x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Minnows Stevenage's triumph to remember

In a cynical, money-led football world Stevenage, who joined the ranks of English football's 92 professional clubs for the first time this season, knocked Premier League side Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.

Stevenage players celebrate Stacy Long's goal. Darren Staples / Reuters
Stevenage players celebrate Stacy Long's goal. Darren Staples / Reuters

There are many who argue that the FA Cup, the world's oldest football competition, has lost its magic. It is doubtful whether they are the sort of football follower who would even bother thinking about turning up to a game like this.

If they did, they would discover where the soul of football really comes from. The rawness of it all was so refreshing - and in true FA Cup, David v Goliath tradition.

And it proved the dream is still alive in a cynical, money-led football world as Stevenage, who joined the ranks of English football's 92 professional clubs for the first time this season, knocked Premier League side Newcastle United out of the competition with a 3-1 victory.

Stevenage's lowly status in League Two, the fourth tier of English football and the first fully professional level, means they exist on a different planet to Newcastle and their squad of expensive players.

Everything from the players' modest wages to their cramped little stadium (probably still non-league standard), when compared to Newcastle's substantial resources, emphasised how far away they are from the billion-dollar business that is the Premier League.

But once they walk onto the pitch, it is still 11 men versus 11 men. And in the 139 years that this competition has been in existence, time and again the passion and pride of the underdog pushes superior teams over the edge. It happened again yesterday.

Famously, Newcastle were one of the biggest victims of a giant-killing act, in 1972, when they were beaten by non-league Hereford United and a long-range goal from Ronnie Radford that has been written into FA Cup lore.

And 13 years ago, here at Stevenage, a small satellite town north of London, Newcastle were held to a draw before winning a replay in a pair of feisty encounters back in the day when Kenny Dalglish managed "The Toon Army" and Alan Shearer was their leading light.

The memory of those games still burns brightly in the hearts of Stevenage fans. Several of that team were paraded around the pitch before the game to stoke up the enthusiasm, even expectation. Not least when Guiliano Grazioli, who scored the equaliser in that first game, was introduced.

Despite the fact that Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One driver, and the golfer Ian Poulter come from Stevenage, Grazioli remains the town's favourite sporting son.

That is the power of the FA Cup, when unknown teams and players can become heroes for one day and feted for life.

And how they had been waiting for yesterday's match. As one loyal fan, Andy Coates, said before the game: "Back in 1998 when there was huge interest in the club and for Stevenage, playing big teams like Newcastle was very much a one-off tie. Now we're in the League, it's not quite as big but the ground's sold out and everyone's really excited."

He also recalled the attitude of Newcastle back then and how they did not want to play at Broadhall Way, now rebranded as the Lumex Stadium

Said Coates: "It was like, 'We're not going to play at that ground, it's far too small for our fans, we're far too big a club to play there, we want to switch it.' But we managed to get the game on. And what a game it was. It was one I'll never forget and even when we lost the replay we were so proud."

One of the reasons the FA Cup has lost some of its allure is that because so much money is at stake in the Premier League that some top-flight clubs no longer see it as a priority. Some seem to think it is beneath them playing in a competition that starts in August in the local parks of England.

But Newcastle's new manager, Alan Pardew, refused to demean the encounter or moan about the facilities - or lack of them.

"I started out my career in the non-league so I have the upmost respect for a club like Stevenage," Pardew said. "I lost a final as a player with Crystal Palace in 1990, then as a manager with West Ham five years ago. A good Cup run can be great for the club."

Newcastle were especially eager for success, given that they have not won a major domestic trophy since they last lifted the FA Cup in 1955, when all football was televised in the side's black and white.

So while Pardew shuffled some of his squad it was still a relatively strong Newcastle side.

After a few scares, Stevenage rose to the occasion in true FA Cup style. After half an hour, only a superb save by Tim Krul kept out what would have been a 30-year-wonder strike by Michael Bostwick. A couple of minutes after the break, the 6,664 fans in attendance went berserk when Stevenage took the lead.

The midfielder Stacy Long took a shot from distance and it paid off spectacularly as the fierce drive took a deflection off the defender Mike Williamson and flashed past Krul into the right-hand corner.

A minute later, the keeper Chris Day brilliantly tipped over an immediate response by Kevin Nolan. It was riveting stuff. However, it seemed only a matter of time before Newcastle, with all their quality, would pull it back.

But, incredibly, Stevenage went further ahead in the 54th minute.

Bostwick, who had been denied in the first half, took another pot shot from distance and this time it speared beyond the reach of Krul into the bottom far corner.

The Stevenage stadium literally shook as the fans danced, clapped, stomped their feet and screamed their hearts out.

Newcastle's Cheik Tiote was sent off for a late lunge, merely emphasising their desperation.

Not even late drama could stop Stevenage holding on for their most famous victory. Newcastle's Joey Barton made it 2-1 with a screamer in injury time, and just as the Premier League team looked set for a late onslaught, Peter Winn went to the other end and sealed the win.

Oh, the magic of the FA Cup.

sports@thenational.ae