Upset averted. If indeed it would have been considered such. This was one of those “no win” fixtures, a Championship staple at home to lower-league high-flyers.
In the end, Stoke City navigated their way past Stevenage with relative comfort. Certainly, the scoreline did not flatter Alex Neil’s side, who took an early lead through Jacob Brown before largely dominating.
But for a few minutes, when Jamie Reid levelled, the travelling masses of Stevenage believed in another famous knockout. Then Josh Laurent’s wonder strike regained the sense of home comfort and, if a second comeback felt a tall order, Lewis Baker’s penalty made it a virtual impossibility.
Steve Evans rightly made the point that Jonathan Tomkinson’s challenge on Brown was clean, though. “It’s never a penalty. It’s a great challenge,” he began furiously. VAR was not available at the stadium but the big screens showed a replay that suggested there was little contact.
After the game, Evans alleged that the referee, David Webb, admitted his error to Stevenage’s players. “How does that motivate my players to come back in a cup tie?” Evans asked. “Somebody needs to explain that. He gets it wrong. Referees get things wrong. I get things wrong. We all get things wrong, but you don’t run about rubbing people’s faces in it.”
Kudos to the few Stoke fans in attendance. Their club is not on its knees but it is one infused with mediocrity. Since Premier League relegation, they have not come close to troubling the playoffs.
Neil requires time to shift Stoke’s direction but he may have found the man to build a side around: Bersant Celina. A Kosovan refugee, brought up in Norway, who spent time with Manchester City, Celina arrived this week on loan from Dijon.
He instantly became Stoke’s conductor. Nominally on the left of a 4-2-3-1, he ghosted around as he pleased, drawing admirable gasps all afternoon.
His early corner brought the opener. Ben Wilmot – himself, and his father, formerly of Stevenage – won the flick on, and Brown simply had to control and finish. Then from a quick break Celina looked to jink inside, instead went outside and drew a save from Taye Ashby-Hammond. Soon after, from another Celina corner, Wilmot’s towering header was cleared off the line by Max Clark.
Ashby-Hammond again stood firm to deny Will Smallbone before the break. And after it, Celina slid Tyrese Campbell in. Ashby-Hammond saved. The pair then switched roles, Campbell’s cut-back struck against the post. “He’s very different from what we’ve got,” Neil said of Celina.
Evans sensed something was not quite right and spent the afternoon tinkering. By the 55th minute he had made a quintet of substitutions and changed formation twice. But the malleability did not bring fluency.
Then came their moment. Ashby-Hammond’s goal-kick was flicked on by Jake Taylor, and Reid was beyond the 40-year-old Phil Jagielka. He lifted the finish over Jack Bonham, Stevenage supporters’ glee enhanced by Wilmot’s despairing attempt to clear. “The lads know it’s crap. I’ve told them it’s crap,” Neil said about the defending.
The scent of another upset was in the air. Not for long. Laurent found himself with space 25 yards out and curled in delightfully with his left foot. “At 1-1 you start thinking about what happened at Aston Villa,” Neil said. “We needed a moment to settle ourselves down, a moment of quality. Josh Laurent produced that. It was a worthy winner.”
Soon came Baker’s penalty. By then, the tingle Stevenage fans would have felt earlier on passing Villa Park on the M6 had dissipated.
That famous victory was one of the club’s great days. And while this tie offered neither the reputational nor the financial boost they yearned, their journey was made with, if not expectation, then genuine belief rather than wild hope.
Disappointment then, yes. But Stevenage have more important matters to attend to.