Stevenage were dumped out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in heart-breaking fashion at Swindon this evening, losing 3-1 on penalties after Boro had fought back from one down to take the game to spot-kicks.
A first half Nicky Ajose goal gave Swindon the lead right up until the 80th minute when Francois Zoko deservedly drew Boro level with a neat header. But having forced penalties Boro lost their cool, seeing two efforts saved and another fly over the bar as Swindon booked their place in the area final.
Graham Westley made two changes to his starting line-up for this one, handing Ben Chorley and Dean Parrett their first competitive starts under him. Luke Jones and Lucas Akins dropped to a bench reduced to five under JPT rules.
The first goal was always going to be vital in this game and Stevenage had a golden chance to take an early lead inside three minutes. Luke Freeman evaded three tacklers down the left, advanced into the box and cut the ball back perfectly to Doughty who skied over the bar with his weaker right foot.
Within two minutes the hosts thought they should have had the lead, or at least a penalty. Defender Darren Ward clattered the Boro bar with a header which bounced down right on the line. Ajose ran in to head home but Chorley was there to block, with some home faithful crying for a penalty. The ref signalled a goal-kick which was then delayed whilst the back of the net was mended after collapsing in the chaos of the non-penalty.
The hosts were looking to assert their neat passing game and Boro had to be patient, keeping possession when possible and relying on counter-attacks.
Swindon forced a number of corners as the half progressed and kept Stevenage on their toes with some creative set-pieces. Mason tested Day from distance from one short set play and McEveley curled a fierce effort just past the near post after recycling another as the visitors stood firm, right up until the 23rd minute when the deadlock was broken.
When Ryan Harley picked up possession and tried a low effort from a good 30 yards there looked to be little danger. But the ball clipped the in-running Ajose and ran into the opposite corner to the direction Day was heading. It was Ajose’s 4th of the competition and his 9th in total for the Robins.
A goal down, Boro ventured forward with Morais attempting an ambitious effort from distance which failed to hit the target.
The Portugese forward was causing problems again moments later, meeting a Zoko cross from the right and seeing his header deflect behind, only for the ref to signal a goal-kick.
Further efforts from Morais and Doughty followed but the first was high and wide and the second was comfortable for Cameron Belford, as the hosts went into the break with a single goal lead.
Home ‘keeper Belford came to Swindon’s rescue at the start of the second half as Boro came close to drawing level on 48 minutes. Parrett gathered possession on the right flank and took a second before bursting past Pritchard and putting in a great cross which Morais headed against Belford, rather than the Robins’ number 25 saving it.
Pritchard – twice, one a dipping 25 yard effort which crashed against the bar – and Ajose both went close with efforts as Swindon looked to double their advantage before Boro threw on Bruno Andrade and Lucas Akins and Peter Hartley and Parrett respectively.
The subs reinvigorated the visitors and all of a sudden Boro were the team on top. Good approach play down the flanks from Morais and Freeman saw Heslop gain possession 20 yards out - neat footwork from him found Akins in space but his shot was palmed away by Belford.
Moments later Zoko was seemingly taken out off the ball in the box by Kasim – the home faithful gasped in anticipation of a spot-kick being awarded but the ref waved play on, much to the Ivorian’s disgust.
However Boro finally got the goal their play deserved with ten minutes remaining and from guess who.
When Andrade whipped in a beautiful cross between the ‘keeper and his defence, it evaded everyone before being put out for a corner. Boro crowded the six yard box as the set piece was prepared but then darted out and back in again, with Zoko losing his marker and heading the near post delivery into the back of the net.
Both teams pushed forward in the closing minutes with Zoko, Akins and Andrade all combining to trouble the home defence, without any clear cut chances being created.
Ajose thought he’d won it in the final seconds of four minutes of injury time, but his neat shot across goal clipped the far post and went behind.
Penalties it was.
Swindon won the toss and chose The Town End, occupied by the home support.
Zoko and Pritchard both scored but Freeman’s effort was weak and Belford saved easily. Advantage Swindon. Elgabas rammed home his spot-kick to make it 2-1 and when Ben Chorley skied his penalty over the bar the home faithful had one foot in the area final. Kasim slotted the ball just out of Day’s reach for 3-1 and when Belford stopped Morais’ effort it was all over.
Despite an improved second half showing Stevenage will be mightily disappointed by this and will now have to pick themselves up and prepare for a tricky away trip to Port Vale on Saturday. Swindon, meanwhile, advance into a two-legged area final against Peterborough United.
Swindon: Belford, Barthram, Hall, Ward, McEveley, Mason (Kasim 67), Harley, Pritchard, Luongo (Gladwin 67), N’Guessan (Elgabas 84), Ajose
Subs not used: Foderingham, Thompson
Stevenage: Day, Smith, Chorley, Ashton, Hartley (Andrade 72), Freeman, Doughty (Wedgbury 90), Heslop, Parrett (Akins 59), Morais, Zoko
Subs not used: Arnold, Jones
Attendance: 3,804 (79 away)