Stevenage 0-0 Reading: FA Cup third round stalemate brings hope as battling Boro bid North Stand a fond farewell
PUBLISHED: 17:37 06 January 2018 | UPDATED: 18:49 06 January 2018
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It was a raw January afternoon after the bonhomie of the festive season left nothing but a warm memory to sustain us through midwinter.
The gunmetal grey sky and chill in the air suggested an afternoon in front of a warm fire would be the preferred option for many in North Herts.
But outside the North Stand, soon to be former North Stand, old friends greeted each other with genuine warmth, excited by the game of FA Cup football they were about to witness.
It was an unlovely setting, next to the busy A602 as cars raced by, eager to secure a bargain in the sales at the nearby Roaring Meg retail park.
Broadhall Way has always been an earthy place, even in the new town of Stevenage.
The brutalist architecture of its centre may be weatherbeaten and in need of some tender loving care.
Yet for true believers of the Boro, the Lamex Stadium, on FA Cup third round day was the best place to be.
Stevenage against Reading was the only place to be.
Despite exaggerated reports of its demise the grand old trophy still has the power to attract. Even for a League Two side against a Championship side, the fixture hidden from sight from many previews due to its lack of glamour.
Stevenage v Reading may not have the power to draw fairweather fans, those reared on the Hollywood pulling power of the Premier League.
However for those who love their football, who truly love their football, this match at the homely Lamex was all you required on a cold Saturday afternoon.
Opposite, the crowded Fairlands Valley car park indicated many were of the same opinion.
For seasoned Stevenage watchers always cast a knowing eye on how many vehicles populate the open space. On Saturday it was made more muddy than normal by the sheer number of vehicles, including three coaches from Berkshire as part of the number in the sold out away end.
For whatever people say about this competition, football fans still care about it. Passionately.
Both sets of fans created a noise in the early stages as Darren Sarll’s men staffed by a talented attacking triumvirate of Matty Godden, Danny Newton and Ben Kennedy pinned the visitors back.
The first two plucked from non-league football displayed an eagerness and heartwarming work ethic that suggested they still expected to be asked for a fiver after the game as their payment for the joy of playing.
The latter of the trio, Northern Irishman Kennedy, a powerful 20-year-old, honed on the streets of Lisburn, and only marginally tamed by academy football was one to watch as Sarll’s men contained the Royals in and around their box for the majority of the opening 30 minutes.
Boro drew a number of saves from twice-capped Finish international goalkeeper and former Kilmarnock net-minder, Anssi Jaakkola, including a fine save by his feet which invoked the spirit of Pat Jennings, a legendary proponent of the art.
The visitors from Berkshire, bossed by the former Manchester United leviathan, Jaap Stam, had been on a bad run of form, most recently during a miserable 2-0 home defeat by Birmingham City which left them anchored in 18th position in the second tier.
With many Biscuitmen having such high hopes after their narrow failure to elevate themselves into the promised land of the Premier League, losing on penalties to Huddersfield Town at Wembley in May, no wonder the travelling away support massed in the Austin Stand, sang unhappy ditties about their Dutch manager.
Their repertoire including a particularly inventive line about ‘passing it back, the Reading way’ - a nod to their misfiring pressing strategy.
For tiki taka, which Stam is attempting to replicate, is only aimless passing if you cannot feed the front men, in Reading’s case former Swansea man Modou Barrow, who once impressed in a narrow 3-2 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates.
His efforts were supplemented by the Jamaican international and former Nottingham Forest striker Garath McCleary who also played with Jobi McAnuff in the Gold Cup. McAnuff of course, a highly respected midfielder who served both Boro and Reading with distinction. Even if neither man was able to influence proceedings in front of a home keeper signed on loan from Millwall a mere 48 hours earlier.
As referee Ben Toner blew for the interval after an opening 45 minutes high on endeavour if not quality it was appropriate there was a short cloudburst as the teams walked off. For this if this match wasn’t one for the purist, it was certainly one for the committed.
As the second half commenced the mind drifted back to some of the great FA Cup games the old North Stand witnessed. Evidence of the glorious 1998 match against Kenny Dalglish’s mighty Newcastle United was present in the press box with the not inconsolable frame of Neil Trebble. Trebbs as he is known to all is a much-loved character not least for the fact he served his country as proudly as he served Stevenage FC.
Another, more recent match against the Geordies saw Boro triumph 3-1 six years ago in front of a packed North Stand in one of the best atmospheres this ground has generated.
Other memories included this observer standing as a punter in the shallow terrace in a fourth round 4-0 loss against Everton sadly remembered for the crack of Bryan Ovideo’s shinbone that reverberated around the stadium.
Of course the North Stand will soon make way for a bright shiny new all-seater stand which will energise the club’s financial opportunities in the name of progress. Which is how it should be, even if the memories and the sights and sounds, good and bad, will remain for a long time.
As Saturday’s match drew to a close in front of a season’s best crowd of 3,877 - after both sides deserved credit for their hard work and perspiration rather than inspiration - not many could say they would fondly recall this game in a decade or two to come.
But a battling goalless draw and the prospect of a replay at a Championship stadium gave hope to Boro fans that they can still produce a cup shock.
For hope is the essential condition of a football fan - and the real essence of the FA Cup third round.
Even on the dullest of winter’s days in North Herts.