Sodje's flaw fells Stevenage

Stevenage Borough 0 Birmingham City 2 Francis 27, Devlin pen 64 at Birmingham Attendance: 15,365
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The Independent Online
Birmingham, famously knocked out of the FA Cup by Altrincham and Kidderminster in recent times, successfully stepped over another potential banana skin at St Andrews, where Stevenage, the GM Vauxhall Conference champions, played football of a quality that speaks well for the top tier of the non-league pyramid.

Stevenage, who would be a Third Division side had their ground met with Football League requirements, were the architects of their own demise, paying a high price for two mistakes which Birmingham punished with a goal in each half.

The Nigerian defender Efetober Sodje had to shoulder much of the blame. A distinctive figure in his red and white bandanna, Sodje was at fault when Paul Devlin set up Birmingham's opener and then tripped Devlin to concede a second-half penalty.

Surprisingly, given last season's achievement and their prominence in this season's Conference title race, this was Stevenage's first appearance in the third round, which Birmingham had not negotiated since 1988. But their rise through the non-league ranks has been rapid, encompassing three championships in seven seasons under Paul Fairclough's management.

They began looking the brighter, more imaginative side, with Barry Hayles, a striker for whom they recently turned down a pounds 200,000 offer from Bristol Rovers, catching the eye with his pace and control. Hayles, who was rejected by Birmingham after a trial 18 months ago, subjected the First Division defenders to close examination three times in the opening 20 minutes, volleying a near-post cross over the bar, posing more trouble with a penetrating run and deflected shot, and then showing clever skills to wriggle through a cluster of defenders before goalkeeper Ian Bennett saved with his legs.

But Birmingham, enjoying the home advantage surrendered by Stevenage on police advice, made the most of an opportunity after 27 minutes. Sodje's attempt to turn Jason Bowen's through ball back to his goalkeeper fell short, allowing Devlin to seize possession, and his pass presented Kevin Francis, starting for the first time this season in place of flu victim Paul Furlong, with a simple goal.

Devlin himself converted the penalty, after which most of the chances fell to Birmingham. "We missed several opportunities in the end," their manager, Trevor Francis, said. "Stevenage played well at times but we are well-organised in defence and in Steve Bruce, Gary Ablett and Barry Horne we had the experience to come through tests such as this. It was fairly comfortable, really."

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