Stevenage punch floors Toon Army
Newcastle Utd 1
No grand FA Cup upset has ever previously ended with one of the heroes being assaulted by a thug draped in his own team's colours but, thankfully, not even a drama as shockingly bizarre as that which befell Scott Laird could ever be allowed to ruin Stevenage's night of nights.
While police investigations continued and club chairman Phil Wallace vowed to track down the assailant in a red and white scarf who knocked Laird unconscious amid the post-match celebrations, neither the defender, nursing a swollen cheek and no recollection of the incident, nor his mates were about to let the incident sully their enjoyment of this extraordinary humbling of Newcastle.
After studying television evidence at length, Wallace reported: "The assailant approached at least three Stevenage players, seeming to wait for an opportunity, and threw a punch to the side of the head designed to inflict maximum damage. This is disgraceful behaviour and we will do everything we can to ensure that the assailant is brought to justice and prosecuted."
"That's not the right way for a game to end but we're not people who spend our lives griping about bangs and knocks," added Stevenage manager Graham Westley, asking us to remember this night for its fabled Cup magic, not one second of idiocy.
Quite right too. For the Lamex Stadium started this fabulous evening with a salute to Giuliano Grazioli, whose goal had famously enabled Stevenage to hold Kenny Dalglish's Newcastle to a draw here 13 years ago, and ended it by feting a new bunch of accidental heroes.
Like captain Mark Roberts, who battled on for 80 minutes "with a busted nose" after an accidental clash early on.
Like Michael Bostwick, a hairy 22-year-old with plenty of unsung yards from Millwall to Crawley to Rushden to Ebbsfleet under his belt, but who here netted Stevenage's second while marauding from box to box like some League Two version of Bryan Robson. He enjoyed relating afterwards how he did not plan to shave off his new beard, grown only out of Christmas laziness, until they get knocked out.
Then there was Peter Winn, whose goal in the dying seconds, immediately following Joey Barton's spectacular consolation strike, completed the rout. Turns out the lad who is on his fifth club at only 22 started as a goalkeeper with Scunthorpe!
And the man whose deflected strike began the fairytale? Stacy Long was all smiles, reflecting on how a frustrated Barton ended up chucking a ball at the back of his head during the furore surrounding Cheik Tiote's sending off for a lunging challenge.
"During the game, words were exchanged but he (Barton) was very nice at the end," said the midfielder. "He came to us after to say we deserved to go through."
Great stuff; stories like this were designed to remind doomsayers that the FA Cup can still refresh the parts other competitions cannot reach.
Still, there was something unnervingly new. Not the familiar blueprint of underdogs sneaking a lead and then pluckily holding on for dear life; no, for the last 70 minutes, a team 73 places below Newcastle looked fitter, better prepared, better organised and far more accomplished than Premier League opposition. It felt freaky.
You would have sworn it was Bostwick and John Mousinho, weaving their way through midfield, or Lawrie Wilson, powering down the right flank, who inhabited the top flight. "I think we played them off the park," said Winn. Not a soul could argue.
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew pleaded weariness and key injuries in mitigation but his cosseted bunch, unlike Stevenage's, had not during the midwinter freeze been forced to make a daily 100-mile round hike just to get to training.
Neither, felt Winn, should the inspiration taken from that acrimonious 1998 'injustice' be under-rated. "They didn't understand what it would mean to us."
Kevin Nolan could sense that hunger. "You had 11 lads from Stevenage who probably wanted it a bit more than us," admitted the Newcastle captain.
Westley played a blinder too. The 42-year-old is a thoughtful, earnest type, as he outlined how the appliance of science and psychology -- including persuading his players they were going to win 5-0 -- lay at the root of the triumph.
"I don't think you win if you don't expect to. I didn't want all this generic waffle -- 'show desire', what does that mean? -- so we got down to specifics, put together a detailed plan and enacted it tremendously."
It sounded almost comical as he recalled: "We talked about David and Goliath and the fact that David had a plan, David knew what his strengths were, he didn't play Goliath's game, he played his own game. And we got the result."
Westley did not crack a smile, though. It is Reading's turn to beware the slingshot next. (© Daily Telegraph, London)