The FA Cup has been good to us over the last couple of years - stunning wins at Wigan Athletic and Sunderland will live long in the memory, as will last year's epic encounter with Manchester City at Meadow Lane. This year's exit, at the same fourth round stage, will probably not linger in my consciousness much past Tuesday night. Martin Allen had described the tie with Stevenage as a "million pound game", but you'd never have guessed it if you were judging simply by the Magpies' limp and insipid display against the in-form Boro, who progress courtesy of a first half own goal by Damion Stewart.
I usually begin these reports with a gentle critique of the town we're visiting, but in the case of Stevenage it really isn't worth it. The place is so bad that it really is beyond contempt - it's like they decided to try and build a little Milton Keynes but got bored half way through. Whilst the town is worthy of little praise though, the same cannot be said of the club, whose meteoric rise and stunning performance this season is even more respectable now that the odious Graham Westley has upped sticks for Preston North End (as a side note, it's worth seeking out the recent leaked text he sent to his new players, it's genuinely almost as if he was trying to parody himself). With a side made up of a settled squad who have risen through the divisions with the club, new manager Gary Smith would appear to have the reasonably easy task of just keeping things much the same at Broadhall Way. On the flipside, Martin Allen has plenty of thinking to do - with his first decision being to hand a start to new loan striker Jonathon Forte upfront alongside Lee Hughes. The other Notts change saw cup tied full back Kieron Freeman drop out for the returning Julian Kelly.
For some inexplicable reason, I had quite high hopes for this game, despite our terrible recent form, but that was out of the window almost from the moment of kick off as Stevenage got on top of the game from the off. The first chance fell to Darius Charles, who drilled a low Luke Freeman cross over the bar inside five minutes, but it didn't take long for the hosts to get the lead. Thanks, it has to be said, mainly to Stuart Nelson and some utterly calamitous Notts defending. A hopeful punt over the top caught Liam Chilvers and Alan Sheehan standing utterly lifeless, allowing Freeman to nick in behind and send Nelson on some sort of bizarre, unexplainable wander to the edge of his area, where he just fell over. This allowed Freeman to turn and strike across goal, where Damion Stewart sliced the ball into his own net whilst being pressured by little more than a light breeze. It really wasn't a moment that covered anyone in black and white (or blue, in this case) in glory.
Nelson picked up a bloodied nose in his feeble attempts to stop Freeman (that sounds like a bit of a paradox, but it isn't), but wasn't able to dwell on it as the hosts came forward again with midfielder Michael Bostick forcing Nelson to tip the ball over the bar with a well struck long range effort. You may notice the lack of Notts related action so far - it isn't a deliberate omission, we really were that bad in the first half. A high tempo Stevenage side, at times more suited to cage fighting, were frankly bullying Notts out of every second ball. We barely got a kick and the only saving grace was that the hosts, for all their endeavour, appeared to lack invention and creavitiy when they had the ball. That is apart from Freeman, who looked to be comfortably the best player on the pitch, a point he proved when picking up the ball on the left, skipping past two meek challenges and curling a low shot just wide.
At the break, Forte was withdrawn for Demontagnac having had fewer touches on his latest Notts debut than he managed goals on his first one. We hoped this would spark Notts into some sort of life, and it did sort of work a little bit. Alan Judge replaced Freeman as the game's only shining light in a sea of mediocrity, with his wicked cross forcing the backpeddling Chris Day to tip over his own bar from one side, and another one finding the head of Jeff Hughes, who headed harmlessly wide. Judge then forced a fine save out of Day when he was set free by Lee Hughes, who had done fantastically to control one of the game's countless long balls over the top. Sam Sodje's introduction caused the obligatory chaos in the opposition defence for a bit but, in truth, Notts never really seemed like they were going to equalise despite ramping up the pressure. Day tipped over from a hooked Hughes shot, whilst Stevenage missed a couple of glorious opportunities after breaking forward from Notts set pieces. The final action saw Judge's shot from the edge of the area somehow smothered by Day at the feet of Stewart, sounding the death knell on Notts' FA Cup campaign for the season.
I appreciate that this is a match report that is fairly light on action, but today really was an absolute aberration of a football match. Stevenage, I assume, must be a lot better than they were today. We, at one point, were much better than we were today, but I am no longer convinced that we are any more. It was a game littered with misplaced passes, shirt pulling, borderline wrestling and long, aimless balls over the top - it really did show just how non-aesthetically pleasing football can be. With the exception of Luke Freeman and Alan Judge, I would actually be tempted to charge the other twenty players with bringing the wonderful game of football into disrepute.
That said, you have to give credit to Stevenage and we could learn a lot from them. We have now won just once in fifteen games, whilst they have lost just once during the same period. The difference is not a vast gulf in ability or quality, but the ability to make the most of the days on which you play well and also maximise your chances when you play badly. When we've played well recently, against the likes of Leyton Orient and Milton Keynes, we weren't able to make it count. When Stevenage play well, they thrash the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Milton Keynes. But, just as crucially, when they don't play well they still have the work rate and the endeavour to get themselves something out of the game. Literally the only difference between two truly horrendous sides today was that Stevenage tried a lot harder in the first half - and that is why they are in the draw for the fifth round and we aren't. That is utterly unforgivable.