Return of the Mack...
Craig Mackail-Smith’s first goal for Stevenage was enough to secure a place in the quarter-finals of the leasing.com Trophy in a wet and windy night in Bristol.
Graham Westley named three changes to the team that picked up a point at home to Colchester United at the weekend. Sacha Bastien replaced the suspended Paul Farman in goal, Tyler Denton returned to left-back, and new signing Joe Leesley made his first appearance for Stevenage after signing on Monday.
Kurtis Guthrie returned to the squad, while 16 year old goalkeeper Jack Berman was involved for the first time in his career.
Leading the line was veteran Craig Mackail-Smith, with Ben Kennedy playing behind in the number ten role. Charlie Lakin and Tom Soares sat deep in the midfield middle, with Joe Leesley and Dean Parrett either side. Elliott List retained his place at right-back, with Paul Digby, Ben Nugent and Tyler Denton making up the rest of the back four. Sacha Bastien made just his fourth appearance in red and white.
Despite the rain pouring down in the South West, Stevenage got off to a bright start at the Memorial Stadium. Veteran Craig Mackail-Smith looked the most lively of the visitors’ attackers in the opening few minutes, and caused a nuisance for himself inside the Bristol Rovers penalty area earning his side a succession of early corners.
The hosts then seemed to wake up after ten minutes, with chances for Liam Sercombe and Victor Adeboyejo, but to no avail.
New signing Joe Leesley had taken up set-piece duties, and was almost the creator of Stevenage’s first goal of the evening. His free-kick from the corner position found the head of Ben Nugent who knocked the ball down to Mackail-Smith, who then played the ball across to an open Dean Parrett. Deano seemed to have the goal at his mercy, but could not sort his feet out in time and the chance went begging.
However, just a minute later, and Stevenage were in the lead. Dean Parrett knocked the ball long from the centre of the park, which looked easy enough for the Bristol City defenders to deal with. Rollin Menayese had other ideas though, and chested the ball into the path of the non-stop Craig Mackail-Smith, who coolly chipped the onrushing goalkeeper from the edge of the box. Stevenage were ahead and looked good value for their lead.
Yellow cards for Ben Nugent and Ben Kennedy then followed either side of an audacious Mackail-Smith long range effort, as Bristol Rovers upped their game towards the break.
Paul Digby quashed The Gas’ best chance of the half, stepping in the way of Josh Barrett’s driving run into the box. Alfie Kilgour then saw his glanced effort fall just wide of Bastien’s far post, as Stevenage went into the break one up.
The second half started in similar vain to the first, with Stevenage looking the brighter and creating the opening chances.
Joe Leesley came close to opening his Boro account on his debut, but his effort from inside the box was comfortably saved by Van Stappershoef.
Craig Mackail-Smith then had a chance to double his Stevenage tally, after latching onto another loose ball from the Gas defenders, but this time the hosts recovered in time to keep the deficit at one.
Terence Vancooten and Kurtis Guthrie were introduced on the hour mark, and it was TVC, playing in central midfield, who almost created the chance for a second. His ball across the box was intending for the run of Ben Kennedy, but unfortunately the ball had just too much on it.
With twenty minutes to go, Victor Adeboyejo rose highest in the Stevenage box to get on the end of an Alex Rodman cross, but Sacha Bastien got up well to claim the striker’s header with no issue.
Minutes later, Stevenage had a golden opportunity to double their advantage. Terence Vancooten picked the ball up on the edge of the Rovers box, and slipped the ball into Charlie Lakin. The ball was then cut back for Mackail-Smith to take aim on his left foot, but stopper Van Stappershoef managed to reach a hand to the ball and tip behind. Paul Digby rose to meet the resulting corner, but could only head wide.
Graham Westley’s side then had another chance to make it two, this time coming from a Joe Leesley cross onto the head of Kurtis Guthrie, who saw his header fly just past the post.
As the game entered the final ten minutes, the home fans’ frustration grew as Stevenage continued to limit the amount of chances for Bristol Rovers. Ed Upson’s cross found the feet of Jayden Mitchell-Lawson inside the six yard box, but for a last-ditch Tyler Denton slide tackle to deny the opportunity a split second before the shot.
The fans’ frustration then became the players’, as Liam Sercombe’s effort from thirty yards was tipped behind by Sacha Bastien, who remained solid throughout the ninety.
Ed Upson then saw red for a second yellow card on the halfway line, dragging down Kurtis Guthrie on the break.
Five minutes were up on the board as Stevenage fans feared the worse, but Graham Westley’s men stood firm up until the referee’s whistle, as Boro claimed their place in the leasing.com Trophy Quarter Finals.