Stevenage moved off the bottom of the Sky Bet League 1 table with a superb 3-2 win at Bradford City this afternoon.
Twice Boro fell behind in this one but twice they equalised through Francois Zoko and Luke Freeman, with Freeman grabbing his second spectacular effort minutes from the end to win it.
Graham Westley made one change to his starting XI from the narrow 1-0 win over Crewe on Tuesday night with Lucas Akins coming in for Dean Parrett, who dropped to the bench. Akins and Freeman took up wide roles as Boro switched from the midweek 4-3-1-2 to a regular 4-4-2.
After a win on Tuesday night Boro started confidently with Zoko firing straight at McLaughlin early on as the visitors pushed forward.
Moments later Doughty played a neat ball down the channel which Zoko beat McLaughlin to before being taken out by the goalkeeper outside of the box. McLaughlin was cautioned but then redeemed himself by saving Akins’ close-range header, from Freeman’s inswinging free-kick, with his feet.
It was evident from the early stages that City would look for the direct ball up to target man James Hanson, with this tactic winning a number of throws down the left. And 10 minutes in it was from this route that the hosts took an early lead, when a ball dropped nicely for Adam Reach to unleash a thunderbolt of a volley past Day from just inside the area.
Boro recovered from that early blow and set about looking for an equaliser. On 16 minutes a Freeman free-kick was cleared only as far as Doughty, who evaded a challenge before curling an effort into McLaughlin’s arms.
At the other end Reach went close to his second when Hanson beat Obeng in the air and the winger’s driven cross nearly caught Day out at his near post, but a smart stop from Boro’s ‘keeper prevented the Latics from extending their lead.
However midway through the first half Boro grabbed themselves a deserved equaliser and from a familiar source. Freeman burst forward and was able to advance into the box after Andrew Davies slipped. His initial shot was blocked but he was able to gather the rebound and pass to Zoko, who nonchalantly took his time to slot the ball neatly inside the near post.
1-1 nearly because 2-1 to Boro within minutes when Doughty found Akins out wide, who in turn fed Charles in the box but the big number 9 failed to make contact with the ball and the chance was gone.
The two teams traded volleys around the half hour mark with Hanson firing over from close range and a Smith effort from distance saved down low by McLaughlin.
Lucas Akins was causing Stephen Darby all sorts of problems on the left flank throughout the half and one move saw him cut inside the defender right on the byline and fire in a dangerous ball across the box which Bradford somehow cleared.
Boro also sensed opportunities down the opposite flank and twice strode past Carl McHugh as if he wasn’t there in the ten minutes before half time.
First it was Freeman who rounded the defender and made it all the way to the six yard box before winning a corner. Moments later Smith was at it again, powering past the left-back before firing in a cross which missed both Freeman and Charles but not Zoko. The Ivorian’s shot was blocked though and in the ensuing bundle the referee indicated a goal kick.
For all their pressure and chances it was then a body blow when the hosts, on a rare attack forward, regained the advantage. Reach’s shot forced a fine save down low by Day and Hanson reacted quickest to slide in a sweep home Bradford’s second, to give the Bantams a 2-1 lead at the break.
Graham Westley made a sub at half-time with Roarie Deacon replacing the booked Hartley and going to the left flank. Darius dropped to left-back with Akins moving up front with Zoko.
Aaron McLean was the first to have a chance on goal within minutes of the restart but his acrobatic effort from close range was comfortable for Day. It was a rare foray forward as Boro continued to create the best of the opportunities.
A ball from Michael Doughty into the box was hooked clear by a defender but only as far as Akins who, on his weaker left foot, could only fire straight at McLaughlin.
Then from a Freeman cross on the hour Bira Dembele rattled the bar with a powerful header. Curtis Obeng recovered the ball and won Boro a corner – Dembele again met Smith’s delivery but this time couldn’t control his header which flew over.
Moments later though Boro were level and in spectacular style. In the past week Graham Westley has been speaking about the lack of goals from midfield and Freeman had obviously been listening. The winger broke forward in space and with the Bantams retreating he unleashed a beauty into the back of the net from distance to give the visitors a deserved equaliser.
Bradford were shocked and with the home faithful getting increasingly restless there was a sense that this could be Boro’s day.
15 minutes from time Gary Jones fired in a low effort from distance which looked to be creeping into the far corner. Chris Day saw it late but tipped it round the post at full stretch for a corner, which Boro then cleared.
Phil Parkinson made two attacking changes for the Bantams with Andy Gray and Mark Yeates both coming on. However it was Boro who continued to push forward and struck a late winner in even more spectacular fashion than the equaliser.
When Freeman was hauled down right on the edge of the area there were appeals for a penalty, with the referee handing Boro a free-kick right on the line. But in a superb set play routine Freeman played the ball to Smith, who rather than leave it for the onrushing Akins, played it back for Freeman to turn and smash into the top corner to send the travelling fans wild.
Substitute Yeates had a couple of decent late opportunities to equalise with one volley bouncing just wide and a free-kick deflecting off the Boro wall. But Boro hung on to claim their second win in succession and more importantly move off the bottom of the league table.
Bradford: McLaughlin, Darby, Davies (Bates 35), McArdle, McHugh, Thompson (Yeates 79), Jones, Doyle, Reach, Hanson, McLean (Gray 79)
Subs not used: Jameson, Dolan, Atkinson, Bennett
Stevenage: Day, Obeng, Ashton, Dembele, Hartley (Deacon 46 Mousinho 90), Akins, Smith, Doughty (Wedgbury 90), Freeman, Zoko, Charles
Subs not used: Arnold, Jones, Burrow, Parrett
Referee: Mr Sarginson
Attendance:13,033 (138 away)