THE warning sign was in front of their eyes as the players emerged from the tunnel.
THE warning sign was in front of their eyes as the players emerged from the tunnel. "Spirit of 98" read the banner passed around before kick-off. Newcastle United failed to heed it.
There were plenty of other reasons for the Magpies to sense this was an accident waiting to happen.
For starters, the television cameras were at Broadhall Way. They had not come to witness a Premier League side cruising to victory.
By the time Newcastle’s players made it on to the pitch the 2010-11 FA Cup third round was only a few hours old, yet they were already the North East’s sole survivors.
The rest simply had the misfortune to bump into hungry opposition. Stevenage had a score to settle.
If Newcastle had long forgotten their acrimonious 1998 meetings with a non-league side called Stevenage Borough, the town’s inhabitants had not. The programme was less a preview of the game, more a historical record of a 13-year-old event.
Steve Harper, United’s only survivor from that time, was at the bedside of his pregnant wife rather than on hand to warn against complacency.
However, it did not take much help to work out what was coming Newcastle’s way.
Before kick-off six members of the 1998 team were paraded on the pitch just in case the atmosphere needed spice.
With José Enrique and Jonás Guttiérez missing, eight of Newcastle’s starters were English-raised – yet only Argentina’s Fabricio Coloccini seemed to appreciate what this FA Cup tie meant.
Many of United’s squads learned their trade on grounds such as this, yet all looked uncomfortable.
While the centre-back threw himself into the battle with gusto, others seemed as though they would rather be sat in the warmth of their living rooms.
When Coloccini clattered into Chris Beardsley near the touchline early in the second half, it was a sign of things to come.
Newcastle had lost their composure, the game would soon follow.
For a club of the Magpies’ standing, the FA Cup ought to be important.
As captain Kevin Nolan suggested beforehand, it offered their “easiest” route into European football.
It is made for teams as infuriatingly inconsistent as Newcastle.
There were no signs of complacency on the team-sheet. Eyebrows were raised as it was pinned at the strength, not the weakness, of Alan Pardew’s team. Even so, Pardew’s resources were stretched enough that youngster Phil Airey sat on the bench.
Tired or not, there was still enough to beat a struggling League Two side, but many players were way below par.
If Premier League opposition inspired Stevenage to raise their game, Newcastle seemed to get dragged down to basement football, resorting too often to hopeful long balls.
Tim Krul’s handling was shaky, his kicking dreadful, Mike Williamson lacked the assurance which was his hallmark under Chris Hughton and, like Alan Smith in particular, his passing was wasteful. Leon Best looked nothing like a man who days earlier scored his first top-flight hat-trick.
Barton took the fight to fans who seemed affronted by his mere presence, but his over-ambitious passing was hit-and-miss.
The responses to each side’s first goals were telling.
After Stacy Long got lucky with a massive deflection off Williamson which wrong-footed Krul, Nolan curled a shot towards the top left-hand corner of Chris Day’s net, only for the former Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper to palm it away.
A goal could have inspired Newcastle in a way Pardew’s half-time team-talk curiously failed to.
Instead Stevenage scored next. They had edged a tight first half without putting Krul under undue pressure.
However, after Coloccini had slid in to win the ball Michael Bostwick – wearing what threatens to be a bushy good luck charm across his face – was first to it, pouncing to smash it off the inside of the post.
The underdogs led 2-0 with 55 minutes gone. Having thrown on Nile Ranger for the ineffective Best at half-time, Pardew turned to his emergency option, Cheik Tioté.
Within 13 minutes the Ivory Coast midfielder was red-carded for a lunging tackle on Jon Ashton and is now set to miss next weekend’s derby against Sunderland.
Tioté will consider himself unlucky to have seen red after taking the ball, but by throwing himself so recklessly he risked a sending-off regardless.
In the second of four added minutes salvation appeared to be at hand.
When Barton blasted a dipping shot from 30 yards, it looked as if the visitors could steal a replay.
A fourth goal quickly followed, but not at the end Newcastle hoped.
When Bostwick played a slide-rule pass, Peter Winn – loaned to Gateshead last season – lifted it over Krul.
For Stevenage history had been made. For Newcastle, there are lessons to be learned.