League Two play-off final preview: Stevenage v Torquay United
It all comes down to one game. After 49 gruelling matches, a rollercoaster campaign and a twist around every corner, either Stevenage or Torquay United will join Chesterfield, Bury and Wycombe in League One, writes Danny Brothers.
It’s perhaps indicative that the gap between Conference and League Two is closing all the time as two sides that have both been promoted within the last two years – Torquay as Conference play-off winners in 2009 and Stevenage as champions in 2010 – prepare to meet for a place in the third tier of English football.
Torquay have been there and done it, appearing in the FA Trophy Final in 2008 before that play-off final win a year later so big game nerves aren’t new to their fans. Stevenage are relatively new to the surroundings but have proved that they are a match for anyone this season by dumping Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.
It’s set to be a tight, nervy encounter if the end of the season is anything to go by and as Manchester United supporters head for London for a big final of their own, their stadium will become a Theatre of Dreams for two sides looking for that key to League One.
The two reached Old Trafford in similar style, both winning just once in their final six league games to scrape into the play-offs in the last two positions on a dramatic final day of the season. Both then proceeded to turn the form book on its head by winning the home legs of their semi-finals 2-0, Torquay against fancied Shrewsbury and Stevenage against Accrington Stanley.
The second legs provided neither side with any real panic. Travelling to two teams that were strong at home, it was certainly not all over as four would become two. But Accrington shot themselves in the foot with two red cards in the middle of the second half within seconds of each other. Joe Jacobson’s late challenge on Lawrie Wilson and Sean McConville’s raising of a hand in frustration made the task simpler for Graham Westley’s men. A calm finish from Chris Beardsley eased Stevenage through. At the New Meadow, Shrewsbury’s challenge fell flat and an organised but far from defensive performance from Torquay saw them hold out for a goalless draw to book their place at the Old Trafford.
Stevenage have built their season on a rock solid defence that have conceded just 45 goals all season, the least in League Two. Player of the Year Jon Ashton, who has been at the heart of that record, looks set to miss out through injury so there is extra importance placed on Mark Roberts at the back and Chris Day between the sticks. At the other end of the pitch, Byron Harrison, signed from non-league Carshalton in January, could be a dark horse to steal the limelight. Harrison has struck eight times in 20 games for the Boro since his arrival and will be hoping for a fairy tale ending to a dramatic few months that has seen him go from playing in the Isthmian League Premier to running out at Old Trafford.
Torquay will be reliant on their attacking style to come out on top and Chris Zebroski will be vital to their challenge. Zebroski has netted fifteen times this season and will always be a constant threat. Gavin Tomlin was the stand out player of the semi-final first leg at Plainmoor and his pace and trickery will give Stevenage a real headache. Jake Robinson, who helped the Gulls beat his parent club Shrewsbury in the semis will be another danger man as he looks to stake a claim for a permanent move to the Devon club.
Head to head
Stevenage go into the final having never beaten Torquay in their six previous meetings. United did the double over them in 2007/08 before snatching four points from the meetings the following season. This time around, a goalless draw in September at Broadhall Way was followed by another Torquay victory in early March as goals from Danny Stevens and Jake Robinson earned a 2-0 win. That game also saw Boro defender Mark Roberts sent off for a professional foul so it is fair to say they owe their opponents one.