Stevenage FC vs Newcastle United: A Giant Killing 13 Years In The Making

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I have supported my local team Stevenage FC for a long time now. I have been a season ticket holder for many years and have travelled the length and breadth of Britain to support them. I have seen them take to the field from the smallest, non-league grounds to historic stadiums such as White Hart Lane and Goodison Park. I have watched them compete over three different divisions and witnessed the highs and lows that Football has to offer. I was there when we lifted the Conference title and was promoted to the Football League for the first time in our history. I was at Old Trafford just one year later, where we won the League 2 Play-Off Final and achieved back-to-back promotions. I attended both League 1 Playoff semi-final legs after we accomplished our highest ever finish in the English Football pyramid. Unfortunately, we fell to Sheffield United, who had the likes of Matt Lowton and Harry Maguire in their team. 

I have seen a plethora of different managers take the helm, from former international footballers to local legends, to varying success. I have been lucky enough to watch some of the very best players in our club history. Players such as Luke Freeman, Jamaal Lascelles, Ben Wilmot, and George Boyd, whose jersey hangs on my wall behind me as I type this, even played in the Premier League after leaving the Boro. I suffered the pain and heartbreak of relegation and witnessed one of the worst seasons in Football League history, only to stay in the league due to two teams going out of business. I have attended games where we won 6-0 and were heavily defeated, including a 7-1 thrashing to our biggest rivals Luton Town. As a Stevenage FC fan, I have seen it all and have experienced every emotion possible while following my Boro. 

A few candidates would spring to mind if someone were to ask me what my favourite Stevenage game was. The 4-0 victory over Sheffield United, where Spanish striker Dani Lopez scored a hat-trick during the best individual performances I have ever seen at the Lamex, would be up there. As would the 5-1 demolition over United’s city rivals Sheffield Wednesday, during which we played some of the best football in our club’s history. The 1-0 League 2 Playoff final victory over Torquay United obviously deserves mention. However, the emotions of that day stand out more than the game itself, which was scrappy at best. For me, there is one game that offered a fantastic performance and allowed for pure, joyous emotions. My personal favourite game occurred on Saturday, January 8th 2011, during the FA Cup third round. In front of a sold-out Lamex Stadium, my League 2 Stevenage hosted the team ranked eighth in the Premier League, Newcastle United, in a game 13 years in the making.


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It Never Crossed The Line

You would be forgiven for thinking there was no history between two teams located on entirely different sides of the country. One has never dropped below the Championship, whereas the other has never been higher than League 1. However, there has been bad blood between the sides stemming back to 1998. The two teams were drawn against each other in the 1997/98 FA Cup fourth round. Newcastle was hopeful of qualifying for European football that season, whereas Stevenage was still in the Conference and yet to experience a season in the Football League. 

Since Newcastle was drawn as the away team, the cup tie was set to be held at Stevenage’s Broadhall Way, which has since renamed the Lamex Stadium due to sponsorship. However, Newcastle claimed the ground was not a good enough facility to host the game. They firmly asked the non-league side to switch venues to St. James’ Park, but Stevenage refused to budge. The northern club then attempted to appeal to the FA. The appeal was quickly rejected as Broadhall Way earned a safety certificate and built a temporary stand to accommodate visiting fans. Newcastle’s approach to this subject was heavily criticised and even labelled as bullying by some media outlets. Even their own supporter’s club spoke out against them, claiming their team was going over the top with their protests. This disagreement helped fuel the fire between the two clubs before the tie, with media reports suggesting that the fighting between both sides’ executives continued during the days leading up to the game, with angry phone calls supposedly taking place fairly frequently. 

The animosity between the two teams bled onto the pitch but strangely not into the stands. Despite the bad-tempered and rough match, the two sets of supporters seemed to share a bond and remained in friendly spirits throughout the game. The contest ended in a 1-1 draw, with Alan Shearer and Giuliano Grazioli scoring for their respective teams. Stevenage had managed to rise to the occasion against their superior opponents and forced a replay, something Newcastle desperately wanted to avoid. 

The rivalry between the Boro and The Magpies reached a new level during the replay. Newcastle managed to leave St. James’ Park with the 2-1 Victory, but Stevenage felt the officials had robbed them. The goal that opened the scoring for the top-flight side, which, of course, was scored by all-time leading Premier League goalscorer Alan Shearer, clearly did not cross the goal line. The out of position referee incorrectly gave a goal nevertheless, despite the protests from the Stevenage players and staff. The outraged Boro fans blasted the poor officiating. They never forgot what happened that night, and Alan Shearer was never forgiven for claiming the goal. Recently, TV broadcasters have confirmed that the goal should have never stood by using goal-line technology and VAR. This was pretty unnecessary as it was apparent to the naked eye that the ball never crossed the line, and the confirmation offered minimal consolation to the Stevenage faithful. Shearer’s second goal could also have been chalked off. The striker appeared to be offside before placing the ball into the net. However, since this decision is far more debatable, it is overshadowed by the blatant injustice of the first goal. Newcastle went all the way to the FA Cup final but lost 2-0 to Arsenal, with Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka both finding the back of the net for the Gunners. 


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Upsetting The Odds & ITV

Since Newcastle was a Premier League outfit, they would enter the FA Cup in the 3rd round in January. On the other hand, Stevenage’s cup run started in November. For the first time since 1997, The Boro entered the FA Cup at the first round stage. They had previously had to begin in the qualifying stages due to being a non-league side. However, Stevenage gained promotion to the Football League after waltzing to the Conference title during the 09/10 season. In order to reach the third round, Stevenage battled against two teams that had a lot in common with each other. In fact, at one point, they were the same club. Milton Keynes Dons from League 1 were the first team that Graham Westley’s men had to overcome. The cup tie went to a replay after a lacklustre 0-0 draw at the Lamex Stadium. It looked like the Hertfordshire Club would be heading out early after trailing 1-0 at the Stadium:mk, but thanks to a goalkeeping blunder from Dons’ David Martin, Stevenage equalised in added time. Darius Charles, a defender who strangely would be converted into our best striker later in the season, was the player to score the equaliser with his first goal for the club. The game went all the way to penalties after a goalless extra-time period. The Boro players managed to hold their nerve, emerging victorious from the shootout 7-6. 

TV broadcasters ITV were unhappy that Stevenage caused a first-round upset since they had bought the rights to show the second-round tie between the winners of this game, which they assumed would be Milton Keynes Dons, and AFC Wimbledon. MK Dons originally were called Wimbledon F.C. However, in 2002, the Football Association controversially allowed the chairman of the club, Charles Koppel, to move his team out of London and into the Buckinghamshire town of Milton Keynes. Following the FA’s announcement, a group of outraged Wimbledon supporters came together and decided to form a new club from scratch. Thus AFC Wimbledon was born. The new team enjoyed a meteoric rise up the English football pyramid, going from the Combined Counties League to the Conference in just six years. MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon had never faced before, so the prospect of a clash between the new and old Wimbledon teams in the FA Cup second-round guarantee to generate significant interest from fans around the country. When the second-round draw took place, Stevenage and MK Dons had yet to play their replay. When it was revealed that AFC Wimbledon would be facing the winner, ITV took a gamble and secured the rights to the game, a decision that backfired on them. 

Stevenage ultimately dispatched AFC Wimbledon with relative ease at the Kingsmeadow Stadium, comfortably winning 2-0. The goals came courtesy of a first-half free-kick from Josh Walker, a Loanee who was making his Boro debut, and a tidy finish from Yemi Odubade in the 80th minute. 

The third round draw transpired on November 28th 2010. I remember watching it live with my mother, optimistically hoping that my Boro would have the chance to play one of the big hitters of English football. It did not matter to me if it was home or away. I just wanted to see my local team fight against Premier League opposition. Above all else, there were two teams that I was hoping we would draw. The first was Newcastle due to the history between the two sides, with Arsenal being the second since my mother supported them. 

I got my wish. After we were drawn as the home team, Newcastle United was pulled from the pot. It is fair to say I was over the moon. 


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A Gulf In Class & Learning From The Past

79 League places separated the two sides before kickoff. Stevenage came into the game having only won three times at home that season and sat eight points above the relegation zone of League Two. They did win in their last outing against local rivals Barnet 4-2, but this was their first in five games. Strangely, their previous victory before this came against the same opponent in the away fixture. The Boro would be missing two key players for the big game. Darius Charles was unavailable due to suspension, whereas the newly signed Byron Harrison was cup-tied. The striker had already featured in the FA Cup for Carshalton earlier in the competition. Joel Byrom, Darren Murphy and Lee Boylan, all of whom were commonly used as bench members so far during the season, were doubtful to feature as they struggled for fitness in the weeks before the game. 

Stevenage manager Graham Westley aimed to use his previous experience in the competition to give his players the best chance to slay the Premier League giants. In 2003, Westley remarkably guided non-league Farnborough to the 4th round before falling to the reigning Premier League champions Arsenal. While talking to The Mirror, the then-42-year-old stated that he was too cautious with his approach towards Arsenal and was keen not to make the same mistake seven years later. He said, “Looking back I approached it too apprehensively. There were a lot of people ­feeling nervous. My goalkeeper did an interview and said: ‘If I keep it below 10, I’ll have done well. When you’ve got that sort of mentality in the team, you’re not preparing for a giant-killing, you’re preparing to get beat”. Westley was determined to instil self-belief into his team. He refused to let his players be intimidated by their opponent’s stature, stating that “They are Premier League players and internationals but you mustn’t look at them believing they are infallible. They make mistakes. We have enough talent to exploit their weaknesses.” The businessman-turned-manager rather ambitiously sent his team out to win the game 5-0. When asked about the logic behind this move, Westley stated, “if we (do) just 20% of what it would take to win 5-0 we’d still win the game”. 

Newcastle came into this game on the back of a 5-0 thrashing over West Ham United just four days prior. Since Alan Pardew took over as Newcastle manager following the sacking of Chris Hughton in December 2010, the Magpies had won three of their last five games, including an impressive 3-1 Victory over Liverpool in Pardew’s first game in charge. However, things were not all going Newcastle’s way since the Premier League side was going through somewhat of an injury crisis. Andy Carrol, Shola Ameobi, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez, Jose Enrique, Ryan Taylor and Sol Campbell were all ruled out of the FA Cup game due to injuries or illnesses. The midweek hat-trick hero Leon Best, alongside Steven Taylor and Cheick Tioté also picked up minor injuries during their last outing, but all three were expected to be able to make the bench at least. Goalkeeper Steve Harper would also be missing the trip South. The shot-stopper was on compassionate leave due to his wife being heavily pregnant. Despite potentially missing a handful of key players, Pardew vowed to pick his strongest 11 possible, refusing to take Stevenage lightly. 



Familiar Settings, Unusual Experience

I can vividly remember walking through the turnstiles of the Lamex Stadium on a cold, damp late Saturday afternoon on January 8th 2010. Since I was a season ticket holder, going into the East Terrace stands was not an unfamiliar feeling. However, entering around 3:30 pm on a Saturday was an unusual occurrence. Since the match would be televised on ESPN, which is now under the BT Sport package in the UK, the kickoff time was moved to 5:30 pm instead of the traditional 3 pm. My three mates, my football-mad mother and myself all made our way to our usual spot, standing on the sixth row next to the second set of stairs from the left-hand side of the stand so our view would not be blocked as we looked to our left. We would often be some of the first ones in the ground to ensure we would always be in that position for games. All the space at the Lamex became occupied exceptionally quickly. A stream of regular fans and casual football followers who wanted to see a Premier League club play flowed through the gates, filling each stand to its maximum capacity. To that point, that was the most packed I had ever seen our humble ground. 

Despite being surrounded by people who had no idea of any of the Stevenage players’ names and having very little room to move, my excitement continued to build as the teams finished their warmups and made their way to the tunnel. The usual group of fans who led our chants were in fine voice. The Stevenage faithful had a large assortment of songs for our team and players, as well as plenty of… let us say, unsavoury chants regarding our rivals Luton Town, Barnet, and Woking. Our full discography was on display before the game had even kicked off. The regular fans, myself included, were singing at the top of our lungs, encouraging the casual fans in attendance to join in with the fun.

With the floodlights illuminating the ground, the players took to the field to a tremendous roar of support from everyone in attendance. The fans serenaded each of our starting lineups with their own songs as they took to position. These included chanting ‘England’s Number one’ to our Goalkeeper Chris Day, calling our strapping, no-nonsense Centre-back John Ashton an animal and singing about our Left-back Scott Laird to the tune of ‘Lord of the Dance’. The players were ready. The fans were ready. All that was left was for the referee to blow his whistle and commence this FA cup clash. 


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A Surprise, To Be Sure, But A Welcome One

Stevenage knew if they had any chance of causing an upset, they would have to use their physicality from kickoff and play a smash-mouth style of Football. They may have taken the latter a little too literally as, just a few seconds into the game, Newcastle’s captain Kevin Nolan was blasted in the face with the ball, with the fans in the East Terrace letting out a ‘Wheyyy’ in jest. This was an unintentional accident, but it would foreshadow the visitors’ painful and uncomfortable night ahead. The first chance of the half fell to the Magpies, with the notorious Joey Barton connecting with an early cross whipped in by Wayne Routledge within the opening five minutes. The effort forced Boro’s veteran goalkeeper Chris Day into a good early save, denying Barton from finding the net in front of the travelling Toon Army. 

My anxious mind believed this was the first of many opportunities the Premier League side would have in this half to challenge Day’s goal. However, I was wrong. This save turned out to be the former Tottenham Hotspurs shot-stopper’s only challenging involvement of the half. 

The next goal opportunity fell to the League 2 side after nine minutes, where they arguably should have opened the scoring. Peter Winn’s near-perfect delivery from a corner found its way to Boro’s captain Mark Roberts. But, unfortunately, the centre-half could not get the desired connection on the ball, causing the chance to go begging. With such a golden opportunity going awry, it was imperative that the players and fans kept their heads up and not get disheartened. After all, the game was only ten minutes old. More chances were bound to present themselves, and they did later in the half.

To the surprise of the pundits and everyone inside the Lamex Stadium, myself included, Stevenage was the team in control of this contest. Led by their rock-solid back four and the powerful central midfield duo of Micheal Bostwick and John Mousinho, the fourth-division side was seemingly first to every ball and won every challenge. They used their physicality to make Newcastle play somewhat over-cautiously, which led to mistakes. With Graham Westley’s game plan working to perfection, the team grew in confidence and swagger as the half progressed. 

The supporters felt this too. We could all feel the cup magic in the air. We came into the stadium hoping for a miracle, but now we knew the game was there for the taking. 

With Stevenage on the front foot, they endeavoured to apply the pressure on Tim Krul in the Newcastle goal. The always-impressive right-midfielder Lawrie Wilson caught the eye with his surging drives throughout the game, with James Perch struggling to contain him. Unfortunately for Boro’s number two, he could not turn these runs into goal scoring chances, with his best opportunities being blocked by either Mike Williamson or Fabricio Coloccini. 

In what turned out to be the closest chance of the first half, the underdogs came mere fingertips away from breaking the deadlock after a familiar sight. After Newcastle struggling to clear their lines, the ball fell to Peter Winn 25 yards away from the net. With Kevin Nolan closing in on him, Winn played the ball back to Micheal Bostwick. Every Stevenage fan knew what was coming next. ‘Bozzie’, never one for an easy tap in, unleashed a trademark long-range blast. The effort was bound to find the bottom left-hand corner of the net if it were not for an outstanding save from Newcastle’s Dutch goalkeeper. Krul’s efforts ensured the Premier League team went into halftime level with the minnows, with the game scoreless after 45 minutes. Despite not finding that all-important breakthrough, there was a sense among the Boro faithful that, if we continued to keep up the tempo and replicate our first half, a goal was not too far away. Newcastle was wounded, and Stevenage could smell the blood. 


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Stacy Long Has Got It Going On

Newcastle’s manager Alan Pardew, who was likely fuming at his side’s lacklustre performance, knew changes had to be made during the break, both tactically and in personnel. So, in an attempt to change the game’s direction and punish the home side for failing to take their first-half chances, the formation was shifted from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1. In addition, the hat-trick hero from midweek Leon Best was withdrawn in favour of the now-infamous Nile Ranger. As for Graham Westley’s side, well, all they had to do was maintain their first-half form. 

Newcastle barely had any time to adjust to their new setup before disaster struck. More specifically, it struck Mike Williamson’s face. In the 50th minute, Stacy Long, who had somewhat of a habit of scoring deflected goals during his time at the Boro, let the ball run across his body following a Scot Laird pass before unleashing a first-time right-footed shot. The effort was destined to go well wide of the goal, but, unfortunately for the visitors, the ball cannoned off Mike Williamson’s head and redirected it on target. Tim Krul was left entirely wrong-footed, and the ball rippled the back of the net. Stevenage had scored. The League 2 side were deservedly leading against Premier League opposition. The Lamex Stadium erupted as Stacy Long and his teammates celebrated in front of the East Terrace. 

To this day, I can only think of one or two occasions that the Lamex Stadium was as loud as it was after that goal. The noise was utterly deafening as homemade confetti rained down from the stands. Asides from when we confirmed promotion into the Football League, I had never felt so much joy while attending a football match to that point. It was truly a magical feeling that only sports can provide. 

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A Bostwick Banger

Stevenage may have been soaring, but Newcastle almost sent them crashing back down to earth instantly. The Magpies immediately attacked the Boro goal from kickoff. After breaking down the left-hand side of the field, Kevin Nolan found Peter Løvenkrands in the area. However, an unfortunate touch caused the Danish international to face away from the goal. With Mark Roberts closing in on him, Løvenkrands laid the ball back to the Newcastle captain. Nolan hit the ball first-time with the inside of his foot, curling a well-placed shot towards the goal. The effort forced Chris day to produce a superb fingertip save to prevent a rapid equaliser. This attack served as a reminder to Stevenage of the quality that Newcastle possessed. The Premier League side would punish them if they let their concentration slip for a single second. 

After Nolan threatened Day’s goal, it would not shock anyone if Stevenage decided to play more defensively to protect their lead. After all, a goal against a team 79 places above you in the Football League is like gold dust and would be extremely difficult to duplicate. However, Graham Westley made it clear that he did not set his team up to settle for just one goal before the game. They wanted five. Stevenage were hungry for a second and continued to pressure Newcastle’s shaky defence. Less than five minutes after the opening goal, the Boro would be celebrating again. 

Stevenage’s high and heavy pressing led to the always impressive Michael Bostwick dispossessing Joey Barton in Newcastle’s half after a mixup in defence. Stacy Long was once again involved in the attack, cutting in from the left side before unloading the ball to striker Chris Beardsley on the edge of the area. With his back to goal, the Boro favourite held off Mike Williamson before attempting a pass to the onrushing Bostwick. Beardsley’s pass was not an accurate one, but, luckily for the home team, it looked like it may have fallen to John Mousinho instead. Fabricio Coloccini managed to intercept the ball with a fantastic slide tackle, but he could not stop it from rebounding back to the original target of the pass. ‘Bozzie’ took one touch to get the ball out of his feet before unleashing a cannon of a shot. Tim Krul did well to save Bostwick’s signature long-range blast in the first half, but there was simply no stopping this one.

The ball flew perfectly into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal, striking the inside of the post before hitting the back of the net. Newcastle was left stunned. The minnows from Hertfordshire took an unbelievable 2-0 lead. Unlike the first goal, no luck was involved this time, just pure quality from the fantastic Michael Bostwick. Stevenage’s number 24 ran off with his right arm raised high as the Lamex Stadium erupted. It was a euphoric party atmosphere inside Broadhall Way. Graham Westley even had to restrain his fellow staff members and bench players from running onto the pitch to join the celebration.  

I could not believe what I was seeing. Not only were my Boro 2-0 up against a Premier League side, but we were utterly dominating the game. It honestly looked at times as if we were the top-flight outfit and not struggling in the bottom half of League Two. I have never seen our players come together and put on such an incredible performance. Even in my wildest dreams, I did not think that we will be playing this well. We were tearing the mighty Newcastle United apart. The visiting Toon Army was left distraught, and sadly for them, things were about to get even worse. 


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Tioté Sees Red

Three minutes after falling 2-0 behind, Alan Pardew decided a change in personnel was in order. Former Premier League winner Alan Smith made way for Cheick Tioté. While he was not known for being a creative or attacking midfielder, Tioté was brought on to shift the game’s momentum in his team’s favour with his endless work rate and tenacity. The Ivorian international certainly did make an impact, but it was not a positive one. Around 13 minutes after entering the play, he was given his marching orders by referee Andre Marriner. The midfielder was sent off after an unnecessary reckless jumping tackle on Stevenage Defender Jon Ashton. Unexpectedly, the foul caused both teams to come together for a shoving match and an argument. Joey Barton escalated the skirmish, as he was one to do throughout his career, by throwing the ball at a Stevenage player’s head. Luckily for the hot-headed Englishman, Mariner had his hands full with the other players and did not see the incident. If the referee did see what had happened, Barton would have likely also been in significant trouble. After already trailing by two and being outclassed by an inferior opposition, Newcastle’s chances of a comeback went from unlikely to near-impossible now they were down to ten men. 


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A Late Comeback?

With the game entering stoppage time of the second half, even the most optimistic Newcastle fan had likely accepted that their team was heading for a humiliating third-round exit. However, one man in Newcastle’s away blue kit refused to give up the ghost. Joey Barton may have been a controversial figure in football, but he was still an exceptionally gifted player. Newcastle’s number 7 showed precisely why he was a former England international by creating a moment of utter class, something none of his teammates could muster up all game. After collecting the ball around 30 yards from the Stevenage goal following a Wayne Routledge headed pass, Barton took one touch to set himself before releasing an unstoppable dipping shot over Chris Day and into the back of the net. Against the run of play, Barton’s moment of magic cut the deficit in half and gave Newcastle the slightest bit of hope in forcing a replay. With just two minutes left to play, the Magpies were back in it.

I remember thinking that it would take something special to beat our defence that day, and that goal was indeed something special. It would be easy to blame Chris Day for letting a strike from that range in, especially since the ball went over his head in the middle of the goal. However, upon watching the replay, there was nothing the shot-stopper could have done. Barton hit the ball with too much pace and caused it to dip at just the right time to leave the goalkeeper with no chance of saving it. My excitement and comfort evaporated as soon as the shot crossed the line. The away side may have only had a couple of minutes and ten men on the field, but that did not stop a wave of unease and panic to wash over the Stevenage fans. Newcastle had their tails up now and would look to bombard our goal to secure an equaliser. We just had to hold on for two minutes. But two minutes felt like a lifetime to us. We were so close to pulling off the upset, yet, all of a sudden, it felt so far away. I expected us to put all our players behind the ball and defend with all we had left, but Graham Westley and his players had other plans. After all, they were aiming to score five before the game and only managed two thus far.


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The Winn-ing Goal

It took less than 30 seconds from kickoff for Stevenage to squash any faint hope that Newcastle still had of a comeback. Stacy Long, who had been instrumental in nearly every Boro attack that evening, collected a long ball on the halfway line. With his first touch, he laid the ball off to the still energetic John Mousinho. The midfielder drove into the Magpies half relatively uncontested before playing a perfectly weighted through-ball into the penalty area to Peter Winn. The former Gateshead player only had the goalkeeper to beat, and, despite Fabricio Coloccini’s best attempt to close him down, he kept his cool. He lifted the ball over an onrushing Tim Krul and into the back of the net. Stevenage had restored their two-goal advantage, and it was nothing less than what they deserved. 

As Winn ran off in celebration, Graham Westley finally allowed himself to relax and raised his arms in the air triumphantly. It may not have been 5-0, but Westley had got his tactics and preparation spot on. The third goal was a testament to the mentality that the Boro manager instilled into his players. Instead of panicking and allowing themselves to be intimidated, Stevenage ruthlessly drove up the field with confidence and belief. The players looked as if they were almost offended that Newcastle dared to score against them and immediately cancelled it out. While Micheal Bostwick, John Mousinho, Jon Ashton and Stacy Long deserve credit for their fantastic performances throughout the contest, this game belonged to Graham Westley. 

I believe my reaction to our third goal was to just laugh at the absurdity of the situation. We had just scored three goals against Newcastle United but failed to score in three of our last six games in League Two. We put on a terrible losing performance away at Gillingham one week prior, but now, we had just outclassed and outplayed a Premier League team. It may be a cliche saying, but this was the magic of the FA Cup. I remember hugging my mother when the ball crossed the line before letting myself soak in what had happened that evening. I knew there would not be many moments like this as a fan, so I cherished it all. 

As soon as referee Andre Marriner blew his whistle for full-time, streams of Boro supporters flooded onto the field in celebration. The stewards tried their best to stop this from happening since pitch invasions were not allowed, but they were powerless to stop the jubilant fans mobbing their Stevenage heroes. When a pitch invasion occurs, especially in modern football, players are instructed to make their way to the tunnel immediately. However, most of Graham Westley’s men welcomed the scenes and stayed amongst the crowd. Several players were lifted into the air and paraded around by their adoring fans while the others embraced their supporters and enjoyed this magical moment together. 

This should have been the happy ending to Stevenage’s fairytale evening. Instead, however, there was one last, ugly twist in the story. 


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Knocked-out After The Knockout

While the fans congratulated him for his terrific performance, Stevenage’s left-back Scott Laird was sucker-punched in the face, causing him to fall to the floor. It would be easy to assume that an irritated Newcastle fan was the culprit behind this cowardly assault. After all, coins were being thrown onto the pitch from the away end during the game. But it was not a member of the Toon Army who attacked the player. Since I was not one of the many fans who stormed the field following the final whistle, I had a perfect view of the incident from the stands. I saw the man who punched Laird, and he was carrying a Stevenage scarf. 

The man who attacked Scott Laird turned himself in to the authorities in the following days. Although, It was not like he had much choice since his actions were seen on live TV and his face was visible. 24-year old Robert Fitzgerald pleaded guilty to common assault on January 26th. According to Fitzgerald’s solicitor Jennifer Browne, the attack was motivated by Scott Laird’s previous relationship with Jade Coles, who was now Fitzgerald’s girlfriend. Browne said, “Mr Fitzgerald goes on to the pitch, he congratulates other players. He sees the injured party and he throws a punch. Why? Because the injured party had had a relationship with Mr Fitzgerald’s current girlfriend. This was some time ago but my instructions are that the injured party did not treat the current girlfriend, Mr Fitzgerald’s girlfriend, correctly. Mr Fitzgerald takes matters into his own hands and it was seizing the opportunity. It wasn’t premeditated to go on to the football pitch.” 

The prosecutor for this case, Phillip Mansefield, commented that Fitzgerald was seen hurling abuse at Stevenage’s left-back throughout the game. He claimed that “When Scott Laird came near to him or that side of the pitch, the steward has seen him throwing water and spitting at Scott Laird. The defendant is seen to throw a burger he had been eating again in the direction of Scott Laird.” Mansefield also told the court that the punch that Fitzgerald threw at Laird was delivered with such force that it caused the player to have “no recollection of how he got back to the changing room.”

Fitzgerald was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison and was banned from attending regulated football matches in England and Wales for six years. While sentencing him, magistrates’ chairwoman Linda Nadauld said: ‘The offence was fuelled by alcohol, and it has become clear from the television evidence that you made a beeline for this particular player. ‘We have also heard evidence that a steward noticed disorderly behaviour from you directed towards Mr Laird. The victim was in a vulnerable position as he was in the location to fulfil his duties as a professional football player. The attack was unprovoked and unexpected. The court must impose a deterrent sentence to stop this type of behaviour and conduct on a football field.”


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“David didn’t play Goliaths game.”

The unfortunate assault somewhat marred Stevenage’s historic victory in the media. However, the heroics of Graham Westley’s men were rightly praised in the footballing world. In his post-match interview, the Stevenage manager discussed how his team’s mental preparation guided them to victory, stating that “I don’t think you win if you don’t expect to win. We talked beforehand about David and Goliath – we talked about the fact that David had a plan. David knew what his strengths were. David didn’t play Goliath’s game. He played his own game and we went out there and played our game and got the result by doing that.” Westley went on to say, “We established that if we did just 20% of what it would take to win 5-0 we’d still win the game. Three wasn’t five but it was a decent result.”

On the other hand, a downtrodden Alan Pardew admitted that his team was simply not good enough on the day, saying, “I can say that we’re sorry about the result and the performance. The performance level was the problem. It’s come off the back of a really tough run for us and the players we had missing didn’t help either, but the manner of the defeat was disappointing – we’re Newcastle, we expect to win here.” The Newcastle boss also conceded that they could not compete with the pressure and physicality that the home side provided, despite expecting it. Pardew acknowledged that “(Stevenage) bossed patches of the game through their sheer endeavour and enthusiasm. We’ve got to match that and we didn’t do that.” 


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The Catalyst Of Future Success. 

Stevenage’s cup run would come to an end in the next round. They were defeated by Championship side Reading 2-1 at The Lamex Stadium. Mikele Leigertwood opened the scoring for the visitors in the 23rd minute before defender-turned-striker Darius Charles scored a sublime equaliser in the 72nd. Irish international Shane Long crushed Stevenage’s dreams of another upset by scoring a late winner with just three minutes to play. 

Stevenage were not expected to make it past the first round of the FA Cup. Yet, they were minutes away from being in the pot for the last 16. Despite the disappointment of being eliminated, every fan was incredibly proud of what our small club had accomplished. The Boro had equalled their best-ever finish in the FA Cup during this run and avenged the club’s controversial 1998 defeat to Newcastle in the process. No one will ever forget that third-round result and how our players picked apart a Premier League team. 

I believe that the performance against Newcastle was the catalyst for the success the Boro experienced that season. Stevenage went on a fantastic run of form in the league following their giant-killing, losing just seven of their remaining 25 games, winning twelve and drawing six. Before the Newcastle game, the Hertfordshire side sat in 13th place, just eight points above the relegation zone. They had only managed to win six times and lacked sharpness in front of goal. By the end of their first season in League 2, they finished in sixth place and secured a playoff spot. Stevenage defeated Accrington Stanley in the Playoff Semi-final before conquering Torquay United 1-0 at Old Trafford to secure back-to-back promotion and earn a place in League 1 for the first time in their history. Without the confidence gained by outclassing and dismantling Newcastle United, Stevenage’s change of form which led to their unlikely promotion may have never occurred. 


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Author: Ross Paul

With three years of working as a freelance Sports Journalist and a degree from Sussex University under my belt, I decided that it was time to focus on a passion project of mine. I created Tales From Sport in the hopes of producing the most in-depth, high quality articles about the most interesting stories in the history of sport. My main focus is writing about the NFL, however, I also produced content on the MLB, NHL and Football. I am a die-hard Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, Winnipeg Jets, Stevenage FC and AC Milan Fan and avid sports memorabilia collector.

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