Sluggish Spurs hit big bump on Wembley road
Stevenage 0 Tottenham 0
THE lone drummer in the East Terrace greeted full-time by pounding out a triumphant motif, just as he had been doing throughout the game. It was the only discernible rhythm of the afternoon.
Over 90 ugly, disjointed minutes of football, Stevenage of League One stood toe-to-toe, shoulder to shoulder, with Tottenham, deservedly emerging with a lucrative replay against the Premier League giants.
And so The Boro became the lowest-ranked team in the quarter-final draw, with a game at home to Bolton lying in wait for the winners of the replay.
Stevenage may struggle to find anybody who will back them to conquer White Hart Lane on March 7, but most importantly, they will back themselves, just as they have always done.
Tottenham's third consecutive lower-league opponents in this competition proved the most dogged of the lot, scrapping from first whistle to last.
"We did lots of homework this week," said veteran goalkeeper Chris Day, a man who spent five fruitless years at Tottenham between 1991 and 1996. "It's a tight pitch here, and it was windy. They had great possession, but we banked up, and anything they slung in, the two centre-halves gobbled up."
As well as being tight, the pitch was boggy and uneven, the opposite of White Hart Lane's pristine lawn. The ball juddered like a carriage on cobbles.
It did not take long for Tottenham to be suckered into playing Stevenage's route-one game. Hoof after hoof was propelled towards the 5' 7" Jermain Defoe. It was a brainless strategy, and judging by the loud and regular entreaties of Harry Redknapp to pass the ball around, one largely devised on the hoof.
"I expected it to be tough," said Redknapp. "The pitch was bumpy and the ball was bobbling everywhere, it's a difficult ground to play football. We started lumping it. It wasn't part of the plan, but the lads weren't comfortable passing the ball on this surface, and we ended up going long, which wasn't what we wanted to do. But they pressed, and made it hard for us."
Gareth Bale, deployed centrally in a 3-5-2 formation, saw hardly any of the ball, and the midfield backtracked as much as it advanced. The front two looked sluggish, outnumbered and outmuscled, and a better side than Stevenage might have put Tottenham out of the game before half-time.
Nevertheless, Tottenham could well have gone into the break ahead, denied by referee Phil Dowd and a goal-line clearance from the outstanding Michael Bostwick. Dowd waved away their penalty appeals, inexplicably ruling that Mark Roberts' desperate grab on Louis Saha was legal, while Bostwick nudged away Michael Dawson's header.
Stevenage were restricted largely to shots from distance, Joel Byrom coming agonisingly close twice in the second half. But they defended impeccably, cramping the space in the centre, dragging Tottenham into a scrap.
Redknapp was forced into changes. Niko Kranjcar replaced Kyle Walker as Tottenham reverted to a 4-4-2. Aaron Lennon made his entrance late on and immediately brought an urgency and sharpness that had been missing for most of the game. There were chances too; Saha had a goal disallowed when his shot hit the offside Scott Parker on the line.
But for all their possession and pressure, they rarely looked like carving out a clear-cut opportunity. The final whistle was greeted by a magnificent roar, this small ground swelling in acclaim of their heroes.
A big payday and a shot at even greater glory awaits.
Day, a lifelong Tottenham fan, was already looking forward to the replay.
"We'll be a long shot," he said, "but this will be the first time I'll go there this season and not pay to get in." (© Daily Telegraph, London)