Thursday, 26 August 2010

Wolves (a) Sat 14th Aug + Spurs (h) Sat 21st Aug : Here we go again!!!

After the chronic disappointment that was the 2010 World Cup, all eyes swiftly turned once again to that tried and trusted old friend that is the domestic football season. No novelty horns or malformed balls here. Just the regular thrills and spills of match day in all its glory.

With the deflating summer tournament over and done with, fans of all clubs began pouring over rumour sites and message boards seeking out transfer gossip in the faint hope of a major new signing materialising before the big kick off.

Inevitably, expectations rise. This is our season for sure. The squad's in place, the belief is there, and before it all kicks off, you've got nothing but a blank canvas ahead of you, the 2010/2011 footballing story waiting to be written.

Two weeks into the season, you're team's already lost twice, the defence is still leaking goals and the manager still won't sign that elusive box-to-box creative midfielder. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm sure many fans have come back down to earth with a bump at this stage of the season, no points from your first few games, perhaps a Carling Cup exit to boot (don't tell me, you're focusing on the league AGAIN this year), you begin to wonder what you were getting excited for over those distant summer months.

For my beloved Stoke, it's certainly proven to be a disappointing start thus far.

An opening day defeat at local rivals Wolves was compounded by an injury to new boy Kenwyne Jones. Jones has been signed as the target man alternative to Mama Sidibe. Essentially, Tony Pulis wanted Mama....but with goals. A novel idea in a forward I'm sure you'll agree. In theory this big forward ticks all the right boxes, and with any luck will provide an excellent partner to Ricardo Fuller.

Initially we appeared to be in luck as the injury was reported as not being as bad as first thought. Apparently it was only minor ligament damage (how minor can ligament damage be?) and it was suggested that the lay-off would be weeks rather than months as first feared. When asked about the striker's condition after the Spurs game however, Tone was worryingly vague on the diagnosis. Talk of  'injections', 'seeing how it goes' and 'not rushing anything', started alarm bells ringing to most Stoke fans who are by now fluent in the language of Pulis. Not to worry, we've still got Big Mama in the mean time right?................More on that later.

Luckily I missed the Wolves defeat due to being away on holiday. If we were being honest, I'm sure several of the male contingent who went on this holiday were kicking themselves for not figuring out this would be the Premier League's big kick off weekend when we planned this jaunt. Never mind though, with stiff upper lips we shook it off and made a mental note for all future August holidays. Naturally though, come the big kick off, several in our party had their phones out ready for score updates, and as we sat in the foyer of the German History Museum (well worth a visit.....if you're asking) sure enough, the half-time results were in.

"Right, here we go." I thought with misplaced pre-season confidence. "2-0 up? Maybe just a goal. Hell, I suppose a draw at half time is acceptable. Anyway, I'm just glad the season's back and right now I'm relaxed and full of optimism. Hit me with the half-time score, the first of a long and prosperous season."

 "You're 2-0 down".

"Fucking hell."

Sure enough, a text to the old man confirmed it. We were two behind and playing poorly. A glimmer of hope was offered by Faye's 55th minute header, but ultimately, we couldn't muster up another goal or indeed another meaningful shot on target in the rest of the game.

It's telling that on Match of the Day, the last bit of action they showed in this game was our goal, which, bear in mind, occurred in the 55th minute. So, that means for the last 35 minutes of this game there was not a single noteworthy moment of goal mouth action. Another glorious season stretches agonisingly out ahead of us.

Shaking off that disappointment, and maintaining the veneer of optimism that can only be mustered this early on in proceedings, the first home game of the new campaign against Spurs was our next stop.

When Honest 'Arry's side broke the standard top four monopoly to gain that lucrative champions league spot last season, they undoubtedly confirmed themselves as one of the toughest prospects for the rest of the league to face. However, with a packed Britannia on our side, and a host of injuries on theirs, you just had a sneaky feeling we might get a result.

Alas, yet again my optimism was misplaced, and an encouraging performance from the boys wasn't enough to stop us from falling to a 2-1 defeat. Gareth Bale (does anyone else find themselves regularly referring to him as 'Christian Bale' by accident or is that just me?), got lucky with their first goal as a Shawcross clearance cannoned in off his chimpy face. Following a Fuller equaliser however, he delivered a second goal of true class. A masterful dipping volley from the edge of the area that even many Stoke fans had to grudgingly applaud.

Spurs went into the break a goal ahead and comfortably in the driving seat. Stoke emerged for the second half however, revitalised and fired up. New boy Jon Walters was having an impressive debut up front. Then again, being able to both control a ball and remain upright already put him ahead of Mama. It was when the oft overlooked Tuncay came on up front however and the former Ipswich man was moved out to the right wing, that Stoke began to look truly dangerous with a flurry of chances coming soon after the Turk's introduction.

The introduction of Mama midway through the second half was an expected move by Tone and one not particularly objected to by many at the Brit. Whilst the big man's abilities are a source of amusement for most of us, and he clearly isn't good enough to start week-in-week-out, he does provide a big physical presence and can win plenty of headers on his day. He offers that 'something different' from the bench.

Within minutes of his arrival however, he collapsed after an innocuous challenge and was ultimately stretchered off the pitch clearly in a great deal of distress. After the game we'd learn that he had snapped his Achilles and could be out for the rest of the season. Whilst not quite being the tragic loss Tone will no doubt paint it as, the loss of Mama is still bad news for Stoke. As long as Tony plays the way he does, players like Mama will be crucial to the team. Another injury to a striker that means that we must cross our fingers even tighter and hope Jones is back in action soon.

Tuncay then missed a glorious chance from about a yard out, somehow managing to direct a header away from goal when it looked harder not to score. Shawcross then blazed a snap shot over the bar from just outside the six yard box and shortly after that Ricardo had a perfectly weighted volley tipped wide by Gomes in the Spurs goal. The keeper would then thwart Tuncay as well as a long-range effort took a wicked deflection and looked to be dipping into the Spurs net before he coolly palmed it over. It was about this time when I realised we just weren't going to score.

Some games you can just sense it. I'm sure it's the same for every team at some point. Maybe it hits you when the opposition keeper makes yet another spectacular save. Maybe it's when you're star striker balloons over from a yard out. Maybe it's when you hit the woodwork for the umpteenth time. Whatever it is, some games, you just know it isn't going to be your day.

Unexpectedly though, in the 86th minute, came what appeared to be a breakthrough. After a patented Britannia goal mouth scramble, the ball dropped kindly onto new boy Walters's head mere centimeters out from goal. Now please bare in mind I'm writing this from memory so odd facts may be subject to the slightest amount of exaggeration.

What followed next however was perhaps the single greatest injustice in footballing history........ever.

The ball flew towards goal and hit Peter Crouch in the mid-riff/arm area before rebounding out. The Stoke players celebrated like they'd scored a goal, a few Spurs players stopped as if they'd conceded a goal, and all eyes turned to the ref for the inevitable confirmation. However, Chris Foy instead  looked gingerly over at his assistant, who was about ten times further away than he was and had about 20 players blocking his view. Rather unsurprisingly, the assistant couldn't see the incident at all.  Foy however, was just a few feet away from the melee. After consulting his assistant however, and bracing himself for the full brunt of the Britannia's fury, he waved play on visibly explaining that he simply couldn't see it.

Now, I'm not going to focus too much on Chris Foy here. He had an OK game otherwise and being face-on to the incident rather than looking along the line, it's semi-understandable why he wasn't in a position to give the goal if he needs to be 100% sure. In theory that's why his assistant is there, but he too was unable to give a clear answer. No, Mr Foy is not solely to blame, some of the blame must also lie with assorted important figures in the various footballing governing bodies.

Their constant refusal to make any changes that might actually benefit the game, such as goal-line technology, is just astounding. I won't drone on about this debate too much, both sides of the argument have already been argued far more eloquently than I could manage here. All I will say is this, even the most basic, simplistic, cop-out solution to this problem, the extra official behind the goal, would have ensured a goal was given here. It is surely in the interests of the game that contentious decisions like this don't keep arising and the only thing stopping it is the pig-headedness of Mr Blatter and assorted FA chiefs. Anyway, that's a rant for another time...

In the end, Stoke couldn't find a way back and the game finished 2-1 to Spurs. The performance was definitely encouraging and at this early stage of the season there's no cause for alarm, but with an away trip to Stamford Bridge next up, (please lads, keep it to below 7 this time), and then Villa at home, it's not looking like we'll have many point on the board come mid-September.

So, to sum up, two losses, star signing and attacking lynch pin (ahem) injured, controversial late equaliser ruled out and since I began writing this blog we have also had a player refuse to play for us in the league cup...............ahhhhhhhhh it's good to be back.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

South Africa 2010 - Balls, Horns and Beglin.

Over the past few weeks, the feast of footballing action we have been treated to in South Africa has been enjoyable, if never quite astounding. The first week and a half was slow and without doubt a tad deflating. The anticipated onslaught of dramatic all-action clashes has never really transpired and instead the less skillful teams parked the bus and sought to frustrate their rivals in the hope of nicking a point.

As a Stoke fan, this was definitely not what I wanted. I have to deal with that all season. I had a good 8 months of last ditch defending and ten men behind the ball, this was meant to be an upgrade.

Truth be told, this World Cup has proven to be a little disappointing, with few quality games or memorable goals to speak of thus far. Coupled with England's timid, ineffective and, well, shit performance (more on this later), it makes for a slightly underwhelming tournament as a whole.

That being said, it's still a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a balmy summer month. When it comes to World Cup's, much like with an orgasm or a pizza, even your worst is better than none at all.

With that in mind, here are a few observations on the Tournament so far.

1/ Jubulani

Oh god shut up. Please just shut the hell up about this sodding ball. For two and a half weeks, not a game could go by without the commentator or his "expert" companion uttering something along the lines of, "there's the much-discussed Jabulani in action."

The only people it is much discussed by are you pundits and the odd journalist running low on ideas. No one else really cares. You can't just not shut up about something and then say it's much talked about. That's just cheating.

Granted, every now and then, when Ronaldo blast a free kick over, or Frank sends another one into a wall, we viewers may mutter "maybe it is the ball after all." That's about it though. To us mere mortals, who regularly play football with balls of varying weight, size and suitability, it seems like it's being blown fairly largely out of proportion.

I'm in no doubt whatsoever, that this new ball is different to previous ones, is somehow more rounder (what shape were they before?), and is more difficult to keep down. These are professional footballers however, who have had many weeks to train with it and master it's flights of fancy. If they can't control it, tough tits, it's a round bit of leather, I'm sure you'll make do.

If the ball was suddenly a trapezoid shape or decorated with a ceremonial spike, then yes, we'd discuss it at great length and offer the players a degree of sympathy. As it is, to trot out an old cliche, it's the same for both teams, now get on with it.

2/ Corners

Is it just me or has this tournament seen an unusually large amount of corners hit the first man. Some experts may blame Jab-u-fuckin-lani, yet surely if anything, we should be seeing an excess of corners flying aimlessly over the despairing heads of the crowded penalty area? Obviously this still happens, but the vast majority of corners (based on absolutely no stats whatsoever) seem to crash into the first man.

Are we to believe the cream of the Worlds footballing talent  haven't learned how much oomph to put on the ball yet?

There is nothing more frustrating than when there's mere seconds left on the clock, your corner specialist waves the entire team forward into the box, spends a good 30 seconds ensuring the ball is perfectly positioned just outside the designated corner segment, and puts all those hours of practice into action, by whipping the ball in a foot above the ground straight to the grateful defender on the near post.

It's still pretty annoying when you have absolutely no connection to the teams involved.

I have no great insight here, or even a suggestion as to what may be the solution to this glut of crapness. It's just an observation. Hopefully the world's finest will figure out how to lift this fiendish ball soon enough.

3/  Vuvuzela

It's not a unique slice of footballing culture, it's an irritating drone. The only drone that's more annoying is from the people who go on about how it's nice to hear something different at football and how it's greatly preferable to drunken louts chanting obscenities for 90 minutes.

You're wrong and clearly should never be allowed to attend football matches again.

You can't get any sense of atmosphere due to the incessant buzz of the horns of doom, and one of the purest joys of watching football, the collective singing of fans, has been drowned out.

"But it's part of the South African culture!" You may cry. Well, tough. Crowd violence and Chris Kamara are both part of ours but we don't inflict them on the rest of the world............. any more.

Thankfully, the drone has seemingly lessened as the tournament  has progressed, partly due to the decline in interest once South Africa got knocked out, and also partly because it would appear the BBC and ITV have figured out some way to lower the din in their mix.

Eventually we all got grudgingly used to the noise I suppose, and it didn't by any means ruin the tournament. That being said, it sure as hell didn't make it any better either.

If you bring one to an English football match next season, you should be tarred and feathered and banned for life. Though I fear if you blow it in the wrong bloke's ear, you may be subject to a slice of our home grown footballing culture and require a Vuvuzela-ectomy after the game. Unbelievable Jeff.

4/ ITV and The BBC

A friend of mine recently wrote in to ITV, covering his feelings towards their standard of commentary during the World Cup so far.

This sums up my general feeling perfectly. ITV's commentary has regularly been shockingly bad during this tournament. Peter Drury and Clive Tyldesley seem to be competing for who can make the most cringe worthy and irrelevant comment.

There grating partners in crime, Messrs Townsend, Burly and *shudder* Beglin, aren't much better. I've heard more informative insight into football from my own mother. Somebody has clearly told Townsend at some point that he is a footballing expert, as every time he once again succeeds in stating the bleeding obvious, he does so in that smug satisfied manner of his. He really believes he's doling out choice cuts of knowledge that we should all take on board and spend a few minutes digesting. He is most definitely wrong. Burley meanwhile just seems constantly aggrieved, at everything. As for Jim Beglin, well, Beglin is just Beglin. How this man ever got a job as a football commentator is beyond me. What's even more shocking though is how someone who played football professionally can have such a poor grasp on the game and it's rules.

Chiles does an OK job of keeping up the banter back in the studio, but he's lumbered with a fairly dour set of comrades. He's got Edgar Davids, who is fairly astute in his observations but has all the charisma of a soggy lettuce. Patrick Vieira who is the same, but without the astute observations. Marcel Desailly who's trying to pull a full on Townsend [To Townsend: To play for one county and then seemingly associate yourself with another when they start doing well] and convince us he's suddenly Ghanaian. You made your French bed Marcel, there's no going back now. Then there's Kevin Keegan, who's never been known for his tactical know-how and is surely only one bad England game away from quitting the ITV studio out of principle. Gareth Southgate is the most bearable of the bunch, and even he is over shadowed by his frankly maverick selection of garish pink shirts.

The BBC fairs far better, with the holy trinity of Shearer, Hansen and Lineker masterfully controlling things back at HQ.  Somehow their insights are just far more interesting and informative than their ITV contemporaries, and even their subs bench packs a far greater punch.

Lee Dixon is slowly coming of age, and they even have the better ex-Dutch midfielder in the effortlessly smooth Clarence Seedorf.  Roy Hodgson speaks the most sense any pundit has ever spoken ever. Even Gabby Logan's incessant flirting with Fabio is bearable in moderation.

The commentators themselves are a decent enough bunch, Guy Mowbray and Jonathan Pearce lead the charge, replacing the old guard of Barry Davies and Motty with great ease and luckily Pearce has curbed the excitable tendencies of his fledgling early FIVE days. Lawro is as strangely entertaining as ever, and Mark Bright is always pleasant enough to listen to, especially when he completely misses an incident and then has to retract his comment seconds later after seeing the replay. This happens at least once a game. "I think the goalie got a touch there didn't he Guy? That should be a corner. ..........Oh, no, the Ref was spot on, my mistake." Bless him.

The beeb has only two drawbacks for me. One is the inclusion of Emmanuel Adebayor, who's dwindling presence in the BBC HQ is I hope down to the slow realisation by BBC chiefs that not only does he speak unfeasibly fast, but he doesn't really say anything of any great note when you can make it out.

The main blot on their copybook however comes in the gruff, no-nonsense form of Mick McCarthy. Now, up until this tournament I'd not minded big Mick. He calls a spade a spade (and not in a Ron Atkinson type way), and is on occasion refreshingly honest. Yet, some of my friends could not stand the man, and when his name was announced as the commentator for one of the early games, they both groaned in unison. I offered a weak argument in Mick's favour, and we sat back to watch the game. After half an hour at most, I was completely won round to their side.

How had I been so blind before. What a right royal pain in the arse he is. Unrelentingly downbeat and negative. I swear if he'd have been commentating on Maradona's glorious goal in the 1986 World Cup, he'd of let out an exacerbated sigh and muttered "truth be told he's showboating a little there, and that is truly terrible defending." Owen's solo effort against the Argies in 1998, "It's about time the lad did something."  And Bank's save from Pele, "At the end of the day he should be saving that. One for the camera's there." The man has made being unrelentingly unimpressed an art form. Also, he doesn't seem to understand that just because he tells it like it is, doesn't make 'it' true. Every dour observation he makes is insisted with a misguided severity, while any argument to the otherwise is viewed as mere naivety.  Oh, and to top it all off he's the Wolves manager too. Shut up Mick.

So, the BBC wins the battle of the terrestrial pundits, with some ease. I still long for the friendly warmth of Jeff and the gang though. Oh imagine the fun they'd have....

5/ Lucio

You're 6 ft 2 and built like a brick shit house, get up.

Next up....England, where did it all go wrong.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Part 2: 1998-2002 - "Kevin, do you back him to score? Yes or no?”

France '98

Two years on from the disappointment of Euro '96, the country was once again all fired up and full of blind optimism as the World Cup began in nearby France.

Back then if course, Shearer was still scoring for fun, Scotland still qualified for major tournaments, fat Ronaldo was just Ronaldo, and England's football hooligans expressed their dislike for European patio furniture the only way they knew how.

For England, it was a chance to shake off the demons of '96 and we went to France as one of the favourites to win. A seemingly easy group consisting of Tunisia, Columbia and Romania was the first hurdle we needed to get over though, a it was a task that proved easier said than done.

The tournament as a whole was of great convenience to English fans. Those of us watching at home missed few games as the French very nicely scheduled games for 2pm, 5:30pm, and 9pm (take note Yanks, that's how you schedule a major tournament), to minimise the number of matches lost to such minor obstacles as 'work'.

Likewise, those English fans who decided to travel to the tournament faced a short trip over the channel, and before they knew it they were in the French sunshine, drinking cheap lager and fighting with the locals. *Sniff*, Henry V would have been proud.

England's tournament began in sunny Marseille against Tunisia. Shearer gave us a first half lead, and then Scholes capped off the win with a second goal a few minutes from time. Glen Hoddle's team looked far from confident, but had got the required result nonetheless.

Word quickly got round our school that we had won 2-0 and once again, the dream was back on. Here we go again, this time we'll get it right. 13 year old me momentarily forgot the '96 incident and allowed my hopes to rise once again. This time, the Germans wouldn't deny us a shot at glory. And I was right.....the Germans wouldn't.

The next group game saw us take on Romania in Toulouse. A game we couldn't afford TO-LOSE. (Tee-Hee, with punsmanship like that a job at the Mirror can't be far off!). After going a goal behind late in the first half, we got a goal back in the second thanks to a bright young spark called Michael Owen, who, statistics show me was 18 at the time, but unless my memory fails me I'm fairly sure he was about 12. Unfortunately, despite Owen's big impact, Romania grabbed a late winner and sealed a demoralising and unexpected defeat for Glen Hoddle's side.

The final group game saw us take on Columbia in a game that would effectively decide who joined Romania in the next round. England dominated the game and a screamer from Darren Anderton and a clinical free kick from David Beckham sealed our passage into the next round. Unfortunately, due to Romania drawing with Tunisia, they finished in top spot and we had to make do with second. That meant we faced the winner of Group H, which was an as yet unbeaten Argentina.

The tournament so far was certainly not quite as memorable as the Euro tournament that preceded it. Uninspiring performances against average opposition was hardly setting the pulses racing. This would all change with the Argentina clash however as the match provided more than enough drama to make up for the dreary tournament so far.

It was a daunting match that suddenly looked all the more daunting when Argentina took the lead through a Batistuta penalty after only six minutes. Luckily for heart-rates across England, Shearer managed to equalise from the spot for England four minutes later after Michael Owen was savagely fouled and in no way made the most of any challenge.

After his dramatic impact against Romania in the group stage, young 'next big thing' Michael Owen was already a crowd favourite going into the Argentina game. After 16 minutes he cemented this position further with a stunning solo strike against one of the strongest defences in the competition.

The nippy forward (Not quite so nippy now of course. If players lose 'that half a yard' every time they get an injury, Owen must have lost a couple of miles by now), was played in near the half way line by Beckham where he turned on the ball and hurtled at breakneck speed towards the Argentinian goal. Leaving two defenders in his wake and deftly ignoring the oncoming Paul Scholes, he then finished coolly from the edge of the area. Not bad for a 12 year old.

It was a goal worthy of winning any match, and once that hit the back of the net, England's fans had a new national hope to replace the ageing Shearer, but more crucially, were ahead in the tie for the first time.

Unfortunately however, Argentina chose to ignore the 'goal-worthiness factor' and soon leveled from a well worked free kick. It was the type of free kick you always think should be scored more often. So simple and effective, the attacker peeling off the wall at the last minute to receive a weighted pass, leaving the entire defensive wall wrong footed and then curling the ball into the far corner. Yet when my team try anything like this, it usually results in the ball being passed way too early and trickling harmlessly out of play, leaving four or five confused players staring at each other with arms outstretched trying to figure out where they went wrong. "We've been working on that one all week" some comedian will usually note in the crowd.

The free kick was the last real action of the half and the teams went in at the break all square.
Early in the second half however, came the turning point of the match. After a typically combative challenge on Beckham from the Argentinian Robbie Savage (sort of) Diego Simeone, the English midfielder was face down on the turf and nursing his wounds, when from nowhere he flicked out a boot and clipped Simeone on the leg.

I'm sure if Becks good go back in time and do anything differently in his career, bar a few questionable haircut's and wife-related fashion disasters, this one petulant kick out would be the thing he changed.

Upon watching the replay, I think even the mot pig-headed and unflinchingly biased England fan grudgingly muttered to themselves, "he's gotta go for that". In reality, we all know it wasn't that vicious a crime, Simeone rolled about a bit for dramatic affect of course, but the kick was hardly a full throttle assault. It was a flimsy flick out. In international football however, we all know the rules, and Beckham himself would have been all too aware that if you kick, punch, slap, bite, pinch or excessively tickle an opponent, you're going to get sent off.

The Argentinian players, little darlings that they are, spent a good minute or so speed walking towards the referee, making sure he realised the true enormity of the situation. I mean, what could they have been saying at this point? "Ref!!! he kicked him, he kicked him, oh the humanity, will he even walk again? He had a wife and kid at home! His leg was only 2 days away from retirement! HE KICKED HIM. OH GOD HE KICKED HIM!!!!!"

Inevitably, the Danish official booked Simeone for the original foul and then reached into the back pocket of doom and pulled out the red. Beckham was off and England were down to ten men.

The proverbial salt being rubbed into the wound was offered by Argentinian legend Gabriel Batistuta, who, as Beckham trudged despairingly away from the field, nodded approvingly at the ref's decision. Oh the smugness. So much smugness. Few faces have exuded such smackability in their time. It's right up there in the 'smarmy smug smackable Face' stakes with Piers Morgan and Michael Portillo. In his head, was he thinking "What a good decision. Well done referee. I cannot agree strongly enough with this decision. It's a good day, a good day to be alive". Or, was he just being a smug tw*t who was all too aware the TV cameras were on him at the time. Methinks it was the latter.

So, England were down to ten men. The tabloid journalists finished their maniacal cackling and gleeful hand rubbing (probably), and went straight to work on making sure the whole country knew Becks was to blame. One headline that sticks in the mind was "Ten Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy". This was he start of a tough year or so for the boy wonder as few rival fans let him forget that he was being held responsible for the unfavourable outcome of this game.

Yours truly must admit that he was part of the Beckham-blaming brigade in the emotional aftermath of the World Cup, and even with the use of hindsight, it's hard to not lay the blame for this loss largely at his feet. He made a mistake however, and perhaps, 12 years on, we have all long let it be, THAT last gasp free kick against Greece saw him atone for his sins in many eyes. (There's a theme emerging here I sense of players making up for their mistakes and reclaiming the fan's love. Whenever you're ready Mr Southgate.) Back in 1998 however, he was public enemy number one.

Meanwhile, back in St Etienne, Hoddle's ten men battled on bravely. We now faced almost the entirety of the second half with a man down, a daunting task against any team, let alone one of the best in the world.

We held on resolutely, and the defence repelled all that Argentina could throw at them. There was still time for the match officials to break English hearts before the match went into extra time however. With nine minutes to go, Darren Anderton floated in a superb corner and Sol Campbell met it full on sending a bullet header into the Argentine net.

If you have chance, go on YouTube and watch the highlights of this game. When you get to this incident, there's a moment after Sol's fired the header in, when he's wheeling away to celebrate with the the rest of the English bench on the touchline, when both he, and the rest of the squad, are all ecstatically celebrating this unexpected goal. Savour that moment. This was almost the Roy of the Rovers special. A Jimmy Glass-esque moment of magic.

The ten men, against the odds, had scored a late winner (well, 81 minutes is late-ish), with the scorer himself finding the net for the first time in his international career. Freeze that moment in time and think about how good it could have been. Imagine the mental you could have had. Then, unclick pause, and rejoin reality.

The Danish ref had seen an infringement and ruled out the goal. Multiple replays showed Alan Shearer jumping with eyes fixed on the ball, and the out-rushing keeper running into him and flailing wildly. The ref saw this as a foul and ruled it out. Across England, hopes were dashed, celebrations were halted mid-jump and hands were clasped to disbelieving heads.

I watched this game at home with my parents, with it being a school night and me being only 13 at the time, the late evening kick off gave few other options. I remember the celebrations when Michael Owen scored. I remember the expletives hurled at both the ref and Mr Beckham when he got sent off, but what I remember most of all was the sense of disbelief I had when the goal was disallowed. I remember genuinely believing this wasn't fair. How could it be disallowed after we worked so hard?

I turned to Keeling senior for an explanation of some sorts. Why has this happened? Is this really allowed to happen? With a slow shake of the head, my dad gave me a look that as a Stoke fan, I have come to recognise from him all to often since this date. It was a look that said "life's a shithouse son, and usually football makes you nothing but miserable. Get used to it." The rest of the game was watched in silence.

England held on through extra time and managed to force the game into penalties. Now, we all had our skins thickened by the Euro 96 heartbreak, and I'm sure we all vowed we'd never let our guards down again, but back in 1998, we all clung once again to the belief that this time, the penalty gods would be on our side.

It even began to look up for England at one point as after both teams had converted their opening penalties, Crespo missed the Argentinians second. Could it be? Could another footballing nation be as woeful at penalties as us? Luckily, Paul Ince was on hand to resume business as usual and make sure no one back in England got their hopes up too much, as he stepped up and saw his penalty saved by the Argentinian stopper Roa. Ahhh, our old friend that sinking feeling, you return to visit us once again.

The next few takers all converted to make the score 4-3 to Argentina and leave England needing to score their last penalty to take the game to sudden death.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and up stepped midfield enforcer David Batty. Many people still puzzle over why Batty was chosen to take a penalty, but when you consider Beck's had been sent off and the other four forwards or midfielder on the pitch had now taken a penalty, we weren't really left with much choice. Would we rather have had Southgate step up again, or maybe Tony Adams? It is fair to say however, that Batty was certainly not known for his striking prowess, and in fact he had never taken a penalty in a competitive game before this day. He did not strike you as a confident man as he shuffled hesitantly towards the penalty spot.

As Batty began his laboured run up, Commentator Brian Moore, grasping desperately for words that will echo down the ages, (after all, every commentator secretly yearns for their "They think it's all over" moment) turns to co-commentator Kevin Keegan and asks him "Kevin, do you back him to score? Yes or no?”

Ever reliable Kev fired back an emphatic "Yes."

Never before has one man’s prediction proved so wrong and simultaneously so aggravating. From this point onwards the saying "don't count your eggs before they are hatched" should be changed to "don't count your penalties before they've bulged the net...........KEVIN."

Batty's penalty was hit far too central and the keeper made an easy save. With that, England were out of the World Cup.

I should say at this point, I never actually saw Batty's penalty in real time. I only knew we were out of the World Cup thanks to Keegan's groan and my parent's frustrated sighs. The fact is, I couldn't watch Batty's penalty. It had all proven too much for me. I went and sat on the stairs, head in hands and listened for the eventual outcome. In the end, the silence was deafening.

Our front room sat in pained silence as the various replays merely added to the sense of disappointment. It really felt like we'd been unfairly treated somehow. A combination of the sending off, the distinct lack of Argentinian sportsmanship, the disallowed goal and the unavoidable harshness of penalties in general.

Luckily for Batty and Ince, unlike the likes of Waddle, Pearce and Southgate before them, their penalty misses would not render them scapegoats for England's exit. Thanks to Beckham and his petulance, the blame was deflected away on to his young shoulders.

Pain Rating - 9/10

Euro 2000

The next tournament was far less disappointing for England and it's fans. It was too crap to be disappointing. Now under the expert tutelage of Kevin 'Penalty Nostradamus' Keegan came the woeful Euro 2000 in Belgium and Holland.

We found ourselves in the proverbial 'group of death', alongside Portugal, Romania and Germany. Despite this tough group, progression to the next round was still the bare minimum of expectations.

We started off with a poor result against Portugal as we clutched defeat from the jaws of victory and threw away a two goal lead to lose 3-2. Then came the tournament's bright spot as we beat an aging Germany side 1-0. At the time this was pretty enjoyable, as any victory over the old enemy is bound to be. There was certainly some hope this would kick start our campaign and see us charge on to victory. Unfortunately, this message didn't filter through to the players.

Our last game against Romania was meant to be our easiest but unfortunately even they proved too much for the lacklustre England side. With the game at 2-2, and Romania piling on pressure, the time was right for someone to step up and become the national scapegoat. There has to be one after all. Enter Mr Philip Neville. A lazy lunge on a Romanian attacker in the 89th minute, gave the ref no choice but to award a penalty. The Romanian's slotted their penalty away and with it secured second place in the group. Amazingly though, despite this costly error and the endless barracking that comes with it, Phil Neville was still infinitely more popular than his brother.

Pain rating - 5/10

After a dismal start to the qualification campaign for the next World Cup, including the 1-0 loss to Germany in the last game at the old Wembley, Keegan quit as England coach and was replaced by the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Sven may not have been the most popular choice for England manager, indeed many experts failed to comprehend how a non-Englishman could possibly succeed as England manager. "Johnny Foreigner in charge of our brave boys! My god, it's enough to make you spit out your tea and drop your crumpet."

"He won't understand the British game!'"They said. "He won't know what it means to be British!" They cried. However, eventually he cheated on his missus with Ulrika Jonsson and was then caught shagging his secretary as well for good measure. Infidelity and tabloid sex scandals... and they were worried he wouldn't fit into the English game!

It was under Sven that we went to Munich in 2001 in need of a win to stay in with a chance of winning our qualification group. That magical evening will go down in history as one of the all time great English victories. A devastating 5-1 romp was wildly celebrated back in England and it was a joy to behold as big Emile, yes even big Emile got in on the action, smacked the 5th goal home. England were hitting form at just the right time and went on to win the group.

Next stop was South Korea and Japan!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Part 1: 1990-1996 - When football came home....kind of.

Close calls, disallowed goals, questionable red cards and missed penalties. For the past two decades, watching England at a major tournament has been anything but boring and nearly always provides gripping drama.

Unfortunately, far too often, it's that thoroughly depressing type of drama where there's no happy ending and little but pain and dejection along the way. Much more Requiem for a Dream than It's a Wonderful Life.

In the final act, our brave heroes don't triumph against adversity and leave us all with hearts warmed and spirits raised. Rather it usually sees our brave heroes miss from twelve yards and leaves us all thoroughly p*ssed off for the rest of summer.

Yet every time England make it through to the finals of a major tournament, the country shuts down regular service, domestic animosities are set aside and we dare to dream once again. Like the gluttons for punishment we truly are.

Before the World Cup in South Africa gets under way, I thought I'd look back at my own experiences watching England's past failures, and try to establish which exits really hurt the most.

World Cup Italia '90.

I was only a wee lad when the Italian World Cup took place, but I can still vaguely remember the buzz around the country at the time. After the disappointing 1980's, this was the strongest England team we'd had in a while with Messrs Butcher, Pearce, Robson, Waddle, Barnes, Beardsley, Linekar and of course Gascoigne, all at the peak of their game.

This was the tournament of Nessun Dorma, the Milla wiggle, Salvatore Schillaci, and hardly any goals. Indeed Wikipedia reliably informs me that Italia 90 generated a record low goals-per-game average for a World Cup (a treat for all you fact fans out there.)

Following an uninspiring group stage, England faced Belgium the last 16 and needed a dramatic winner in the last minute of extra time from David Platt to see us through. Then, after going behind to Cameroon in the Quarter Finals, two Gary Linekar penalties saw us stumble into the semi-finals against the much fancied West Germany.

It was this semi-final against West Germany that has been forever etched on the conscious of English fans. While I may have only flitting memories of this tournament, the scenes from this infamous game are repeated so regularly, that it really does seem like only yesterday.

The Germans hit first as Brehme's free kick took a wicked deflection and looped in off Paul Parker to give the Germans the lead. Luckily, the clinical Linekar smacked home from close range (obviously) with ten minutes to go to take the tie to extra time.

In the 99th minute, in what was to become one of the most inconic images of the World Cup, Gazza over ran a ball on one of his forays forward and foolishly lunged in aggressively on a German player. As soon as the ref blew for the foul, Gazza was already pleading his innocence and begging the official not to show a card, knowing full well this would rule him out of the final. Unfortunately for him, the referee didn't change his mind (take note Ricardo Carvalho, they NEVER change their mind, no matter how innocent you look) and the distraught Gascoigne, unable to hide his emotions, let out some of the most famous tears in TV history.

Now, when England games go to extra time these days, that's taken as our cue to begin accepting defeat. Back in 1990 however, there was no such hoodoo hanging over us. As crazy as it sounds, we had every chance of actually winning this shoot out.

Unfortunately, with the score at 3-3, Stuart Pearce missed his penalty. That sinking feeling began to be felt across the country. Then, after the Germans successfully converted their fourth, Chris Waddle stepped up, needing to score to keep England in the tie. In what could quite possible be the most re-watched penalty miss of all time, the mulleted winger missed his spot kick. Maybe 'missed' is not quite an accurate description here. 'Twatted it hopelessly over the bar', is perhaps more fitting.

And with that, the nation had received its first real taste of penalty heartache. How little we knew what was still to come. Italia 90 was perhaps a little too early to hit me really hard. Being only 5 at the time, I imagine I recovered fairly quickly from the disappointment, in fact it was probably as soon as fish fingers and alphabites were announced for tea.

The impact this game had on the national psyche though can never be underestimated. This was our best chance to win the trophy in years, and to go out in such an agonising way to the old enemy, was a truly bitter pill to swallow.

Pain rating: 8/10

Euro '96

Much like the England team itself, I won't bother with the forgetful Euro '92 tournament and in fact Graham Taylor's reign in general.

World Cup 1994 in the USA I do have fond memories of though, as this was the first major tournament I can remember watching avidly. Despite England's lack of qualification, the scorching temperatures and the crap TV viewing times (how selfish of the Yanks not revolve it around English viewers), it produced some memorable games, and also ensured I would forever remember the names of Oleg Salenko, Martin Dahlin and Yordan Letchkov (what a header).

Returning to our focus of great English failures however, we must now tackle the summit that was Euro 96. A competition it is now impossible to reminisce about and not start humming 'Three Lions' in your head.

Football was coming home, and after 6 years of dross under Graham Taylor, England went into the tournament not only as hosts, but as one of the favourites in their own right. Gazza had rekindled his career, Adams and Pearce were commanding the defence, Ince was commanding the midfield, and Shearer and Sheringham were scoring for fun.

The country usually slows down quite noticeably when major football tournaments are on and reverts to the same casual approach to work that we tend to adopt in the week running up to Christmas.

This time however, it went one step further. It was a strange joy to behold as the whole country ground to a halt for the summer and you could barely turn on a TV without football being mentioned in some way. Thinking back, this must have been quite annoying for someone who dislikes football, but then again........f*ck em.

I turned 11 the day before this tournament started, and for me this was the first one where I was really involved and fully understood what I saw before me. As an 11 year old, there were few things, if any, that meant more to me than football. I played for a team, I was already a season ticket holder at Stoke, I watched football Italia every week (god it was mostly shite wasn't it?), in other words, football was my life.

It was also the summer at the very end of my primary school years and I remember being incredibly nervous about it all ending and making the move up to 'big' school. For me and my mates, all aged 11, this tournament seemed like literally the greatest thing to ever happen to us and we got fully swept up in Euro's fever. We watched all the build up, had the sticker albums and brought the Three Lions single, nothing could ruin this perfect summer............Oh the naivety of youth.

Everything started out well enough, after a ropey draw against the Swiss, we faced the Scots at Wembley in a truly memorable encounter. Shearer was unstoppable in this tournament and he scored for the second game running in emphatic fashion. The highlight of the match though was THAT goal by Gazza. He'd had a mixed time of it since Italy in 1990, breaking his leg in a Cup final, struggling to make an impact with Lazio in Italy and then rekindling his career, ironically in Scotland with Rangers.

The Geordie genius, as no-one calls him, was on fire in this game, and everyone who watched will remember his goal with HD like clarity. Running down the left hand channel, deftly flicking the ball over Colin Hendry's head, leaving the burly Scotman flat on his arse in the process, before rifling the ball into the back of the net. Then of course he debuted the now legendary 'Dentist Chair' celebration to the world.

I wager few goals have been emulated, or at least prompted so many attempts at emulation, as this one. To this day, it is physically impossible to chip the ball over a defenders head and then not try and twat it low and hard into the goal afterwards. Our neighbours back at my parents house can attest to this fact as I spent many afternoons that summer chipping imaginary defenders in our back garden, only to forget the 'hard and low' aspect of the finish and send yet another ball flying into their garden. Now I'm not saying Gazza invented this combo, but rarely before has a goal struck such a chord with the public.

In any other tournament, this game would be England's highlight, but there was still so much to come.

Our final group game was, in theory, a difficult encounter with the Dutch. It turned out however that we needn't have worried as what followed was one of the greatest victories in England's Euro history.

I remember that when this game was on, we were on a camping trip with school. Seeing the enormity of the encounter however, they wisely set up a TV for us to watch the game on. Without getting too 'Stand by me' about it all, it was kind of special watching the game with all my school friends, especially seen as very soon we'd all go off to different schools and in reality not really see each other that much again. Naturally we were all obsessed with football, and since we hadn't yet discovered alcohol and girls were still just annoyances, playing football for hours on end was all we really wanted to do.

This was meant to be our most difficult group game, but Terry Venabals's England tore the Dutch apart, and the lethal striking partnership of Shearer and Sheringham claimed a brace each to see the game finish 4-1.

The TV room at school camp erupted at the final whistle and we all celebrated the only way we knew how at that age, by running back outside onto the nearby pitches and playing football for another 4 or 5 hours. Halcyon days. Next up was Spain in the quarter finals.

The sighting of Hally's Comet, an away team getting a penalty at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger witnessing a late Arsenal tackle, there are some events that are so rare, so unexpected and even unnatural, that when they do happen, the whole world sits up and takes notice. On the 22nd June, 1996, a natural phenomena such as this took place. It took everyone by surprise, and many weren't fully prepared for it, but somehow, someway, England won a penalty shoot out.

Technically, back then, in the heady days of the mid nineties, there wasn't the historic track record of spot kick failure that England has now. At the time of the game against Spain, the disappointment of Italia 90 was the only major penalty related disaster to have hit mainland UK to date. With the benefit of hindsight however, we are able to truly see how rare and beautiful this event was.

The match itself was actually really forgettable, finsishing 0-0 after extra time. Few who watched the game however will forget the strange sense of amazed relief that hit when David Seaman made that save from Nadal to clinch victory in the resultant penalty shoot-out. In addition few of us will forget that bloody awful garish kit he had on.

The other enduring image from this game was undoubtedly Stuart Pearce's thunderous penalty. In all honesty, I bet a large percentage of the viewing public were far from confident at seeing Psycho step up to take our third penalty. Thoughts raced back to Turin six years ago, when the passionate defender failed to convert his spot kick and was left a broken man in the centre circle as the Germans snatched victory.

Six years on though, showing immense character and bravery, Pearce demanded to take a penalty, stepped up and finally laid those demons to rest. As he smacked his penalty home, and boy did he SMACK it home, you could see what a huge weight this was lifted off his shoulders after so long. His clenched fist celebration, complete with a guttural roar towards the England fans, was a truly inspiring moment to behold.

And so, we come to the semi-final. Even as I begin typing it, a slightly sick feeling forms in my gut, and my bottom lip quivers a little bit. Forcing yourself to relive this game is like forcing yourself to watch a harrowing war film. You know it's not going to be pleasant, you know it's laced with nothing but pain and misery, but it needs to be watched so you can learn from previous mistakes and besides, if nothing else, it builds character.

So there we were, 6 years on from the disappointment in Turin, once again facing the Germans in a semi-final. This time though, we were on home turf and the vociferous crowd at Wembley would surely give us that little bit extra. *sigh*.

I watched this game at one of my friend's houses and there were 4 or 5 of us there, all about 11 years old, too young to have fully felt the heartbreak of Italy 6 years previously. This was our biggest game ever, never before had a football game taken on such profound meaning. We'd spent all summer watching, playing and talking about football, and now we'd gathered together to watch England beat the old enemy.

We were well on our way after only 3 minutes with Shearer scored yet again with a bullett header to power us into the lead. About 15 minutes later however, Kuntz (insert your own joke here) grabbed an equaliser for the Germans.

The rest of the game was fairly evenly poised as I remember, but with neither team finding that elusive winning goal. Perhaps the enduring memory I have from this game however, came deep into extra time. After several near misses, and surviving a disallowed German goal (this was the tournament of the golden goal remember, one goal in extra time was all it took), England spread the ball out wide (I forget who provided the cross, possibly Darren Anderton), and there was Gazza steaming into the box to finish off the move.

Re-watching this clip now, as the balls trickles along the face of the goal, with the German keeper stranded out of position and their defenders trailing helplessly behind, you can pause it at any point and you will swear blind Gazza will make that ball.

He is motoring into the six yard box, the goal is there at his mercy. All he has to do is get a touch, and the ball is flying into the net.

Back in 1996, at my friend's house, we were all preparing to celebrate, fists were already clenched, bodies shifted to the edge of the sofa for maximum celebratory lift, and breaths collectively inhaled.

Somehow though, in a cruel twist of fate, the ball eluded the stretching Gascoigne, and continued it's harmless path across the face of goal. Multiple replays appeared to show the ball bobble just over the tip of Gazza's boot. If his shoes were one-size bigger, the whole story could have been different.

If ever a film needs to use a sound effect to demonstrate the sound of 75000 people conveying utter disbelief and despair, they need look no further than the footage from this game.

Across the country, heads plunged into hands, and whole new swear words were invented and blasted towards the TV.

Every time I re-watch the clip, a little bit of me still hopes it will turn out different, but there is poor old Gazza, so nearly the nation's hero, so nearly the one to bring football home, millimeters away from glory, agonisingly failing to convert the golden chance.

Extra-time came to a close, and it was time for the dreaded penalties.

Both sides were looking strong and scored their first 5 penalties. Then, a nervous looking Gareth Southgate stepped up to take England's 6th spot kick, and the rest is, as they say, history.

It was limp penalty, put far too close to the keeper who easily saved. Germany slammed their 6th one in, and were into the final. Southgate became the national figure of ire and would forever be associated with that miss. Much like Waddle before him, he was seen as the one who cost us a place in the final. Maybe they both did take fairly crap penalties, but they had the nerve to step up and take one, and I doubt most of us could have done much better with that vast amount of pressure heaped upon us.

At the time though, it was like the end of the world. As mere young whippersnappers, me and my friends had never really considered we would lose, this was our first real taste of following England and we'd only really heard stories of Italia 90. It wouldn't happen again, not to us.

Alas though, history has an unfortunate knack for repeating itself.

This was real disappointment. Proper; hang your head and don't speak for hours disappointment. It wasn't some minor disappointment, like when you realise it's a Lisa based Simpson's episode or that DVD shaped present you open at Christmas is actually a book. No, this was the real deal.

As the BBC team finished their coverage for the night, they singed off with a mournful montage, complete with Brit Pop also-rands Cast's melancholy ode to admitting defeat 'Walk Away' playing over the footage. Somewhere, in deepest darkest Staffordshire, four heartbroken 11 year olds sat in silence.

From this point on, I was fully braced for defeat at every major tournament. The optimism and hope of youth had been extinguished by Gazza's small feet, and Southgate's weak kick. From now on, I approached every game as one there for us to lose, and every penalty shoot out as a lost cause. As you can tell, watching football with me is a right barrel of laughs.

Pain rating: 10/10.

Next up: Part 2: 1998-2002 - Yeeeeeesss big Sol has scored!!!! Wait a minute, what's the Ref blowing for?

Here we go again.

As the 2010 World Cup looms ever closer on the horizon and the nation once again gets uncharacteristically hopeful and dangerously patriotic, memories of tournaments past come flooding back to football fans across the country.

The hustle and bustle of the domestic season has all but ended, and club loyalties are due to be put aside for a summer spent in front of the TV, yelling mildly xenophobic comments at referees and likewise extremely offensive comments at ITV commentators.

For many of us, there is never quite the same passion that there is with your own team, and as a result following the national team in a major tournament feels a lot like a summer time fling with a fancy continental mistress away from the trusty housewife that is the English league.

Yet despite starting off sceptical, and telling yourself yet again that you won't get your hopes up this time, once the tournament is under way and life begins revolving around the World Cup once again, you can't help but get caught up in the drama.

After months spent resolutely sticking by your team and booing and heckling anyone who pulls on the shirt of another club, it feels strange now throwing your hat in with these scoundrels and doing something as outlandish as willing Steven Gerrard to do well.

Suddenly you're cheering on Wayne Rooney, talking up the abilities of Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole seems somehow less annoying, and even John Terry, no he's still a fairly cretinous human being. However, if big John scores a bullet header to put us through to the next round, I'll sing his name as loudly as the next man.

So it goes every time we qualify for a major tournament. The last month or so of the domestic season is spent endlessly hoping the big name players stay clear of injuries for as we all now know, metatarsals get notoriously weak around this time of year. As the German national team can attest this time around, it can be a major blow to lose a big name player this close to the tournament, and as Wayne took to the field against my beloved Stoke, even I was praying that Andy Wilkinson could avoid tackling him too enthusiastically for the next 90 minutes.

For the few weeks leading up to the tournament, every self-styled expert across the country begins to formulate their own squad that Fabio should take to South Africa. The pro's and con's of Emile Heskey's game and his ability to 'create' goals gets analysed like never before. Steven Gerrard's best position gets scrutinised with even greater ferocity, and everyone hopes this is the tournament when Frank shows what he can do on the biggest stage of all.

Meanwhile, there are tell tale signs in every English town and city that a major tournament is on it's way. St George's crosses appear wherever you turn and motorists in particular decide that adorning their car's with as many flags as possible is the best way to show their national pride. The rest of the public of course see it as merely the best way to show you are a twat.

Seemingly every advert on TV involves football or footballers, ranging from the heartwarming (Sony Bravia and the fat kid scoring a goal. Gawd bless ya son), to the strangely inspiring (that Carlsberg add should be really annoying, but I have grown strangely attached to it now, despite Phil Taylor's baffling cameo), to the just plain crap (note to Pringles, Dirk Kuyt's face should not be used to sell anything).

The tabloids also increase their substantial zeal for gossip and intrigue surrounding the national team, as the gaping hole left by the end of the domestic season needs to be filled come what may. The red-top's shameless journos must be rubbing their hands together and waiting impatiently for a piece of scandalous news to emerge, much like baying Jackals following a hunt and eagerly waiting for a piece of carrion to be tossed their way. Someones got to cheat on someone sooner or later after all.

As the various pull-outs and wall charts increase in number and the important match dates get inked onto many a calender, the excitement begins to build.

This year, the squad is looking strong and with Wayne in top form, we have to be considered one of the tournament favourites. Football fans up and down the country are allowing themselves to dream of how they would celebrate if England do manage to lift the trophy. The mass sick day of Monday 12th July will be a wonderful thing to behold. Maybe, just maybe, they will go all the way this time. This could be our year.

Just, one thing, .........for the love of God, practice your penalty taking boys. We all know it's coming sooner or later.

Friday, 7 May 2010

A gruelling end to proceedings.

It first hit me at about 16:45 on the 17th April. The referee blew the final whistle and Stoke had somehow contrived to throw away a one goal lead and lose at home to Bolton in a game we should really have put to rest long ago. I stood up dejectedly, looked across at the grey sky above the grim incinerator smoke, then looked back at the glum faces of fellow supporters and then at the dejected players as they trudged slowly off towards the tunnel. What hit me was this simple thought, "Christ I wish the season would hurry up and end".

By the time I got back to the car and had, along with Keeling senior, fully deconstructed where we had gone wrong and what needs to be done for the next season, I had calmed down somewhat and accepted the loss as a partial blip in an otherwise successful season. I consoled myself with the knowledge that, despite the result, we were definitely guaranteed a second year of top flight football.

Then, the Chelsea away game happened.

This embarrassment was the straw that broke the camel's back, and alongside the disappointing loss to Bolton and the continuing stories of dressing room unrest, it saw a gloomy cloud forming over fortress Britannia. With Stoke limping towards the footballing finish line, I once again muttered to anyone within earshot, "Christ, I REALLY wish the season would hurry up and end".

Let me make my position clear however, I am by no means disappointed with our second season, and indeed since I first thought about this blog entry, we have gained a solid home draw with Everton and a cracking away win against Fulham. We have bettered our points tally from last season and have cemented ourselves as a solid mid-table Premiership side. This is of course no mean feat and Tony and the boys deserve any plaudits they receive.

It's just after witnessing these lacklustre results, and with various tales of unhappiness leaking out of our dressing room at a great rate of knots, it's just hard to muster up much enthusiasm for the remaining few games, especially when you know you're already safe and have essentially nothing to play for. The World Cup is beckoning and a summer of beer, barbeque's and bitter disappointment lies ahead. As the 7th Chelsea goal flew in, I couldn't help but wish for the drudgery of the season to end, and the summer to begin.

The disappointing loss to Bolton was made all the more excruciating by the comically easy chances we spurned. Tuncay hit the post after an inch perfect lay off, from only about 8 yards out. How he didn't hit the target I don't know. In the dieing moments, Faye also construed to miss an absolute sitter from merely yards out, which was really a chance harder to miss than to score.

It was the Chelsea game that really hurt though, in 3D. It was devastating in all three dimensions. It seemed a great idea at the time, get a few of the lads down to the pub to bask in the technological breakthrough of 3D football all the while seeing the potters bravely battle to upset a previously rampant Chelsea team.

Never again. That will teach me to venture out of the sanctity of my front room to watch Stoke away games that are on TV. It was like when your mum shows all your friends embarrassing pictures of you from when you are young. Suddenly they have an insight into your secret life and have seen a side of it you never wanted them to know. And to make matters worse, they are quite rightly laughing their tits off at you.

To lose 7-0 to a team in your own league, is inexcusable. End of. Unless you are woefully out of your depth, like Derby a few seasons ago, then you should be able to at least give any other team in your league a run for their money.

I'm the first the complain about the inequalities in football, but if anything, this season saw the gulf between the 'big 4' and the rest of the league decrease noticeably. Spurs broke into the hallowed Champions League places. Man City and Villa pushed them close, and all three finished above Liverpool. Whats more, the big teams all lost an unprecedented number of games, with Chelski losing 6 and United 7.

Stoke against Chelsea however were just shit. Pure unabashed, shit. We looked like a bunch of Year 7's playing an end of season special game against the big boys in Sixth form. I half expected Frank Lampard to steal Glen Whelan's dinner money at the end of the game.

Chelsea were just too fast and too strong for Stoke and by about the 80 minute mark it resembled something of a training ground game for them as every slick move resulted in a good chance on goal.

Tony Pulis did in fairness agree with my critical sentiments, if not in fact the exact wording, and made clear to the players that this performance was not good enough. For the fans however, it was a worrying eye opener as to our own frailties. More importantly however, it made me look even more longingly at the Match magazine 'Countdown to the World Cup' chart we have in our front room. We are all 25, going on 14 in our house.

On top of the problems on the pitch, it has also become quite clear that we may have one or two problems off it as well. Following on from the incident at the Emirates back in December when Tony Pulis may or may not (he did) have headbutted James Beattie in the dressing room, we have also seen a spate of players storming off down the tunnel after being substituted. I say spate, I'm not sure if two incidents constitutes a spate, but when it goes from 0 to 2 after years of 0, I think spate is a legitimate word to use.

Tuncay has done this a few times now, and on the last occasion against Bolton, it saw him receive a few boos from the Stoke faithful. Tony has partially forgiven Tunny however acknowledging that he is from a different culture and perhaps can't be held t the same standards as the homegrown lads.

Dave Kitson however, has certainly incurred the wrath of TP. He stormed off after being substituted in the Chelsea game, an act of mercy for which he should really of thanked Tone. It wasn't like Kitson was taking it to Chelski all on his own, peppering Cech's goal with shots and terrorising their defence with Messi-esque runs. He was barely reaching Gifton Noel-Williams levels of effectiveness. So quite why he spat at out his dummy when Tony pulled him off (chortle) is anybody's guess.

It's not the first time the ginger whinger (Am I the first to come up with that name? maybe I should pursue a career in headline writing for the tabloids) had caused a rumpus in the dressing room, and his relationship with the management was clearly strained as he was shipped out on loan to Middlesboro earlier in the campaign.

Upon his return however he was slowly earning the love of the Stoke faithful thanks to two factors. Firstly he put in a couple of good performances and even bagged a couple of goals. This is perhaps the norm for other club's strikers, but it's a considerable achievement for Stoke's.

Secondly 'Super Dave' benefited from the simple fact that he wasn't Mama Sidibe. The growing anger aimed towards the Malian Mauler (on second thoughts, best keep the tabloid career on hold for now), meant that big Dave was seen by many as the preferred partner for Riccy in Stoke's attack.

This new found adoration was soon over however as Kitson made the fatal mistake of publicly criticising the City regime in the press and even going as far as to label himself a scapegoat for all problems at Stoke. That was all Tone needed to hear and Dave hasn't featured for us again this season and almost definitely never will again.

It was also widely rumoured that either Dave, the forgotten man Beattie, or perhaps both of them, may have leaked another tale of dressing room strife to the press that occurred on our fateful trip to Stamford Bridge. Without boring you to much with the minor details of this slightly bizarre story, the general gist is that Glen Whelan questioned Abdoulaye Faye's commitment to the cause after the club captain appeared to be taking a half-hearted approach to a team warm up by doing it in his sandals. After escalated discussions, long story cut short,.......Faye lamped Glen one in the face.

Unfortunately the story somehow found it's way into the hands of the press, much to the dismay of Tony and both Abdy and Glen, who appeared to have shrugged off the story by the next week. It was the leak that upset the club more than the fiery argument, and the blame was squarely placed at the two disgruntled forwards feet. For a club that prides itself on its team spirit and us-against-them attitude, this is a most unwelcome distraction in the dressing room.

So, as proceedings draw to a close, and after witnessing a respectable but uninspiring scoreless draw against Everton at home, coupled with the poor home loss to Bolton, the atrocities of Chelsea and the unrest in the dressing room, my desire for the season to end is not I don't think entirely without merit.

This is not me being too expectant or having ideas above our station, far from it. I am more than happy with our final league position and our points tally in general and firmly believe this season can be counted as a success for the Potters as we cement our position as a Premier League team.

However after a long slog of a season with few memorable highlights like those which peppered our first season in the top flight, coupled with this gruelling ending, the summer break filled with World Cup excitement begins to look very enticing.

Mind you, as England crash out in the quarter finals once again on penalties, I'm sure my gaze will hungrily turn to the forthcoming fixture list and I'll begin to pine once again for the thrills and spills of the domestic season.

Unless we have Chelsea away first game.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The business end of the season.....

As the end of another season looms ever closer on the horizon, fans across the country are bracing themselves for a tense finish. Some teams find themselves locked in nail-biting tussles for European glory whilst others fight for mere survival. In the Premier League however, there are a select few, namely Birmingham, Sunderland, Blackburn and the mighty Potters, whose seasons are now as good as over, and all that's left to do is to take pleasure in denying other clubs, who do still have something to play for, a vital three points.

In the case of Stoke, we still have a big role to play in events at both ends of the table. In the relegation dog fight (see '101 favourite tabloid football phrases' alongside "business end of the season" and "threw themselves a life-line"), we still have to play Wolves at Molineux, with Mick's boys looking fairly safe primarily on the basis that at least two of the teams below them are even crapper than they are. We also have a home game against Bolton in which the Trotters will be going all out to pick up vital points.

With regards to the title race, we could potentially have an even bigger say as we still need to travel to both Chelsea and Manchester United. I say 'potentially' have a big say, the reality is both of these games will probably see our 'goals against' column take a bit of a battering. Our trip to Old Trafford on the last game of the season could be crucial to their title bid. It may be as they need a win, perhaps even by a certain amount of goals, in order to finish top. As if the ticket price wasn't reason enough to put you off going to this game, the thought of Rooney and co. going all out to bang in as many goals as they can should do the trick.

Up until these past two seasons, Stoke fans know all too well that nervy feeling that creeps up around mid march as the reality hits home that you really are running out of games to get the necessary points. Certain tell tale signs begin to remind you that time is running out. That crap team in one of the lower leagues who stormed their own division the season before but have been rock bottom of their current division since around mid September, already have a big embarrassing (R) next to their name in the table. TV pundits pour over upcoming fixtures and assess in minute detail who has 'the easiest run in'. The games themselves occur in nice pleasant sunshine (in theory), almost mocking you for the preceding 7 months of cloud and drizzle that have ruined your enjoyment of the bulk of the season. This upturn in weather also ensures that your long lost Baseball cap and forgotten replica shirt get dug out and given a few fleeting airings.

The mood at football matches changes drastically in this period, swinging from hopeful optimism to blind panic in the space of only a few matches. Stokies will remember several nervy play-off pushes and a sprinkling of relegation battles in recent memory, as well as the nerve shredding run in that accompanied our promotion season in 2008. I'm fairly sure the final 6 or 7 games of that campaign have each taken about a year off my life expectancy.

In many ways, this is the first uneventful end of season we've had in quite some time. Our safety was realistically assured several games ago, and as we sit in 10th spot with a good 15 points between us and the drop zone, we can already call this an impressive second season. With any luck, another win can be achieved and that 3 points will see us beat last seasons total. I'm sure all but the most fanciful of Stoke fans would have set this as their main goal when we started this campaign back in sunny August.

Since starting to write this entry, I've actually attended the aforementioned Wolves away game, and witnessed a tepid snore draw (another tabloid favourite there) that severely tested my footballing patience. Nevertheless, it was a decent away point, and we never looked in any great danger of losing the game. A few missed headers by Abdoulaye, a stinging long range effort from Glen Whelan and a customary missed sitter from Mama ('fantastic' in this game according to Tony, 'a waste of f*cking space' according to everyone who sat near me), was all the goalmouth action we managed to muster.

By about 70 minutes, the fiery atmosphere that would usually accompany this derby(-ish) game was all but gone, with the lacklustre game proving to be the answer to the local constabulary's prayers. When the final whistle went, Sunday roasts and an afternoon spent basking in the sun were already on supporters minds, as was the ridiculousness of starting a game at 12 noon on a Sunday.

Now i'm a footballing romantic in many ways. I ideally want all games to be at 3pm Saturday, or at 7:45 on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I accept the need for TV revenue grudgingly however, and so also accept the need for Saturday 1pm and 5:30pm games, and even a Sunday 4pm one (at a push). I'd rather there were no games on a Sunday, not for any religious reasons, purely because Saturday is football's day and should be kept accordingly. Midday on a Sunday however IS NO TIME FOR FOOTBALL.

Lounging on a sofa, pouring over the match reports from the day before, roasted meat aroma emanating from the kitchen and hangover farts emanating from your person. That's what midday on a Sunday is about. But, in their infinite wisdom, one of either Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, or West Midlands Police, decided that if the game was at 3pm on a Saturday as planned, there was no possible outcome but a full on riot. Somehow Stoke managed to stage their encounter between the two teams at this time, but Wolves couldn't quite manage it.

The thing is, the people who make trouble at these games don't care when it kicks off. The fine gentlemen who accompanied me on the morning train from Manchester and were 5 beers deep before I had even woken up properly, didn't care what time the game kicked off. It was a crap decision and it was an undeniable contributor to the game's muted atmosphere. The other, much larger contributor being the dross that was served up as entertainment in this, the finest league in the world. The Police got lucky there as they could now step back and bleet about how the early kick-off ensured there was little or no trouble. 'Oh no, it wasn't the kick off time. It was boredom killed the beast.' It didn't matter when that game kicked off, if Stoke slammed home a 94th minute winner thanks to a controversial winner (for example), the atmosphere would still have turned rather nasty. It's no time for football.

There seemed to be even more long throw opportunities than normal in this encounter, a threat with which Wolves coped with relatively comfortably. The barrage of throws was much to the disdain of those footballing purists that follow Wolves however, who greeted each newly awarded Stoke throw with a 'boring, boring' chant. These same budding wordsmiths also enquired of the Stoke support, 'how do you watch this every week?'.

Wow. Where to start with this one. First of all, whilst such an enquiry could perhaps be accepted from fans of Barcelona or Arsenal, this was being asked of us by Wolves fans. People in boring glass houses, should perhaps not throw stones, ay chaps? Take out Jarvis and Doyle and what did that Wolves team have going forward? Nothing. There was barely an attack on the Stoke goal the entire game, so lets not not get any delusions of grandeur here.

Secondly, the main reason we can watch this every week my dingle chums, is that we are currently 10 points ahead of you, safe from relegation and looking forward to our third straight season of Premiership football. As you yourselves are no doubt aware, a couple of decades away from the limelight sees priorities change and expectations likewise. In other words, we aren't playing Scunthorpe and Gillingham away anymore, and we don't have to consider a home game against you lot as our biggest game of the season.

This brings me neatly back to the point I was making earlier, namely that surely survival and improvement on last year, was most Stoke fan's goal for this season.
After the game, there was understandably a few grumbles amongst the travelling Stoke fans. Shelling out £40 to watch that game would do this to the most upbeat of fans. Yet aside from legitimate grumbles about team selection and tactics, the type of grumbles that one cannot be a football fan without, some people seemed to lack a little bit of perspective.

There were a few people walking off from the ground, also a fair number who post on the Oatcake forum, and also a small number ringing into Radio Stoke's Praise and Grumble phone-in, who seem genuinely unhappy not only with this result, but also with Pulis in general. Now while being anti-Pulis is nothing new, surely being 10th in the Premier League and ensuring the club is amongst the most stable and secure in the English game, should buy him a little bit of slack?

I've said from my very first blog entry, that for me, this season was always about consolidation. I don't care too much about the standard of football, as long as we stay up, and hopefully improve on last year. Tony himself has suggested that it will take in fact 3 seasons to consolidate our position in the top flight, and then we can begin to push on. Ok, well, I said 2 seasons, a professional manager says 3, I'm willing to accept that he might, perhaps, know more about managing a football club than me, so will grudgingly accept his assertion. I hope we can 'push on' (football management speak for 'do better') next season however and with a few more quality signings, namely a forward to take some of the pressure of Riccy, a right winger, and a midfield maestro, we shouldn't have any problems cementing our position as a mid table top flight club.

Those potters fans who want to see a severe change next season however, should brace themselves for disappointment and perhaps curb their expectations slightly. We have done exceptionally well to stay where we are, and Tony is obviously not the type of manager to change his style of play on a whim. We are not going to suddenly turn into a Barcelona, a Brazil, or (god forbid) a West Brom. Expect more of the same next time round, only with any luck, a few more quality players brought in over the summer can see the percentage of games spent playing attractive football increased, and the reliance on set pieces etc, diminished.

We should bare in mind that the next step up from where we currently find ourselves means competing with the likes of Everton, Villa and Spurs. We are a long, LONG way off this yet. We cannot get ideas above our station and need to accept that for the next few seasons, our best case scenario is another mid table finish. I think all of us hope we begin to play a little bit more football, and with any luck, now we are established as a Premier League side, the players of the calibre we require to play slightly more attractive football, will be willing to come to us.

Next season sees the return of those perennial yo-yo favourites West Brazil Albion. With Tony Mowbray being busy playing the game 'the right way' up in Scotland, and proving just about as successful there as he was with WBA, the Baggies are now under the tutelage of Roberto Di Matteo. Another footballing purist who likes his team to play a pretty, passing game.

I applaud this mentality in the Championship, but surely West Brazil need only look at their own recent history to know that this approach may not work once you're mixing it with the big boys. Just ask West Ham and Burnley fans how their scintillating football is going at the moment. I'm sure Bob Matthews (to give him his English name), will be all to aware of his teams limitations, but whether he will be able to make them adapt to a much tougher opposition is another matter. Given the choice between a season of dogged, scrappy games that see us push into mid table or a season of well-meaning and occasionally attractive football that sees us lose continually to teams that are simply better at it than us....I know which i'd pick.