Part-time Histon’s FA Cup victory over League One’s Swindon Town will go down as one of the cup upsets of the round, but those who’re familiar with the village team from Cambridgeshire probably aren’t surprised at all.
The Stutes are currently enjoying their strongest ever season and sit just three points off Conference leaders Burton Albion and, if Leeds overcome Northampton in the first round replay, could be hosting the biggest name currently in the competition.
What’s even more incredible is just over ten years ago the club were playing in the Eastern Counties First Division and about as far as they could imagine from their current position in the footballing pyramid. Some of Histon’s older supporters may have taken to pinching themselves on a regular basis this season.
The leading team in Cambridgeshire
Driving into Histon (there’s no train station) is a sedate journey. Cambridge rightly has a reputation as one of England’s prettiest cities but the surrounding countryside is just as attractive and Histon has the feel of a classic, picturesque English village, complete with a welcoming, friendly local pub, The Railway Vue. It is, in short, not the type of place you’d expect to find the county’s leading football team.
At the start of the 1990s, anybody who claimed that Histon would one day be the highest-placed football team in their area would have been laughed out of the Cambridgeshire. Under the unfashionable yet highly successful John Beck, Cambridge United had come within a whisker of making it to the inaugral Premier League.
But while Cambridge’s decline has been swift and unpleasantly spectacular (the U’s came close to going bust in 2005),Histon’s rise has been equally meteoric. And it’s been Beck and another Cambridge United legend – Steve Fallon – who’ve been at the heart of this rise.
Fallon was a no-nonsense defender who clocked up over 400 appearances for the U’s before injury cut his career short. After a spell managing Cambridge City, he was appointed as Histon boss in 1999. Beck joined a few years later and, adding his experience and knowledge of taking an unfancied side to the top, things started to really click.
In 2004 the Stutes got off to a flying start and made it to the New Year unbeaten, although eventually finished second. Nonetheless, this was enough to secure promotion to the Southern Premier League, which they won at the first attempt. The Conference South beckoned, and if many supporters were in dreamland at playing at their highest ever level, the best was still to come.
Unfancied against some of the bigger teams in league, Histon’s dogged determination and direct style surprised and delighted in equal measures and the net result was a 5th place play-off finish. Farnborough were duly dispatched in the semis, but the Stutes couldn’t overcome St. Albans in the final, going down 2-0.
Undeterred, Histon carried on where they left off and topped the table for all but six weeks of the season, taking the title with some to spare. Along the way, the Stutes were drawn against Cambridge United in the FA Trophy for a first ever competitive fixture between the two sides.
Cambridge, at that point, where in somewhat of a crisis, having been recently relegated to the Conference and with very little money to spend on strengthening the squad. Even so, the five-nil drubbing that Histon handed out that night hurt many a U’s supporters’ pride, and gave the first inkling there was a new boy in town.
Even so, the club were expected to struggle in their first season in the Conference. Histon had never before played at this level and, with plenty of full-time ex-league clubs, the consensus was that, like St. Albans the season before, the club would struggle at the wrong end of the table.
Again, the village team proved their detractors wrong. Notice of their intent in the division came with a 1-0 victory over Oxford United in front of the Setanta cameras at the Glassworld Stadium, and Jim Smith’s men weren’t the only team lulled into a false sense of security by the rural surroundings. By the end of the season, the club finished 7th, after briefly looking like they may crash the play-offs.
This season Histon are threatening to do what they’ve been doing for the last five years – go one better. The team have been a fixture in the top five since the start of the season and currently sit in 4th, three points behind league leaders Burton and with two games in hand on the Brewers. And while the Stutes are no strangers to the second round of the FA Cup, the visit of Leeds promises to be the biggest ever game in the club’s history.
The football doesn’t quite reflect the area but who looks at trees anyway?
The village of Histon is exactly as you’d imagine a picturesque English village, bar perhaps one major structure – the Glassworld Stadium (formerly Bridge Road before sponsorship took over). There may be precious little glass on display, but fenced in around the Cambridgeshire countryside, Histon’s stadium retains a distinct cosy charm. Not that opposition teams find it anything but cosy.
Much has been made on John Beck’s influence on the team, and while it wouldn’t be unfair to draw comparisons with the style of the Cambridge side of the early 90s, it would also be a tad unfair to class Histon as merely long ball merchants.
The Stutes are one of those teams at non-league level who are well aware of their strengths and their weaknesses and play to them accordingly. Their style may be direct but there’s more to them than just route one.
They have trickery through Nathaniel Knight-Percival, while Danny Wright, Damien Reeves, and Josh Simpson are all full of goals. Meanwhile, at the back, Histon do what any good team do: keep it tight. With a mean defence, marshalled by Blue Square Premier player of the month Lanre Oyebanjo, that has conceded just 14 goals all season (league leaders Burton have let in ten more),breaking down the Stutes either home or away is a tall order.
It may not be pretty, but football at this level isn’t always a game for the purists, and playing football isn’t always a guaranteed route to the league (Last year’s champions, Aldershot, were somewhat of an exception to this rule). Indeed, Saturday’s match against Kettering sees two high-flying unfashionable teams playing strong, direct football competing possibly for the chance to end the day as league leaders.
By this time next week, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Histon could be topping the Blue Square Premier and set up with a tie against Leeds (although Northampton would still be a tasty draw). Given how they’ve spent the last few seasons defying expectation, few would bet against them defying a few more before the season’s out.