

The towns of Stevenage and Milton Keynes both emerged as a direct result of the New Towns Act 1946. The purpose of the Act was to create satellite towns around London (and also other major war-struck cities) in order to ease housing pressure during post-war rebuilding and slum clearance schemes. Stevenage was the first such town to be built, in 1946, while Milton Keynes followed later, in 1967. As brand new conurbations, planners used the new towns to experiment with new urban planning methods and so these towns were pioneering when first settled, with Stevenage boasting the first pedestrianized town centre in the UK and Milton Keynes having its infamous grid system.

However, with the explosion of the local populace the pre-existing amateur teams experienced no upturn in fortunes or support. Stevenage Town, who pre-dated the new town's rapid expansion in the late 40s and 50s, struggled on unchanged until their dissolution in 1968, and Stevenage Athletic lasted just eight years before they also were forced to fold. Stevenage Borough continued much in the same vein as their failed predecessors from their formation in 1976 until the introduction of promotion to the Football League encouraged forward-thinking non-league clubs to become more professional (a subject I have touched upon before).

Milton Keynes has also seen more than its fair share of failed football clubs down the years. Wolverton AFC (Wolverton being one of the constituent towns of Milton Keynes) were able to boast a 105-year history before the club was wound up in 1992. Bletchley Town (who changed their name to Milton Keynes City in 1974) survived from 1956 until their closure in 1985, crippled by a lack of support and poor management from Ron Noades (chairman of Wimbledon FC). A second MK City moved into Wolverton's old ground in the 90s but again the club failed to gain any significant support and folded in 2003 after Wimbledon were relocated to Milton Keynes.

The problem faced by clubs representing these new satellite towns is that the newly imported population bring their footballing allegiances with them. With their large populations, towns such as Stevenage and Milton Keynes are expected to support larger clubs – and it has often been claimed that they have the potential to do so – but their proximity to the big London clubs, lack of interest from the local populace and the absence of a strong local identity has all hindered the development of local football clubs in the past.

However, just as the towns which these clubs represent were pioneering when they were first built, so have MK Dons and Stevenage been pioneering in the methods employed to firmly establish themselves on the landscape of the Football League.

Stevenage's remarkable rise up the leagues into League One is mainly due to the efforts of former manager Graham Westley and the ideology that was fostered at the club. While English football – and the non-league game in particular – has been slow to adopt sports science, Westley embraced it wholeheartedly. Under Westley's supervision Stevenage players had access to sports psychologists and dieticians, but most importantly were moulded into a super-fit team through a tough and rigorous training schedule.

Stevenage's approach was certainly not without its critics: fostering a winning mentality is one thing, but Boro's negative tactics and practice of feigning injury to gain drinks breaks and on-pitch team talks was not popular with some of the clubs they competed against. Last season, after numerous complaints from other clubs, the Football League ordered the club to desist with their unsporting behaviour, though Stevenage's approach to the game has changed little regardless.

Milton Keynes gained its place in the Football League in rather different circumstances – the controversial franchising of Wimbledon FC. As numerous attempts at establishing a club to represent the city floundered through lack of support, efforts began to attract an existing Football League club to the area. Such talk began as early as 1979, when Sam Hammam attempted to merge Wimbledon with MK City, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s several clubs were at one point or another linked with a move to Milton Keynes, including Luton Town, Charlton Athletic, Barnet and Northampton Town. However, it was Wimbledon, with their long-running stadium issues that always appeared to be the most likely candidate for a move to Milton Keynes – and so it would prove to be, with the club eventually relocating in September 2003.

While it is usual in the Football League for matches to take place between two clubs who can often boast histories spanning over a century, and usually with a wealth of previous historical encounters, this fixture is intriguing because it is contested by two clubs – with fewer than 50 miles between them – which have no history of football at this level. Those new clubs who represent the new satellite towns have a unique set of pressures and, as Stevenage and MK Dons have demonstrated, they must innovate to be viable.

Rather like the places they represent.

This piece was written by Matt Bruce, you can follow him on his Twitter - @tbfuth, You can find Matt’s blog here too: theboysfromupthehill.

All of Matt's article on The Football Front can be found here.

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