League One promotion challengers not daunted by fifth-round tie at home to Harry Redknapp's Premier League high-fliers
At 2pm on Sunday, 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 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.
For Tottenham are in town to play a fifth-round FA Cup tie that is sure to test Stevenage's love of the competition. That special feeling began in 1998, when they, as a Conference side, held Newcastle, then recent challengers for the Premier League title, to a 1–1 draw in the fourth round, and was only enhanced after they defeated the same opposition 3–1 in last season's third round.
Harry Redknapp's side arrive in Hertfordshire third in the Premier League and viewed by many as the most devastating attacking force in England. The bookmakers have them 2-7 on to beat their League One opponents and, with kick-off at the same time as the start of the circus, it could well transpire that Uncle Sam does not provide the best 'non-stop action' in town on Sunday .
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 promotion 12 months later by beating Torquay in the League Two play-off final. Given that they currently sit sixth in League One, having just completed the double over third-placed, and better-resourced, 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 Chris Beardsley, Stevenage's top scorer this season with nine goals, two of which came in the 3-0 second-round win at Stourbridge. "As a squad, we have been together for over two and a half years now, and proved ourselves in big matches, 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 visit regularly for pre-season friendlies until five years ago, but few of the current squad will have played there in a match of this magnitude. Holding little more than 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. This is 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 back-to-back promotions and 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, with Beardsley likening it to that of Wimbledon's Crazy Gang and Westley's successor, Gary Smith, describing it as "uncompromising".
"In the modern game, you tend to find teams that are not as competitively equipped as this group," said the 43-year-old Smith. "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 arrived at Stevenage at the end of January, having led Colorado Rapids to the MLS title in 2010 and the play-offs a year later. Before 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 that still has its roots in the lower leagues, but there is no denying his excitement at what potentially lies ahead. "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 at Spurs when the club won the double in 1961, having been raised within walking distance of White Hart Lane. "When I came here, it was a case of blending in with what was already happening and not changing too much. Everything is on the up and another promotion is 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 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."