Until three weeks ago, Stevenage did not know for sure if they could call themselves a Football League club. The prospect then of raising the curtain on the 2020-21 season in the Carabao Cup, celebrating the first goal of this campaign, seemed fanciful.
Macclesfield fought the EFL on a points deduction over late payment of wages and lost. They were relegated to non-league and Stevenage, the worst performing team in the Football League, were spared.
Chairman Phil Wallace could only let out nervous laughter when asked if he thought his club would see competitive football again this year.
At the time of the stoppage forced by the coronavirus pandemic, Wallace was onto his third manager in a season and was watching a side with just three league wins from 36 games. Non-league beckoned – or so it seemed.
One hundred and 75 days later and Stevenage showed this second chance would not be wasted, even if they were left reflecting on a shootout defeat.
For Wallace, Saturday’s return was positive, but how long that positivity lasts is the feeling he and other chairmen across Leagues One and Two cannot shake.
The government’s furlough scheme used to pay player wages was, in many cases, life-saving. Months of league-wide advance payments also made a return possible. But furlough is finished and advance payments won’t go on forever. The analogy of kicking the can down the road – used by Colchester chairman Robbie Cowling – is apt. Wallace just hopes they don’t reach a dead end.
‘We’re going into a dangerous time,’ he said. ‘We are going into a situation where we are losing tens of thousands of pounds each home game while still paying players in full. This won’t go long, will it? Either we can bring more people in to rectify the situation or we all go bust! I can’t see any other outcome.’
With supporters kept at bay – aside from a handful of opportunistic Portsmouth fans who made their voices heard from the corners of the ground – Wallace is missing upwards of £25,000 per home game through gate revenue alone. It’s going to ‘money heaven’, as he puts it.
For now the can rolls down the road and the focus has been on a culture detox for young manager Alex Revell. Talk of the Revell-ution on social media feels significant; the squad – and fan-base – is in a different headspace to the one seen at Crewe six months ago.
Twenty-two players left to clear the decks. If Revell was going to turnaround a losing culture, he needed to rip it all up and start fresh.
‘We are reinventing the football club, that’s how I see it,’ he said. ‘I brought in hungry players, younger players who have got to learn quick.’
Seven summer signings got the nod to start on Saturday with captain Scott Cuthbert one of the few spared from last season. For Cuthbert, the scorer of Stevenage’s third goal, the environment is unrecognisable.
‘It’s a whole new group, whole new mindset, whole new mentality at the club,’ he explained.
If League Two sides defend as Portsmouth did here, it won’t take long to surpass the three wins earned last season. First Elliott List and then Charlie Carter capitalised on Sean Raggett mistakes in a frantic opening to the game.
Ronan Curtis’ individual quality reduced the deficit before Gareth Evans could counter Cuthbert’s scrambled finish from the penalty spot with the last kick of the half. John Marquis made it 3-3 early in the second and it was to be penalties where the game was settled.
Philosopher Socrates once said ‘the secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new’. For now, Stevenage look to the future, not to the past.
Revell and Wallace know a reprieve of this nature is one that won’t arrive again, they just hope they can make it count before the can reaches the end of the road.