PA Sport Staff
Stevenage’s FA Cup run came to an end as they were defeated 3-1 by Stoke in an entertaining tie.
The in-form League Two side, buoyed on by 3,291 travelling supporters, were eyeing passage to the fifth round of the competition for the first time since 2012.
However, their return to the midlands – where they came from behind to upset Unai Emery’s Aston Villa in the previous round – was an unhappy one.
The Potters took an early lead inside two minutes through Jacob Brown and assumed control.
Stevenage levelled in the second half through Villa Park hero Jamie Reid, but their reprieve was short-lived thanks to Josh Laurent’s magnificent effort and then Lewis Baker added a late third from the penalty spot.
With new recruit Bersant Celina registered just in time for the fixture, the on-loan Dijon playmaker was handed an immediate debut in a new 4-3-3 system.
And despite the tactical tweak, the hosts snatched an early lead with the Kosovo international taking no time at all to adapt to his new surroundings.
An inviting Celina corner was flicked on by Ben Wilmot into the path of Brown, who composed himself before burying the opener inside 100 seconds.
After securing their first Championship points of 2023 with a 4-0 thrashing of Reading last weekend, the Potters looked to continue where they left off.
Although the travelling supporters’ spirits were not dampened by the early setback, they were indebted to an inspired Taye Ashby-Hammond for keeping the game tight.
The Stevenage stopper was busy in the opening period and produced a string of impressive saves to keep the tie within reach.
A lively Celina went close when he looked to add the finishing touch to a swift Stoke counter, but a brilliant fingertip save diverted the effort wide.
Ashby-Hammond had to be rescued himself when Max Clark was in the right place to clear Wilmot’s goal-bound header off the line.
But normal service was resumed when Stevenage’s number one thwarted Will Smallbone from a dangerous position.
Steve Evans attempted to rouse a comeback with all substitutes made before the hour mark, and the fresh Stevenage legs eventually paid dividends.
After Celina struck the woodwork and Ashby-Hammond denied both Tyrese Campbell and Baker, the visitors found a leveller.
Reid – scorer of the stoppage time winner at Villa in the third round – prodded over an onrushing Jack Bonham with Wilmot failing to clear.
However, the celebrations of a packed away end were fleeting, with Laurent notching his first Stoke goal in spectacular fashion from long range.
And, after Brown was felled by Jonathan Tomkinson, Baker converted from 12 yards late on to secure the hosts’ victory and complete a positive January.