Stevenage extended their unbeaten run to 11 with a 2-1 win against struggling Tranmere, condemning the North-West side to their sixth game without a win and fourth consecutive loss. The win puts Stevenage a point off the fourth play-off spot as they quietly push themselves towards an unprecedented third promotion in as many years.
On paper this game never promised to be a thriller – Stevenage had neither scored nor conceded in their previous three league matches and Tranmere themselves have kept nine clean sheets this season – and this looked to be the case with the game getting off to a quiet start. Despite Stevenage’s impressive form, it was Tranmere who started the better team and should have been a goal up after 14 minutes when Ash Taylor headed well from a corner only to see his goal-bound effort turned in by an offside Lukas Aikins. A few minutes later Aikins had a chance to redeem himself when he was picked at the far post but he sent his header wide of Chris Day’s goal.
Stevenage slowly got back into the game; Chris Beardsely held the ball up well but rarely turned possession in the final third into chances. Luke Freeman and Chuks Aneke, both on loan from Arsenal, showed promise and Freeman’s quick feet almost created an opening for Beardsley to open the scoring but he couldn’t find the space and was duly closed down and dispossessed.
Stevenage then began to dominate and should have been a goal up when, from a corner, Scott Laird’s header was brilliantly saved by Paul Rachubka in the Tranmere goal. the rebound first fell to Byron Harrison, who fired straight at the goalkeeper and then to Beardsley, whose effort only found the crossbar. Both should have scored.
However, Stevenage saw their efforts rewarded in the 38th minute when Beardsley found space getting on the end of Lawrie Wilson’s bouncing throw and lifting his finish into the corner despite the fingertips of Rachubka. Beardsley’s joy was soon curbed though when he pulled a hamstring in the celebrations and his afternoon was over with Robin Shroots coming on to replace him.
The second half saw Stevenage continue to control the game but again rarely threatened the Tranmere goal. Freeman had a good chance to put the home side 2-0 up after he was found at the far post by the substitute Shroot. He could only find the side netting.
With Stevenage failing to kill the game off and make the most of their possession, they set themselves up for a nervy final 20 minutes when Ben May was shown a straight red card for a challenge on the Tranmere goalkeeper. May laid the ball off for Aneke whose shot was spilled by Rachubka and the substitute slid in for the rebound, much to the anger of the goalkeeper. The two players locked heads and exchanged words but the referee took the side of Rachubka and May was duly shown the red card having only been on the pitch 12 minutes.
This meant a nervous final 20 minutes for Stevenage and soon after Aikins again came close for Tranmere, hammering over the bar from ten yards out after the ball fell to him from a corner.
However, Stevenage settled back into the game and six minutes from time Mark Roberts sealed the three points when he headed home from close range. The defender latched on to Shroots free kick to score his sixth goal of the season and seal the points for Stevenage.
It could have been three soon after when Aneke did well down the right hand side and played a lovely ball to Luke Freeman at the far post only to see his volley well blocked Danny Holmes.
Deep into injury time, Scott Laird was judged to have pulled down Mark McChrystal in the box and Joss Labadie converted from the spot to make it 2-1. Stevenage held out to ensure their first win in four league games and extending their unbeaten run to 11.
The lack of a clean sheet will leave a bitter taste in Graham Westley’s mouth – It was the first time Stevenage had conceded in six matches and over 500 minutes. However, the win sees Stevenage one point from the playoff positions going into the Christmas period, a truly remarkable achievement for a team that were still playing non league football in 2010.
Much of the credit for this must go to Westley. What is most incredible about his team’s achievements is that that they have done so with little spending or financial backing.
Whereas other teams (like Crawley) are rising the ranks with considerable financial backing, Westely has has not ‘spent big’ on players – eight of the players on Saturday’s game were playing in the team that won the Blue Square Premier title in 2010. Westely has often commented that he believes “attitude is more important than ability” and this is something they have shown regularly this season, beating the likes of Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United. He knows his players’ strengths and weaknesses and has put together a well organised, intelligent and relentlessly hard working team. The attendance on Saturday was just over 3000 in a league where the teams they are beating are pulling in gates of 15-20,000. Stevenage are punching above their weight but their punches are landing.
And Westley is doing this quietly and with little media attention. Despite his team’s rise from the non league, he has yet to win a manager of the month award since taking his side into the football league; something that benefits both the team and fans. Keeping hold of Westley is the key to their success. An unprecedented third successive promotion is unlikely but this is a team that was hotly tipped for relegation at the start of the season. The mere fact that it is a possibility is testament to the hard work of Westley and the attitude of his team.