Football: Grazioli keeps Stevenage under the spotlight
Whatever fate befalls them in the replay at Newcastle, Stevenage's contribution to this season's FA Cup has already more than justified the acres of newsprint devoted to yesterday's fourth-round tie at Broadhall Way.
One by one, sides from the higher reaches of the Football League bowed out tamely, leaving it to the team lying 15th in the Vauxhall Conference to demonstrate that the Premiership is not all it is cracked up to be and restore some of the competition's tarnished grandeur.
They did so despite the potentially morale-crushing blow of seeing Alan Shearer bulge their net after less than three minutes. The England centre- forward, starting a match for the first time since ankle surgery in August, scored with only his second touch of a bitterly cold afternoon.
Thereafter, however, Shearer was reduced to mere mortality by the diligent attentions of Mark Smith, a 30-year-old foundry supervisor who lists Hitchin and Letchworth among his former clubs. Stevenage responded to his example with spirit and no little skill, richly deserving to draw level before half-time through Giuliano Grazioli.
Perhaps to the relief of Kenny Dalglish's multi-million pound team, the second half was not nearly so eventful. Not that anyone from Stevenage was complaining at the end. In scenes reminiscent of Newcastle's exit at Hereford 26 years earlier, half of Hertfordshire flooded on to the pitch while the Toon hordes shivered in their temporary stand.
After all, in symbolic terms, the tie was a collision of the corner shop and the corporate machine. Stevenage's manager, Paul Fairclough, had assembled his squad for pounds 30,000, whereas Newcastle had their pounds 15m talisman back in a line-up littered with internationals.
As the visiting players limbered up before the match, the public-address announcer ran through the team changes. On reaching Shearer's name he joked that he could not make out the word. The Stevenage fans roared their approval. Shearer's face remained fixed in a frown, his concentration unwavering.
The crowd quickly discovered why. When a Stevenage free-kick was cleared by Steve Watson, it seemed elementary for Mike Love to return it to the Newcastle box. But they say love is blind, and the leftback did not appear to be aware of Keith Gillespie charging in to rob him. The winger raced clear before crossing, whereupon Shearer headed his first goal since scoring for England against France in June.
The apparent inevitability of it all would have deflated many higher- placed teams. Stevenage's response was to swarm towards Shaka Hislop's goal as if nothing had happened, perhaps remembering that when Newcastle were humbled at Edgar Street in 1972 Malcolm Macdonald had headed them in front in similar fashion.
The Borough architect was Neil Trebble, a tall, elegant midfielder whose knack of finding space between midfield and the strikers repeatedly threw Newcastle out. His wickedly curling free-kick almost forced an own goal from Rob Lee, whose header passed only inches wide.
Confidence grew visibly in the part-timers' ranks. Trebble found an ally in Grazioli, releasing him for what looked a valid equaliser until the referee ruled Gary Crawshaw offside. Still undaunted, Stevenage created further openings, only to find Hislop unwilling to play the fall guy.
A series of brilliant reflex saves denied Grazioli, Crawshaw and Trebble in turn. Yet with Newcastle edging nervously towards half-time, the towering Hislop was helpless as Grazioli's touch turned in a Crawshaw corner. The scorer had sprinted half way to Knebworth before his colleagues caught up with him.
Gillespie, the only obvious thoroughbred in Dalglish's side on the day, did his best to repeat the early service from which Shearer had profited. One cross late in the first half found its target at the far post, but Des Gallagher's point-blank save thwarted Shearer.
Stevenage did not trouble Hislop unduly after the interval, whereas Steve Howey sent one header wide and Philippe Albert saw another tipped over by Gallagher. But the underdogs had done more than enough to earn another 10 days basking in the media spotlight.
Afterwards, Fairclough was asked whether he feared the worst when Shearer struck. "Yes, I can't lie," came the reply. "I've had two parrots on my shoulder lately: one saying we'd get slaughtered and the other that we might win. It was great to get a draw."
Dalglish, pressed about the mood in the dressing-room, said tersely: "The players are delighted." If that is true, things are worse than we imagine at St James' Park.
Goals: Shearer (3) 0-1; Grazioli (42) 1-1.
Stevenage Borough (4-4-2) Gallagher; Dillnutt, Smith, Trott, Love (March, 43); Soloman, Perkins, Stapleton (Inman, 80), Trebble; Crawshaw, Grazioli (Wordsworth, 80). Subs not used: Fenton, Wilmot (gk).
Newcastle United: (4-4-1-1) Hislop; Watson, Howey, Pearce, Pistone; Gillespie, Lee, Batty, Beresford (Albert, 69); Barnes (Ketsbaia, 69); Shearer. Subs not used: Rush, Tomasson, Given (gk).
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).
Bookings: Stevenage: Crawshaw, Perkins. Newcastle: Beresford, Pistone, Shearer.
Attendance: 8,040 Man of the match: Smith.
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