In the last 10 years the London new town of Stevenage has produced such sporting luminaries as Lewis Hamilton, Ian Poulter and Ashley Young and is the birthplace of Jack Wilshere, although his hometown is up the A1 in Hitchin. But there is no name more redolent to the town's sporting folklore than that of Guiliano Grazioli.
It is 13 years ago this month that Grazioli scored Stevenage Borough's equaliser against Newcastle United in the fourth round of the FA Cup, propelling the then-Conference team to nationwide fame. This was a Newcastle side of Alan Shearer, Stuart Pearce and John Barnes who had already beaten Barcelona in the Champions League that season and whose manager Kenny Dalglish was not best pleased about having to play at Broadhall Way.
Tomorrow, Stevenage – now a Football League club – once again welcome Newcastle to their re-branded Lamex stadium in the FA Cup third round. Grazioli, 35 and two years retired, will be there as a guest of the club to see if the next generation of Stevenage players (they have dropped the "Borough") can repeat history.
An Islington-kid born of Italian parents, Grazioli was a prolific goalscorer in the lower reaches of the Football League and the Conference. He played only 14 games for Stevenage, where he was on loan from Peterborough, and ironically it is at local rivals Barnet, where he scored 65 goals in 147 appearances, that he has the status of local legend.
Grazioli admits as much when we meet at Barnet's Underhill stadium, where he now works as the club's sports development officer. "You speak to Stevenage fans now and they say 'All he did was score that goal' and in a way they are right. I was only there for four months. I didn't do anything else. It was a shame we didn't have a better season domestically to back it up."
For a man who jokes he had no pace and did not much care to run around, Grazioli scored goals everywhere he went –Peterborough, Yeovil, Woking, Enfield, Stevenage, Swindon, Bristol Rovers and Barnet. His record of 11 in 14 games for Stevenage was not too shabby, although on loan at Yeovil in 1995 he managed 17 in 13 games.
Inevitably, however, it is that goal, a header scored – as Grazioli will tell you – 41 minutes and 23 seconds into the game against Newcastle on 25 January 1998, live on Sky Sports, for which he is remembered best. The current manager of Barnet, who lost 4-2 to Stevenage on Monday and are bottom of League Two, is Paul Fairclough, who was Stevenage manager in 1998.
Tensions ran high before the 1998 game which Newcastle wanted switched to St James' Park because of what they claimed were safety concerns for their fans over Stevenage's ground. "As players we all wanted to play at St James' Park, simple as that," Grazioli says. "You get one opportunity to play there and then we had our chairman [Victor Green] saying he wanted to play at home. We thought 'Is he mad?' But in hindsight it was the best thing he ever did.
"From day one when it was announced that it was safe to play the game at Stevenage there was so much hype from the Newcastle end. We thought 'What was going on? They didn't want to play here?'
"Paul got us a lot fitter and he got a psychologist involved too. I can remember the meeting. The psychologist asked us 'What are your concerns about the game? Someone said 'I don't want to get humiliated. It could be 10-0'. The psychologist said: 'You are meant to lose 10-0 so what you worried about?'
"He told us 'You are playing in front of Sky Sports cameras. Millions of people would love to be in your position. Enjoy it'. We went into the game feeling a million dollars. He just took away all the pressure.
"Then Shearer scored after three minutes. My first thought was 'This could be 10' but by the time we got back to the centre-spot it was 'You know what, let's enjoy it'. Their goal was almost a relief because it took away the pressure. If we had gone in two or three up after that first half no one could have argued because we played so well. Second half was backs against the wall and Shearer had a few chances but Mark Smith was great." Smith had the game of his life and the centre-half is still playing, aged 43, for Hitchin Town in the old Southern League first division.
Grazioli scored direct from Gary Crawshaw's corner for the equaliser. "It was the one goal where I jumped above someone but it was a fellow Italian [Alessandro Pistone] so I don't know if it really counts"
Stevenage had a deal with The Sun that they would wear T-shirts with the newspaper's logo under their shirts and take off their jersey if they scored.
Grazioli refused on grounds of superstition – "they had the hump with me." Puma gave him a deal to wear their boots and his agent told him he should only do interviews for money. "That was the last thing on my mind," he said. "I came out the changing rooms and it was like 'Who wants to speak to me?'"
After a night celebrating, Stevenage's players went straight on Channel Four's The Big Breakfast the following Monday morning and an incredible 24 hours ended with Grazioli, still in his Stevenage tracksuit from the day before, taking the bus back to the house he shared with his grandfather in north London
"As I turned the corner in my street I could see there was mayhem outside my house," he says. "Every newspaper, every television channel. People were tooting their horns and cameras were going off. It was manic. My granddad was saying, 'I don't know who these people are. It's gone crazy' I revelled in it. It was my 15 minutes of fame."
Grazioli was injured for the replay at St James' Park which Stevenage lost 2-1. A glaucoma scare forced him to quit playing two years ago although he has since had an operation and is considering a comeback with Harrow Borough. Tomorrow's game will doubtless bring back a few memories, although it will have to go some way to match the drama of 13 years ago.
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