I couldn’t let the events of Saturday 8th January pass without a blog on one of the greatest shocks in recent history…
I’m actually here. The Lamex Stadium, Broadhall Way, Stevenage. I fully admit I’m hardly the most loyal Stevenage Boro – sorry, FC – fan around, but it’s fair to say that I’ve followed the results of my home club every week for as long as I can remember. A few visits here over the years plus three FA Trophy finals, but I’ve always regretted the big one in ’98 – when we almost shook the footballing world as a non-league team by getting a draw against Premiership Newcastle. For some reason, I didn’t get a ticket and just watched it on TV instead. So when the Magpies got drawn against us again, I was determined to come down and take part in a bit of history.
“It’s gonna be 3-2 to us” I confidently predict. Well, when I say confidently, I mean optimistically. Odds are, they’ll beat us comfortably. Yes, we’ve moved up in with the big boys in the Football League since our last encounter, but we’re hardly setting League 2 alight. They have a few players out, most notably Andy Carroll, but I still expect them to win. I’ll settle for a draw tonight, though.
The East Terrace is filling up and making a lot of noise. That’s what surprised me at Wembley last year – the fans are a noisy and persistent lot! Silly tunes without words strangely create a great, catchy atmosphere. The “Wooooooah!” song is a particular favourite of mine. At the far side, the black and white shirts are gradually populating the stand like a sea of barcodes. Shell is making her debut on the Broadhall Way stands as we make our way onto the north terrace. It’s a cold evening, and we’re both wrapped up in gloves, scarves and hats. Where to stand? Right behind the goal would see some great action and maybe get us on the ESPN cameras, but the view might be a little pants, so we go just to the right of it, on the back row. The dark blue skies gradually turn black as I take a few photos, read the programme, and send a few texts, excitedly telling people where I am.
The teams come out and line up, swapping ends. Stevenage to attack the goal in front of us first, so I’ll expect most of the action nearest to us will be in the second half. I strain to recognise the Newcastle players – not exactly their best team. Ahhh, Joey Barton and Alan Smith – two charming blokes who wouldn’t look out of place in a Friday night brawl in Stevenage Old Town. It’s a shame there’s not the names of the 1-1 draw in 1998 -where the likes of Shearer, Barnes and Pearce played – but then that’s surely a bonus for us.
The game kicks off and then almost immediately is halted due to Nolan getting a ball in the face, sending him down to the grass for a minute or so. Shame. The scoreboard opposite us slowly counts up the minutes on its low-tech display; just enjoy every minute when we’re still in the game, I think. We seem to have started well, not looking too overawed. I get handed a poster to hold up from the Comet saying “Borough Barmy Army” and wave it in the air a little. Ummm, now what? Failing to make it stick itself to the stand behind me, I put it on the floor. I’ll settle for some gentle verbal encouragement. The crowd has a chuckle when their goalie, Krul, does his first kick and lands on his arse for his efforts. Premier League? You’re having a laugh…
I’m itching to see a shot, and after some encouraging play and even the odd corner, I get impatient as Stevenage players get near the box. “Shoot!!!” I yell, hoping for a screamer to be unleashed right before me. I watch as Bostwick drifts forward directly in front of us…he’s hit it…it’s going towards goal…it’s low and accurate…it’s going in!! Damn! Krul makes a great save to his right and pushes it away. Wow, that was close. Time ticks on, and despite the odd scary moment when we can’t quite see how good the Newcastle breaks are from down here, Stevenage hold their own and make it to half-time level.
Shell hasn’t turned blue just yet, and has quite enjoyed it, it seems. Blokes around me chomp into burgers, looking content at the night’s action so far. The Geordies strip off their shirts and sing “Cheer up, Stevie Bruce!” in reference to their greatest rivals going out of the cup today. Calm down, you’re not exactly setting the cup on fire based on that performance. The second half kicks off. “C’mon Boro!” Can we do it? Five minutes in, and I watch as Stevenage surge forward. Looks like there’s a bit of space. Have a dig…there goes a shot…deflection! It’s…it’s…it’s gone in!!! The East stand erupts and half a second later we do too, as we comprehend what’s happened. I almost can’t believe I’m clapping and cheering Boro taking the lead over Premier League opposition. Get in!! Wow – game on!
Newcastle attack, and Day tips one over the bar from Nolan. Don’t count our chickens. Five minutes later and we go forward again. Why not? Attack ’em, I say. They’ll be rocked and more than a little nervous. It’s hard to see from this end but we’ve got it on the right and there might be something on as the ball angles its way towards the goal..hang on…did that just… a split second later the noise tells me what my eyes thought they’d seen. It’s 2-0!! 2 flipping 0!!!! “Get in!!! C’mon!!!!!!!” I bounce wildly, almost falling forward as the guy in front gets a hand on his back. Arms raised in the air, fists clenched. This is no longer a nice lead that is probable to get wiped out, this is looking like a match-winning lead! I take some video of the celebrations, photos of the scoreboard, update Facebook. This could be some story unfolding…
“Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio!” Tiote’s just been shown the way to the dressing room! Newcastle are down to 10 men and are two goals in arrears away from home in the second half. If we’re gonna do it, this is the best opportunity ever.
As the minutes slowly increase, I begin to get worried. They say 2-0 is a dangerous scoreline, and Newcastle start to get a bit of the ball. A few shots come towards us, but nothing to worry about. 79 minutes, and a free kick to Newcastle. Keep it going, Boro. The ball comes in towards our keeper Day…but it breaks loose to two Newcastle players on the line! Just a few feet away I watch in slow motion as they turn and swing their legs towards the ball and sweep it in to the net. 2-1. Damn. Only…only…they didn’t. Somehow, the laws of physics were defied and the ball stayed out! Either that or the complete numpties missed an absolute sitter by failing to even make contact with it! Blimey. Let off. No time for reflection, however as Winn is now charging up the pitch…go on!! Surely? Nooooooo! Quite unbelievably, it’s still 2-0.
90 minutes are up. The black and white contingent are not happy, their hopes descending like the bright crescent moon watching above. “We can see you sneaking out!” Four injury-time minutes left. The crowd is nervous now, but I’m still confident. No way can they get back into this. No wa- oh. Barton lashes an unstoppable shot and the net bulges in front of us. 2-1 and still nearly four minutes left. Oh crap. Please don’t say we’re that close to history and gonna blow it. I so want to say I was here to see a victory. I can’t believe we might throw it away. I glance at Shell who is hiding behind her gloves…
We’re still attacking, and rightly so. Can we finish them off? WE CAN!!!! It’s 3-1!!! Definitely game over now!! Goodbye Geordies!!! We’ve done it!!! Finished off a Premier League side like they were schoolboys. The final whistle pierces the cold air and as I cheer, clap and look at the incredulous and happy faces of those around me I know I’ve witnessed something special here. A few teenagers start to run onto the pitch, followed by others. Despite warnings, the stewards let a few kids on, too. Shall I go? Invade the pitch? I know it’s wrong, but I’d like to. Hmmm… maybe if I was actually right at the front. I decide just to record the moment and soak in the atmosphere from the stands for a while.
Eventually, with music ringing out telling the whole town of our mighty victory, I pick up the Comet poster as a memento and head for the exit. I may have missed the sensation that was 1998, but today I was part of FA Cup history.