Haber and Akins ensure victory...
Stevenage won all three points at Victoria Park with a professional victory over bottom-of-the-table Hartlepool United, despite a spirited display from the home side.
Boro went in with a one-goal lead at the break thanks to a reactive finish from Marcus Haber after his initial header had hit the post, however only solid defending and goalkeeping kept the sheet clean.
After the break they played some calm football and were given the chance to double the lead when the referee awarded a penalty for a handball in the box. Lucas Akins converted the spot kick and the two goals proved enough to win the tie.
Pools did have chances to get back into the game but will certainly rue a lack of clinical edge in front of goal.
Smith was forced into both changes that were made to the starting XI from the Tranmere Rovers game; Darius Charles missed out through suspension and Filipe Morais failed to recover from the injury that he picked up against the league leaders, so in came Miguel Comminges and Luke Freeman respectively.
In their game previous, a 1-1 draw with Walsall, the home side had used a 4-5-1 formation, however this changed to a 4-4-2 for this fixture. There were two personnel changes as former Mackem Peter Hartley and 36 year old Paul Murray dropped out, with striker Charlie Wyke and defender Jack Baldwin coming in.
Any worries of the tie not going ahead, with adverse weather conditions hitting parts of England, were quelled throughout the week and credit was due to the Pools ground staff with remnants of ice remaining on the side of the pitch but a good surface on display.
The opening quarter of an hour was United’s to claim, twice they came close but Arnold matched both Jordan Richards long range rocket and Wyke’s flicked header to keep it goalless. The home fans could sense a goal though, and the early calm erupted for a moment.
If a goal could be sensed, it would have shocked the home support when it went against them. Hartlepool failed to clear their lines and pressure high up the field paid off as the ball came out to Dunne on the right; he crossed it in perfectly and Haber rose well only to see his header cannon back off the post. The Canadian striker reacted quickest to the rebound and slid to poke the ball over the line in front of the Boro fans.
Smith’s side were living life on the edge and Hartlepool could have had an equaliser minutes later. A quickly taken corner caught Boro off-guard and gave Evan Horwood the chance to prowl into the side of the box. He drilled it low into the middle where it was knocked out to the edge of the area only to be struck low back into the crowd – again the bounce favoured Stevenage and the ball went out for another corner. It was half cleared and Pools attacked once more, they crossed it into the middle where three shirts were lining up to head it from close range but it was hit well over the bar.
Things evened out before the break with Boro taking more of a control on possession and indeed, the lead stayed intact. It was the first time the first team had played since the passing of Mitchell Cole last weekend, and on 21 minutes those in the away stand sang his name proudly. Always believe in your soul.
As the second half began Boro looked more composed on the ball and were patiently stroking it around looking for an opening. The home side looked dangerous in attack though, they got the ball into the box a lot and were pushing for a leveler.
Again when the next goal came it was against the run of play, and again it was Stevenage who profited. After Lee Hills came on for Freeman, a ball was played to him at the back post. His marker jumped with an arm in the air and the referee had no choice but to point to the spot, Akins strode over to take it and sent the ‘keeper the wrong way to double his side’s advantage.
Just a minute later and Roberts made a block that was as good as a goal – a cross into the Boro area was met by a stinging volley but the captain ensured it wouldn’t hit the back of the net.
The away side showed confidence in defence and when called upon Arnold saved well to see out the victory in a professional manner. One negative to come from the game would be the injury that David Gray picked up, however the extent is unknown this early.
Unused Subs: Day, Ball, Risser, Shroot
Stevenage (4-2-3-1) Arnold; Gray (Rogers 82), Roberts, N’Gala, Gray; Dunne, Grant; Freeman (Hills 58), Tansey, Akins; Haber (Agyemang 71)