Stevenage crashed out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle against League Two Rotherham United with attentions now fully focused on League One.
Boro were second best throughout the first half and were one goal down at the break after Mark Bradley’s opener and after a nightmare two minutes in the second half, in which on-loan midfielder Lee Frecklington struck twice from outside the box, they were three goals behind.
James Dunne pulled one back with a peach of a goal from outside the area and hope was instilled when Filipe Morais made it 3-2 but there was to be no fairy tale comeback for Gary Smith’s side.
Boro saw loss and gain from suspension going into the tie; Greg Tansey missed out after picking up his fifth booking of the season last weekend whilst Dunne returned after missing that fixture. Lucas Akins was drafted into the first XI with Oliver Risser dropping down to the bench.
The home side began on the front foot and the long throw in the Kari Arnason locker was on show early on; he launched it into the box where it was headed down by captain Ian Sharps but the following shot deflected out for a corner. It wasn’t to be their only one in the opening ten minutes and Boro were living life on the edge; Sharps himself went close with a downwards header whilst Kayode Odejayi almost latched onto a ball across goal which would have certainly yielded an opener.
Marcus Haber had his side’s best chance in the opening 20 minutes and was only denied by a decent point-blank save from Andy Warrington – the Canadian began the move with a header that found Morais before continuing his run into the box, Morais squared the ball across the six yard line and the striker picked it up and fired towards goal only to be thwarted by the ‘keeper.
On the half hour mark United took the lead and it was well-deserved after dominating large periods of the game to that point. Another long throw was cleared but Boro failed to deal with the second phase, easily enough United got the ball back into the area and defender Bradley pulled it down and volleyed it home. It could have been worse within just a minute, as Grant blocked two goal bound efforts.
With the first half running out Odejayi flicked on another header with Roberts challenging – the striker swung an arm out and caught Boro’s captain below the eye and he fell to the ground under screams of ‘Cheat’ from the home support. With blood running down his face he made the walk down the tunnel and the rest of the half was played with ten men.
He re-emerged after the break whilst Patrick Agyemang also came out, replacing Freeman who had been quiet in the first half. It meant a conventional 442 formation for Boro. Instantly the signs were more promising, and twice Haber created chances. First he played a ball back into the box which evaded all the navy shirts and next he played it across the face of goal, only for it to be turned out for a corner with Akins lurking. The ball was lofted in and the tall striker flicked it down to Bondz N’Gala at the back post but his snapshot was well matched.
It looked only a matter of time before an equaliser would come, the build-up was better and there was just something small lacking in the final execution. That was until the 52nd minute, when Frecklinton struck. A cross into the area was poorly dealt with and fell to the midfielder on the edge of the box, he took a touch and expertly drove it into the bottom corner.
Despair turned to disaster two minutes later when the midfielder got his second of the afternoon and gave his side a three goal cushion. Frecklington again tried his luck from range and a deflection wrong-footed Arnold as the ball nestled into the back of the net.
In an explosive five minutes of football Dunne gave his side a lifeline, and what a way to do it. If the scores were level it’d be a goal to remember as the former Exeter City man curled in an absolute peach from range – there were no celebrations as the away side quickly regrouped hoping for an inspiring comeback.
In truth the momentum did carry Stevenage for a period of time, and Grant was a central figure in trying to claw a way back into the tie. But soon that light appeared to fizzle out. Rotherham won a few corners and kept the ball well – importantly they won throws too, a key element of their game. Just as hope seemed to be slipping away, up stepped Morais.
After strong play on the right wing, Gray found Haber in the box – he held the ball up well with his back to goal, he turned and shot and it was deflected to Morais at back post who struck it beyond the arms of Warrington and into the back of the net. Again, minimal celebrations and again, regrouping followed.
Late on Smith threw the kitchen sink at the Millers – Robbie Rogers came on for Akins whilst striker Dani Lopez replaced right back Gray. Five minutes were added on but it wasn’t enough and it was clear that Stevenage had given themselves too much of a task in going three behind.
Stevenage (4-2-3-1) Arnold; Gray (Lopez 85), N’Gala, Roberts, Charles; Grant, Dunne; Akins (Rogers 88), Morais, Freeman (Agyemang 46); Haber
Unused Subs: Day, Hills, Iro, Risser
Rotherham United (4-4-2) Warrington; Bradley, Sharp, Morgan, Morris; Devitt (O’Connor 77), Arnason, Frecklington, Pringle (Agard 82); Revell (Taylor 90), Odejayi
Unused Subs: Thompson, Wilson, Evans, Hunt
Att: 4324 (199 away)