It was in 1969, before man had walked upon the moon and before the introduction of colour television on BBC1 or ITV, that Newcastle United last won a major trophy. They beat Újpesti Dózsa of Hungary over two legs in the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a tournament that metamorphosised into the UEFA Cup two years later. In the second leg, Newcastle supporters may have taken the opinion that the black and white striped goalposts were a sign; a portent of the victory to come. Few would have believed at the time that, over four decades on, Newcastle would still have been waiting for a repeat of such triumph, but after this evening’s performance another year can be added to one of English football’s more enduring ticking clocks.
It was in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in 1998 that Stevenage Borough almost caused one of the great shocks in the history of the tournament, forcing a replay against Newcastle before losing narrowly at St James Park in a match which included an Alan Shearer goal that didn’t seem to have crossed the line. Their supporters could have been forgiven for believing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that passed them by but this evening, almost thirteen years later, offered them a second bite at this particular cherry. Things have changed somewhat in the intervening years. Stevenage Borough finally won their long-awaited promotion into the Football League at the end of last year and marked the occasion by dropping the “Borough” from their name. They haven’t set the League alight – they’re fifteenth in League Two at the time of writing – but the danger of relegation back in what was always likely to be a year of reacclimatisation seems slight.
Alan Pardew has, of course, been skating on thin ice since he was handed the manager’s job at the start of December. Defeats against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were balanced have been balanced out wins against Wigan Athetic and West Ham United and, although the club remains in eighth place in the Premier League, it seems likely that he will be forever on probation at St James Park on account of the circumstances under which he was appointed in the first place. Under such circumstances, a trip to a League Two club in the Third Round of The FA Cup was probably just about the last thing that he could have done with this evening. It was, however, an opportunity to kick-start a bid for a major trophy in a season that is open enough for us to be able to believe that they could actually have a go at this one, this year.
To say that they fluffed their lines would be one of the under-statements of the season. This wasn’t merely an off day when they didn’t quite get the rub of the green. This was an abject humiliation for Newcastle United Football Club – the sort of performance that leaves the viewer wondering whether this is could conceivably have been what Mike Ashley had in mind when he appointed Pardew. It was the sort of performance that cannot simply brushed aside by merely stating that it will all forgotten if or when they retain their Premier League status at the end of this season. It was lethargy bordering on inertia, and it calls into question the very professionalism of those that took the pitch in the club’s shirts tonight. For this was no rookie team, made up of fringe players with one eye on future Premier League matches. There was, therefore, nowhere to hide with this performance – no mitigation, and no excuses.
Stevenage, rode their luck to the extent that they needed to. Their opening goal, from Stacy Long, took an improbably-angled deflection off Michael Williamson and, had Cheik Tiote’s challenge on Jon Ashton not been as rash as it was, the final twenty minutes may have played out somewhat differently, but he deserved his red card and with it, with Stevenage already two goals up, any chance of the Premier League side finding a way back into the game vanished with this. Even when Joey Barton managed Newcastle’s one moment of genuine class of the afternoon, a twenty-five yard shot to drag them back into the game with a couple of minutes left to play, there was still time for Stevenage to add a third goal in injury time to remove any doubt regarding the result of the tie.
The evening ended with a bizarre moment. After the final whistle, there was something of a pitch invasion by happy Stevenage supporters, but in the midst of the celebrations the Stevenage player Scott Laird was punched to the ground by one of those that had encroached onto the pitch. This video of the incident seems to show the attacker to be holding a Stevenage scarf, but which team he “supports” is largely irrelevant – it would be unfair to label either set of supporters on the basis of the behaviour of one individual. It is also worth pointing out that, whilst it can be lapsing into journalistic cliché to describe such an attack as “cowardly”, the speed with which he ran away having thrown his punch can only be described as an act of cowardice in excelsis.
Hopefully, this incident shouldn’t detract too much from what was, this evening, one of the great FA Cup shocks. This tournament excels with such stories, and Stevenage’s performance was worthy of all of the headlines that they will muster from it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a massive surprise that, in a season in which most Premier League clubs have proved themselves incapable of showing any great degree of consistency, this result should happen at this time. And while some Newcastle United supporters may seek to console themselves with the belief that getting knocked out of the FA Cup this early may assist their survival in the Premier League this season, the fact of the matter is that the foundations built by Chris Hughton will almost certainly prove to be enough to bail Pardew and Ashley out for this season. That memorable day, the one that money can’t buy and will be remembered by the supporters for the rest of their lives, belongs to the supporters of Stevenage Football Club. Newcastle United’s supporters, and Mike Ashley, will have to wait for at least another year before they get another chance at such an experience.
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