August was a dark month in the history of the English Football League.
Bury became the first club to be expelled from the EFL for 27 years after a desperate 11th-hour takeover bid fell through.
While Bolton – a team that was a staple of the Premier League just 10 years ago – were only just spared the same fate.
Bury’s name will now be removed from the Football League after 125 years, and League One will be played between 23 clubs – including Bolton – for the remainder of the season.
For football, life goes on.
Amidst a backdrop of sympathy for Bury and their supporters, we paid a visit to League Two’s Stevenage at the weekend as part of our Football’s Front Lines campaign.
The Hertfordshire club were in the 27.7% of EFL clubs who actually made a profit in 2017/18.
We found fans of the Boro were largely full optimism for their future and had nothing but positive things to say about their owner Phil Wallace – a man who’s transformed the club over the last two decades and is a far-cry from the villainous Steve Dale.
Last season, Stevenage finished just a point outside the League Two play-offs — as did Exeter and Colchester.
They’re rare proof it’s possible to run a sustainable EFL club, but it requires good leadership, smart decisions, and a little bit of luck.
Wallace, who’s the CEO of the Lamex Food Group – a global food trading company with offices in 16 countries – purchased a 90% holding in Stevenage back in 1999 with the club reportedly just days away from closure.
“We were very much like Bolton and Bury,” Reece Donnelly, writer for the Under the Lamex Lights blog, told us.
“But we got lucky. We were bought by Phil Wallace, and while at times we may moan about things such as the lack of funds available to sign players, it makes you realise that it’s maybe all a bit too harsh.
“We’ve never had unpaid wages, crippling debt, or a winding up order. We’re a very stable and well-run club.”
Indeed, the club’s turn-of-profit is a subject of much pride among supporters, as Reece explained: “We take a lot of pride at the club over how well it’s run, we’ve got the new stand and we’re thriving. It’s a good place to be at the minute. And it all starts at the top with the owner.”
Matt Farley, host of the Stevenage FC Podcast, has seen the club’s rise first-hand and believes the owner’s financial backing and business sense has made all the difference.
“Back in the conference days, we would look like a proper Non-League club,” he told us. “But he’s [Wallace] invested so much in these 20 years, and now he’s got the equity offering and transformed the stadium with the new North Stand.”
The equity offering is further proof that Wallace is not afraid to think of innovative ways to make money, with nearly £300,000 raised through the sale of club shares which have been reinvested straight back into the team’s transfer budget.
“At Stevenage, we’ve always struggled to raise money to buy players so it looks like the equity offering can really assist our budget. It’s allowed us to buy some really good players,” said Matt.
Matt’s podcast co-host Harley Clarke was in agreement: “Before this, we had the second smallest budget in League Two, so £300,000 is a lot of money at this level and gives us a real chance this season.”
Yet running the club sustainably appears to be an uphill battle – as it is for many of the other clubs in the EFL – with a large chunk of Stevenage’s profit last season coming from the sale of academy-developed defender Ben Wilmot to Watford in a deal exceeding £1million.
On the sale of Wilmot, Matt told us: “We managed to sell Ben Wilmot and we got over a million pound for him, so that was great.
“To turn over a profit is a great stat for us and a real sense of pride. As we’ve seen, plenty of clubs out there in the Football League are losing money.”
Such is the financial disparity between clubs in the Premier League and those in the tiers below, a windfall like this can make all the difference.
Stevenage haven’t been a Non-League side since 2010 and even found themselves in League One for a couple of seasons, but there’s always the worry among fans that the club could drop back down again.
“Where we’ve come from, I always just want to get to 50 points so I know that we’re safe,” Matt said.
“But this season we believe that the play-offs are a realistic aim having just missed out last season.”
Such optimism is admirable and defies the league table in its current state – a 2-2 against Macclesfield means the club are one of only two not to win a game in League Two at this stage.
Unfortunately, much of the pre-game chat ahead of the game concerned Bury, whose expulsion from the Football League serves as a grim reminder to all fans that no club is safe from financial ruin.
“The thing about the football club, it’s not just going to see your team, it’s a community,” Matt said.
“For smaller clubs like us, it’s like a family where everyone knows everyone.”
Of course, as we pointed out to Matt and Harley, Bury’s demise means there’s now one-less relegation place in League Two this season, meaning a low-positioned club like Stevenage benefit from their ejection.
Matt admits the thought did cross his mind: “For us, we’re a small club and we’d hate to see the club go back down, so to see that relegation zone go down to just one place is good for us.
“As bad as that sounds, it takes a little bit of the pressure off.”
This season the Boro have intrigued social media users with their bizarre set-piece routine.
To some, it’s a subject of ridicule – with the players holding hands to create a sort of barrier against on-rushing attackers when defending corners – but many fans of the club feel it’s worth a few giggles as it’s paying off defensively.
“I remember the first time we did it and thinking ‘what on earth are we doing’,” Harley said.
“But to be fair, it works so you can’t fault it.”
Elsewhere, the club’s shirt sponsor for the season – the fast food chain Burger King – is an eyesore to some, especially as it clashes with the ‘ketchup and mustard’ style of their away kit, but the fans aren’t too bothered, and believe the extra media attention is a good thing.
“Financially, it makes perfect sense,” Matt said.
“It is a globally known brand and the club is probably doing well from that. But when it did come out, we were all concerned with how it would look on the kit.”
But with or without their snazzy new sponsors, Stevenage are a club with a bright outlook in an otherwise bleak period in English football.
The new North Stand is set to be fully operational by October and fans are aiming for their club to be solid League One stalwarts within the next five years.
We stuck around for their match with Macclesfield and were treated to a four-goal thriller – with one of the goals of the weekend in Luther Wildin’s long-range strike – but the Boro are still looking for their first win of the season.
But even so, they’re certainly on the right track.
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