Fan column: Stevenage starting to look up rather than over their shoulder
- Credit: GAVIN ELLIS/TGS PHOTO
Luke Norris leisurely trotted off, briefly exchanging a high five with Danny Newton at a baltic Prenton Park, the substitute jogging on with his usual exuberance.
As he did David Stockdale lumped a goal kick forward. Newton challenged and Tranmere’s centre back Manny Monthe could only head the ball backwards.
Calum Macdonald tried to intercept the bouncing ball but Newton, once famously nicknamed the 'wasp' due to his relentless running, was there again. A touch with his toe, and with Monthe and MacDonald closing in, the Stevenage striker held them off and bang - he smashed an absolute rocket into the top corner and charged off into the night while almost 250 miles away, households in North Hertfordshire erupted.
Eight minutes to go and just eight seconds after coming onto the pitch, Newton had made one of the most remarkable impacts of any Stevenage substitute and Boro held on for a priceless 1-0 victory at high-flying Tranmere Rovers.
Watch the clip doing the rounds on social media and you may think this was a smash and grab from Stevenage but you would be wrong.
For this is a rejuvenated, revitalised and reinforced Stevenage side who are firmly looking up the table after a challenging 18 months.
Now six points clear of the relegation zone, Stevenage head to Bolton on Saturday with a chance to overtake the former Premier League side, something that would've seemed unfathomable just a few years ago.
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The magnificent team performance at Prenton Park, with every player superb, is the culmination of a major turnaround from Stevenage and full credit must go to Alex Revell and his coaching staff, with Dean Wilkins in for particular praise from fans.
Since Christmas, Stevenage have picked up 16 points from their past 10 games. In the previous 10, Boro picked up just eight.
Despite some occasional signs of positivity from Stevenage pre-Christmas, most of the picture was miserable with Revell’s men struggling to score and pick up wins and being dragged into a relegation scrap.
However, since the festive period it has been evident that a clear style of play is developing, and with a dependable defence, the challenge was always whether the team could start scoring.
A more possession-based system has evolved with some of Stevenage’s creative players like Charlie Carter and Elliot List shining. List is arguably playing his best football in a Boro shirt to date.
The January transfer window was a major moment for Stevenage. It has been well publicised how Stevenage’s summer recruitment was slightly under-par but mitigating circumstances of not knowing what league the club was going to be in meant it was going to be a tough market.
The club acted quickly at the start of the month to acquire Chris Lines, Luke Norris and Matty Stevens. Lines looks a class above in a deep-lying midfield role playing with panache, and it is no accident that since his return to the side last weekend, it has coincided with two of Stevenage’s best performances of the season.
Norris has become a focal point of the attack and offers much more than just the target man he has been labelled while Stevens has shown promise with his relentless work rate and a crucial goal in injury time at Grimsby.
Joe Martin was a shrewd acquisition, with an assured performance from the ex-Stevenage man last Saturday [against Morecambe]. He has also driven on Ben Coker who put in his best Boro performance on the Wirral and the two of them will be crucial with the sheer volume of fixtures on the horizon.
We also haven’t seen Jack Roles or Jamal Hector-Ingram appear yet, two deadline day signings who are highly rated for this level.
This increased depth, by recruiting six first-team-ready players, has had enormous benefits. Not only does it increase the squad size, with Saturday’s second half subs against Morecambe being Tom Pett, Newton, Carter and Coker; four talented League Two players, but it has raised levels around the squad.
Arthur Read, while one of the stand-out players of the season, has really excelled since Christmas, and the opportunity to play alongside someone of Lines’ ilk will only benefit the Brentford youngster.
Similarly, Terence Vancooten has been faultless since coming into the side in November and is really staking his claim as one of the most impressive young centre backs in the league.
Even last night, Luke Prosser, who has been unfortunate with injury and suspension to see his game time limited, was exceptional and contributed to Boro’s ninth league clean sheet of the season.
With the third best defensive record in the league, Boro had the platform of a good side, but they are finally showing how they are in a false position. Despite two poor performances against Exeter over the past month, the last 10 games has really vindicated the club’s approach to stay faithful to Revell.
Now, with some big tests over the coming weeks including fixtures at Crawley and Newport County, Stevenage have a real chance to capitalise and push away from the bottom of the table.
Exhibiting signs of becoming a genuinely good side, it is delightful that Boro are finally looking up rather than over their shoulder.