It all comes down to one game. After forty eight gruelling matches, a roller coaster campaign and a twist around every corner, either Torquay United or Stevenage will join Chesterfield, Bury and Wycombe in League One.
It’s perhaps indicative that the gap between Conference and League Two is closing all the time as two sides that have both been promoted within the last two years – Torquay as Conference Playoff winners in 2009 and Stevenage as Champions in 2010 – prepare to meet for a place in the third tier of English football.
Torquay have been there and done it, appearing in the FA Trophy Final in 2008 before that Playoff final win a year later so big game nerves aren’t new to their fans. Stevenage are relatively new to the surroundings but have proved that they are a match for anyone this season by dumping Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.
It’s set to be a tight, nervy encounter if the end of the season is anything to go by and as Manchester United supporters head for London for a big final of their own, their stadium will become a Theatre of Dreams for two sides looking for that key to League One.
The two reached Old Trafford in similar style, both winning just once in their final six league games to scrape into the playoffs in the last two positions on a dramatic final day of the season. Both then proceeded to turn the form book on its head by winning the home legs of their semi-finals 2-0, Torquay against fancied Shrewsbury and Stevenage against Accrington Stanley.
The second legs provided neither side with any real panic. Travelling to two teams that were strong at home, it was certainly not all over as four would become two. But Accrington shot themselves in the foot with two red cards in the middle of the second half within seconds of each other. Joe Jacobson’s late challenge on Lawrie Wilson and Sean McConvlle’s raising of a hand in frustration made the task simpler for Graham Westley’s men and a calm finish from Chris Beardsley eased Stevenage through. At the New Meadow, Shrewsbury’s challenge fell flat and an organised but far from defensive performance from Torquay saw them hold out for a goalless draw to book their place at the Old Trafford.
Stevenage have built their season on a rock solid defence that have conceded just forty five goals all season, the least in League Two. Player of the Year Jon Ashton, who has been at the heart of that record, looks set to miss out through injury so there’s extra importance on Mark Roberts at the back and Chris Day between the sticks. At the other end of the pitch, Byron Harrison, signed from non-league Carshalton in January, could be a dark horse to steal the limelight. Harrison has struck eight times in twenty games for the Boro since his arrival and will be hoping for a fairy tale ending to a dramatic few months that’s seen him go from playing in the Isthmian League Premier to running out at Old Trafford.
Torquay will be reliant on their attacking style to come out on top and Chris Zebroski will be vital to their challenge. Zebroski has netted fifteen times this season and will always be a constant threat. Gavin Tomlin was the stand out player of the semi-final first leg at Plainmoor and his pace and trickery will give Stevenage a real headache. Jake Robinson, who helped the Gulls beat his parent club Shrewsbury in the semis will be another danger man as he looks to stake a claim for a permanent move to the Devon club.
Head to Head
Stevenage go into the final having never beaten Torquay in their six previous meetings. United did the double over them in 2007/08 before snatching four points from the meetings the following season. This time around, a goalless draw in September at Broadhall Way was followed by another Torquay victory in early March as goals from Danny Stevens and Jake Robinson earned a 2-0 win. That game also saw Boro defender Mark Roberts sent off for a professional foul so fair to say they owe their opponents one.
The fan’s views…
What would promotion mean to you?
MK: It would be great to get promoted again, but I’m not sure that promotion to League 1 would be that much of a positive step long term. In my opinion, I don’t think we’re ready for League 1 both on and off the pitch. I also don’t think getting promoted to League 1 will mean as much as getting into the Football League after 16 years of trying.
BM: Given that we’re one of the smallest clubs in the division and only finished 17th last season it’s the stuff of dreams: this season was ostensibly one of gradual progress and nobody could realistically have been anticipating anything better than mid-table. While unexpected, the team are in this position on merit after an outstanding season and an unwavering commitment to positive, attractive football. Promotion would also go a long way towards banishing the memories of our disastrous and embarrassing relegation from the Football League 4 years ago. Irrespective of the emotional significance, it could well mean the difference between keeping our manager and facing a season of rebuilding. Reading between the clumsily unsubtle lines of Paul Buckle’s response to being made bookies’ favourite for the Bristol Rovers job, he’s likely to become League 2’s version of Owen Coyle if we don’t go up: tempted by the larger budget on offer at our (relatively) local rivals.
Describe the emotions of the semi-finals…
MK: There is a bit of bad blood between the two clubs so it was very satisfying to beat Accrington over two legs and progress into the playoff final. John Coleman did his best to try and play mind games and get his players motivated, but it worked against him and Boro came away with 2 very well earned victories.
BM: There were lots of nerves beforehand as we limped rather than strode into the playoffs after ending the regular season poorly, albeit after a tough run-in. Few teams are as susceptible to momentum as us, so there were fears that our young side wouldn’t be able to pick themselves up. However, the assured performance over the two legs meant that the fans weren’t forced to endure the emotional rollercoaster witnessed in some of the other playoff matches. Although our 2-0 lead from the first leg was hardly insurmountable, we could have had a few more and never looked like slipping up in the return fixture. I like Shrewsbury as they also try to play good football, but nobody can dispute that our progression was deserved.
How do you view your opponents?
MK: Torquay are a very good side. They are solid and strong at the back and have a potent attack that can hurt any defence in League 2. I’ve always rated Paul Buckle and think he has done a very good job at Plainmoor on a limited budget. I would say that they are favourites to win the game and go on to League 1.
BM: They’re probably the least popular side in the division, although that mantle will no doubt be passed swiftly to Crawley next season. Stevenage’s training regime is as mysterious as it is intense: the result is a super-fit, well-drilled, physically imposing side reliant on constant pressing and set pieces, with the occasional dose of (alleged) gamesmanship thrown in for good measure. While it’s not my cup of tea I’ve got nothing against that approach, apart from the last part obviously, and I don’t remember them getting up to anything too immoral when they visited Plainmoor this season. While it’d be easy to dismiss them as an anti-football side, they have to be respected for their achievements this season: they’re on the verge of a second successive promotion and registered a deserved FA Cup victory over Newcastle along the way. Fans of other League 2 sides have been less than complimentary however, and after witnessing their dire semi-finals against Accrington my worry is that they’ll throttle the tie to death before bundling in an 89th-minute winner.
Who are your key players for the game?
MK: It’s expected that Jon Ashton will miss out through injury, so our key players for the game have to be both Michael Bostwick and Mark Roberts. If they are on top of their game, then we will at least be competitive. Torquay will be the more attacking side of the two, so we’ll have to defend well and counter attack to good effect to stand any chance of winning the game.
BM: Given Stevenage’s likely game plan of harassing us relentlessly throughout, smart use of the ball will be critical. We’re very much a passing side and Eunan O’Kane’s creative distribution from midfield could well be our most potent weapon, allowing our attackers to stretch their defence. However, if the match degenerates into a scrappy affair, our left back Kevin Nicholson’s excellent repertoire from set pieces will serve us well even against such an organised side. We’ve got several big lads of our own who should be leading by example in standing up to our opponents’ physical style, particularly at the back where I have to single out our imperious Player of the Year, Guy Branston. His utter fearlessness (and fearsomeness for that matter) will rally the side in the inevitable few sticky moments on Saturday, and if Nicholson can whip in that killer ball you can bet he’ll be rising to meet it with one of his formidable headers.
If promoted, how will you fare in League One?
MK: Defensively, we are sound. The best defence in League 2 this season says a lot, but there’s much improvement needed going forward regardless of what division we are in next season. We don’t have enough of a goal threat. Craig Reid has been a disappointment and hasn’t been able to get the goals he got at Newport. The other strikers we have are not out and out goal scorers. That is the area we most need to strengthen.
BM: League One is as high as we’ve ever been and both our spells there during my lifetime have only lasted a single season, so the prognosis isn’t too encouraging. The main problem is that our average attendance barely budges when we’re promoted, making it difficult to increase the wage budget and attract players of the quality required to establish ourselves. However, given the League One scalps we took in the cups this season I’d back us to stay up even without many personnel changes. While we’d be unlikely to persist with our policy of starting with 4 strikers, if we stuck to our attacking principles and Buckle continued his astute use of transfer market then there’s every chance it could be different this time.
Finally, a score prediction please!
MK: It will be a low scoring game. I’m going to go for a 1-0 defeat.
BM: We beat them 2-0 at home (with help from 1 of the 9 red cards they racked up in the league this season) and drew 0-0 with them away, so lazy maths suggests a result of 1-0 at a neutral venue. In all seriousness it’s likely to be a tight game settled by a narrow margin: they’ve got the division’s best defensive record and I can see it being an edgy affair with not much to offer the neutral. I know we’ll set ourselves up positively and even though they won’t give us as much time on the ball as Shrewsbury did, I genuinely believe we’ll come out on top.