Stevenage welcome circus as Spurs look for jugular
Smith's League One battlers hoping to make life difficult for ringmaster Redknapp and Co, says Sachin Nakrani
At 2.0 today, the final show of Uncle Sam's Great American Circus will commence in Stevenage. For the past week, a big-top draped in Stars and Stripes has snatched the eye of those passing by Fairlands Valley Showground and has been a venue of fun for children on their half-term break.
As some enjoy one more afternoon there, the hope for their parents may well be that directly across the road, at the Lamex Stadium, there is not another display in which men are made to look like clowns.
The FA Cup has been kind to Stevenage in recent years, with the Hertfordshire club entering the competition's folklore in 1998 when, as a conference side, they held Newcastle, then recent challengers for the Premier League title, to a 1-1 draw in the fourth round, before enhancing their reputation by defeating the same opposition 3-1 in last season's third round. This afternoon, however, comes a challenge which could have everyone associated with Stevenage wishing they had stayed in bed.
For Tottenham arrive for a fifth-round tie which, for all the talk of FA Cup romance, has rout written all over it. The bookmakers certainly see it that way, with Harry Redknapp's side, third in the Premier League and viewed by many as the most devastating attacking force in England, 2/7 to beat their League One opponents. Kick-off is at exactly the same time as the start of the circus and it could well transpire that Uncle Sam does not provide the best "non-stop action" in town today.
Not that fear is gripping the hosts. This, after all, is a club that has known little else but success in recent years, having won the Blue Square Premier League title in 2010 before securing a second successive promotion 12 months later by beating Torquay in the League Two play-off final. And given they currently sit sixth in League One, having just completed the double over third-placed Sheffield Wednesday, it is perhaps no surprise that the visit of Spurs is seen by Stevenage's players as an opportunity rather than an ordeal.
"Spurs are undoubtedly one of the best sides in the country but there's no fear among us, that's not our mentality," said striker Chris Beardsley, the scorer of nine goals this season, including two in Stevenage's 3-0 second-round win at Stourbridge. "As a squad, we've proved ourselves in big matches in the last few years, like against Newcastle last season, and the play-off final. So we know what we're capable of."
While defeat remains unlikely, this could certainly be an uncomfortable afternoon for the visitors. The Lamex Stadium, historically known as Broadhall Way, is a ground Spurs used to regularly visit for pre-season friendlies up until five years ago, but few of the current squad will have played there in a match of this magnitude.
Holding little over 6,500 spectators, it is an archetypal non-league stadium and may come as a shock to players used to the more refined surroundings of the Premier League.
Their biggest concern, however, should perhaps centre on their opponents' approach. Stevenage's success, while notable for a club that was formed as recently as 1976 and has worked its way up the non-league ladder, is not exactly universally admired, due mainly to the tactics first adopted under Graham Westley, who managed the club for two largely successful spells, the most recent ending in January when he left to take over at Preston having guided Stevenage to not only back-to-back promotions but also the FA Trophy in 2009.
Last season, Stevenage were dubbed the "Stoke City of League Two" and there has been little change to their direct approach since, or "uncompromising" as it has been described by Westley's successor, Gary Smith.
"In the modern game you tend to find teams that are not as competitively equipped as this group," said the 43-year-old. "There are good players here and when the opportunity arises they play good football. But, yes, you can say we're an 'up-and-at-em', high-tempo, high-pressure side, and we're going to have to impose ourselves [on Tottenham]. If we don't it will become an extremely tough 90 minutes for us."
Smith's background is an intriguing one. He arrived at Stevenage having led Colorado Rapids to the MLS title in 2010 and the play-offs a year later.
Prior to that, he also worked as a Spain-based scout for Arsenal. It is a rather exotic background for a man now in charge of a side made up primarily of players who failed to make the grade elsewhere, but he is unmistakably excited about the challenge in front of him.
"The decision to come back to England was made after I spoke to the Stevenage chairman [Phil Wallace] and realised that the club is moving in the right direction," said Smith, whose father, Roger, was part of the Spurs squad that won the double in 1961 and was raised within spitting distance of White Hart Lane. "When I came here it was a case of me blending in with what was already happening and not changing too much. Everything is on the up and another promotion is more than a realistic ambition for us this season."
Off the field there is development, too, with Wallace having secured land for a larger, more modern training ground within a short distance of Stevenage's stadium. All the attention for now, however, is on Spurs and the chance for a squad made up largely of free transfers and one-time Premier League hopefuls to shake up a club with Champions League aspirations and a manager seemingly destined to take over the England national team.
"We won't be intimidated by Tottenham," said Beardsley, who joined Stevenage in May 2009 having begun his career at Mansfield Town, where he had to recover from a broken leg . "Our plan is to give them a real game."
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