Ten-man Stevenage showed heart, passion and determination in abundance but just fell short of what would have been a remarkable comeback at Brunton Park.
It was a nightmare start for Boro, two goals down and a red card before anyone had really drawn breathe.
Carlisle’s Rory Loy headed home from inside the area and minutes later went down under Arnold’s challenge to win a penalty and see the ‘keeper given his marching orders.
Captain Lee Miller sent Chris Day the wrong way to give Boro an uphill struggle but Marcus Haber restored the competitiveness with a decent header from David Gray’s cross.
In truth, Stevenage were running on empty but to their credit they pushed forward when possible and had the affair been evenly contested throughout, a different result would surely have been the outcome.
Gary Smith rewarded Luke Freeman for a strong performance from the bench against Notts County, four days prior to the trip to Brunton Park, with a start on the left wing. Anthony Grant returned to the middle of midfield in place of Greg Tansey whilst Marcus Haber, whose goal confirmed the victory against the Magpies, came into the attack for fellow goal scorer on the night Sam Hoskins.
Hopes of running the momentum from that victory into the tie took an early blow as Loy rose well in the box and directed his header into the far top corner before wheeling away in celebration. In the meantime, Mark Roberts took up his argument with the linesman, clearly spotting something in the build up that he was unhappy with, but his complaints got him nowhere.
If that finish was a blow, then there was a knockout punch just five minutes later – Boro were down to ten men and two behind. Goal scorer Loy latched onto a through ball into the Stevenage area with a quick Arnold rushing off his line, he slid in and the ball bounced out for what looked like a corner, with the linesman’s flag agreeing, but the referee felt differently and pointed to the spot before raising a red card above the young ‘keeper’s head. Miller sent substitute Chris Day the wrong way to double the lead and leave Smith’s side in all sorts of trouble.
With hope all but lost, the Stevenage players had other ideas. Chorley picked the ball up on the edge of his area and strode forward under no pressure whatsoever, he picked Gray out on the right hand side with a nice ball and he crossed early into the box. Much like he did on Tuesday night, Haber rose well ad held off his marker but this time sent his header across goal into the far bottom corner, the outcome was the same though, and Boro had pulled one back.
As the rest of the first half played out Boro managed to get on top of things and calm the game down, leading to being behind by just the one goal at the break. It was a tough task for Haber up top on his own, but he managed to carve out one or two chances. At the other end McGovern went close with a long-range effort that Day expertly tipped onto the crossbar but Smith would be hoping to inspire his side at the break.
Inspiration can come in many forms, and it was almost expressed exquisitely through Freeman after the interval. He got a foot to a ball into the box and it looped into the air, with everyone expecting him to try and bring it down in a tight area he pulled off a brilliant overhead kick which sent Mark Gillespie scrambling, but the ‘keeper made a save to his right.
Smith’s side were pushing forward with menace but any attack that had the numbers needed to pull level would always leave them exposed at the back. With 65 minutes gone it took some brilliant defending from Roberts to block the ball twice with shots heading towards the goal, Akins came on for Haber soon after.
David Symington came on for the home side, Welsh getting a standing ovation as he left the field, and with his first effort rattled the cross bar with a free kick. Smith threw Hoskins into the arena, Morais making way, with 15 minutes of the game to go.
With time running out Stevenage tired, United pushed on. A corner was eventually taken after some blatant time wasting and the ball in was headed, volleyed and struck towards goal only to be blocked on the line every time by a defence who were certainly not rolling over. A final effort from the edge of the box struck the post before being hit clear by Grant, the deficit remained just one goal.
Despite showing great heart Boro failed to get an equaliser and the final whistle confirmed defeat soon after.
Stevenage (4-4-2) Arnold; Gray, Roberts, Chorley, Comminges; Morais (Hoskins 77), Dunne, Grant, Freeman; Beleck (Day 12), Haber (Akins 68)
Unused Subs: Charles, Tansey, N’Gala, Shroot