Monday, 30 November 2009

Blackburn (a) Sat 28th November - A vast improvement

Last season's trip to Ewood Park resulted in a disappointing 3-0 defeat as a lacklustre Stoke were soundly beaten by a superior Blackburn side. It's testament to the progress our club has made in the 11 months since that dreary day in December that today's game was not only evenly matched, but if anything Stoke looked the most likely to win.

Obscurely, this game was far more entertaining than the 1-0 win the week before, and definitely marked a vast improvement from the team in terms of both creativity and effort. The match was end to end with each side having had plenty of chances to secure the win amidst some flowing football that belied their hoof-ball reputations.

Of course on paper, 0-0 between Stoke and Blackburn doesn't really leap out as an epic encounter, more so it leaps out as a guaranteed last match on Match of the Day. It was typical though of MOTD's anchor (and he is a complete and total anchor) Gary Lineker to summarise the entirety of the match with a short derisory "hardly a thriller". Oh I am sorry Gary, was it not quite thrilling enough for you? I counted at least 5 or 6 solid chances for both teams, each including an absolute sitter of Ronny Rosentahl proportions. Does this not deserve at least some comment?

If Stoke achieve a surprise result, like their outstanding win away at Spurs, then we are lauded with praise as a strong organised team that is equipping themselves superbly to life in the Premier League. The rest of our matches however tend to be in the last two or three on MOTD, which as any regular viewer knows, usually means minimal appraisal. Now i'm under no illusions here, a lot of Stoke games can be fairly bland affairs and i'm not disputing their lowly place on the MOTD schedules. However it does get a little galling when the smug jug-eared tw*t decides to dismiss the entire match with one short sarcastic aside.

Our usual MOTD coverage is as follows: a few brief match highlights, a short interview with the respective managers and then it's back to the studio. Right on cue, Gary leans back, raises his eyebrows at a smirking Alan Hansen and desperately holds back from sneering"what a shower of shite that was". They have all the time in the world to praise United's attacking threat for the umpteenth time, or discuss once again what's gone wrong under Rafa, but a quick minute long analysis of where Stoke are letting themselves down, or where they might improve.....that's too much to ask.

But I digress. Back to the game itself.

Ewood park is a great ground to visit, easy access, a quality view and chippies aplenty. Like most clubs who aren't Stoke, they have ample nearby parking and pubs, and you have no trouble getting away from the match quickly and stress free. It always amazes me how quickly you can get away from many of the away grounds we visit. Any fan trying to park near the Brit faces an obscenely early arrival to guarantee a space, and then a monumental wait to get off after. Even in the days when we were averaging gates of around 14,000 in the Championship, supporters were up in arms due to waits of over an hour to get off the club car parks. Cars crawl away from the ground in a poorly designed system that seems designed purely to maximise traffic congestion.

You may be spotting a theme over these past few posts, namely the gross incompetence of those who designed our ground and it's surrounding infrastructure. It really is not any exaggeration. Now I've grown to love the Brit, as i'm sure most Stoke fans have, but that's due to the experiences i've witnessed on the pitch and the electric atmosphere our fans create. My love of the Brit has come despite the open corners, the deficit of parking, the lack of roadways and pathways leading to the ground, the cramped concourses and the hill-top location. I've even grown to like the Incinerator-side views my seat offers.

For away fans however, a trip to the Brit is far from a pleasant experience. Any away fans travelling to fortress Britannia are greeted with an extreme deficit of nearby amenities and no pubs to frequent other than a Harvester that is about as safe and welcoming for away fans as a BNP rally is for Abu Hamza. In any away day league, a visit to the Britannia has to rank fairly near the bottom. Unless you have a penchant for industrial estates and incinerator's, there really isn't much to occupy your time.

Ewood park suffers no such problems however, and the ground itself is 3/4 of the way to being a top class stadium. The lowly looking Riverside Stand looks hideously out of place compared to its three modern compatriots, but other than that the ground is smartly designed and the top-tier in the Darwen End offers a brilliant view.

Blackburn's 90's heyday must seem like a distant memory to any devout Rovers fan. Their constant string of mid-to-bottom half finishes has clearly had an impact on the pitifully quiet home fans.If your ground is so quiet on match day that it makes the Reebok Stadium seem like a cauldron of noise, you know you are in trouble. There's barely a peep out of the Rovers fans other than the odd half-hearted 'Big Sam's barmy army', which did little but make the term 'barmy' sound bitterly ironic.

The travelling Stoke support was on top form however and almost had something to celebrate in the first half as both Dean Whitehead and Liam Lawrence went close only for Paul Robinson to show his quality in the Blackburn goal and thwart them both.

Pulis had seemingly learned from the Pompey game and opted to start Lawrence on the right instead of Delap. This ensured that we actually looked dangerous going forward and were able to attack from down both flanks. A rare treat in a Pulis side.

The other big change from the Pompey game was the inclusion of big Mama (in the 'Mama Role' of course) alongside the tireless Fuller up front. The two linked up as well as ever, with Fuller once again running their defence ragged, creating numerous chances for his team-mates but unfortunately none for himself.

The second half saw both teams go close, but Stoke in particular missed a couple of absolute sitters. Beattie came on for a tiring Mama and proceeded to spoon a chance over from close range when he really should have broken the back of the net.

It was Whitehead however who missed the chance of the match. This was one of those chances destined for a Christmas stocking-filler DVD, 'crap misses from the six-yard box when it's harder to miss...and gaffes 7' .

Whitehead actually had a decent game in the midfield, tirelessly closing Rovers midfield down and continually getting forward to support our front two. When Fuller went on a typically jinking run, cutting in at the by line and powering into the box, he spotted Whitehead unmarked merely yards out from the goal. A perfectly weighted pass was crying out for Deano, or even Etherington perfectly positioned behind him, to smack it home. Unfortunately Dean swiped wildly at the cross and proceeded to guide the ball harmlessly away from the goal. To say your Grandmother could have scored it may be a slight understatement. Your Grandmother could have done a few kick ups, paused to salute the travelling support, got down on her knees and nosed the ball over the line, but it just wasn't to be.

Nevertheless, Stoke left Ewood Park happy with a point and overall the game was genuinely a close and entertaining encounter which either team could have won. Despite what Mr. Lineker would have you believe.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Portsmouth (h) Sun 22nd Nov - Not one for the neutral.

I would like to start off with a sincere apology to any neutral fan who forced themselves to watch the Stoke Vs Portsmouth game on Sky this past weekend. It was mind-numbingly boring and quite possibly the least entertaining game you will see on TV in quite some time.

That being said, please bare in mind that as tedious as it was for you, at least you were warm and dry and indifferent to its outcome. Winter arrived in earnest for this game, and due to the Britannia doubling up as a wind tunnel, Saturday was a particularly cold and wet afternoon and one which I was grossly unprepared for.

Newcomers to the Brittania may notice a strange sight on winter match day afternoons as hundreds of Michelin Men plod reluctantly up the pathways to the ground. This is not due to an obesity epidemic striking Stoke-On-Trent, but due to a cunning survival method picked up by long suffering fans. The central tenant of this survival plan being strict adherence to the mantra 'you can never have enough layers'.

Perched on top of a wind-battered hill, and thanks to a complete lack of foresight from it's designers meaning that three of it's corners remain open to the elements, the Britannia Stadium can make a pretty good claim for being the coldest ground in England. Unfortunately for me, I had temporarily taken leave of my senses and decided that 3 layers would be sufficient for this game. Several shivering hours later, as the feeling returned to my hands and nether regions, I reminded myself that for the next 2 or 3 months, 'you can never have enough layers'.

Leaving the meteorological issues aside for now, there remains the issue of the match itself. On the walk to the ground as me and my dad entered into our usual game of predicting the day's team, the grim realisation hit us once again......we know EXACTLY what team Tony Pulis will play today. Pulis is a manager who has built a career around producing solid teams who don't concede. Unfortunately, this can make for fairly gruelling viewing at times and as such, despite his success, Tone has alienated a large portion of our fanbase, who may support the team, but will never support his methods.

As a result of this commitment to producing a robust and 'hard to break down' side, Tone has adopted an infuriating tactic of sidelining most of the creative players we possess. In their place he favours rugged workhorses who will throw themselves into tackles all day long, but unfortunately not add much in the way of goal-scoring threat. As such, grafters such as Dean Whitehead, Salif Diao and Rory Delap are currently three quarters of Tone's preferred midfield. Each of them a solid enough player, but never likely to set the pulses racing. Considering we are at home and facing a dismal Pompey side who are bottom of the League with only 7 points to their name, me and Keeling senior briefly hoped for an attacking and dynamic midfield quartet who will really take the game to the opposition. Tone has other ideas however, 'best keep it tight', he thinks. Best not give too much away.

So while Matthew Etherington retains his place on one wing, (a glimmer of attacking hope in our midfield), there is unfortunately once again no place for Liam Lawrence, Glenn Whelan or Tuncay Sanli. Granted, Whelan picked up a slight groin strain playing for Ireland in the week and Tone didn't want to risk him. Ok, fair enough, I'll give him that one. However, Liam may have played in the week for Ireland as well, but the man is a professional sportsman, and one whose key attribute is his tireless work ethic, could he not of perhaps managed a further 90 minutes 4 days later?

Finally, there is what I will now term the Tuncay conundrum. Tuncay Sanli is the Turkish national team captain and an extremely skilled attacking player. Stoke signed him in the Summer to everyone's surprise for a fee of around £5 Million. To this date, he has yet to start a league game for us. This fact is made all the more confusing when it is taken it account how versatile Tuncay is. Whilst primarily a striker, he is able to function equally as well as an attacking midfielder or even a winger.

However, in order to accommodate Whitehead and Diao in the centre of midfield, Tone needs to find room for the human slingshot that is Rory Delap. Away from home against top opposition, this has some degree of logic to it, as his long throws provide us with a much needed weapon. But you'd like to think we could go without for a home game against weak opposition. Alas, it is not to be under Tone, and so Tuncay Sanli, Turkish national team captain and creative dynamo, is kept on the bench and off the wing in favour of a workhorse central midfielder who could not beat a man and cross a ball if his life depended on it.

As one might imagine with this uninspiring engine room, Stoke lacked any real cutting edge in the first half and forwards Ricardo Fuller and James Beattie were woefully short on service. Now, while I may moan about Tone's midfield team selection, I do nonetheless accept that the players he chooses are of at least a moderate standard. They are all decent enough players who as little as 4 or 5 years ago i'd of been ecstatic to have in our team. However, at times today some of our passing is just plain bad, not unlucky or unfortunate, just bad.

When I watch teams like Arsenal or Chelsea on TV, I often see them break from one end of the pitch to the other with an almost majestic grace and beauty. Pin-point passing and fast, dynamic movement perfectly combine to produce flowing attacking football that as a neutral you can't help but admire. Against Portsmouth, Stoke's counter-attacking effort is more akin to watching the Chuckle Brothers in action. "To me, no to you...oh no we've dropped it". Surely Arsenal and Chelsea's millionaires aren't THAT much better than our boys. They may be better players, but they aren't completely different creatures.

We never really get into second gear in the first half, and the embarrassing lack of 'highlights' from this opening 45 minutes on Match of the Day is testament to the crapness of this half of football. A fine Thomas Sorenson save from a woeful Pompey penalty is about all the excitement we get.

The second half is a better, if still not exhilarating, show from our lot. Soon enough Tone makes a much needed double substitution. Firstly Liam Lawrence is brought on, (looking as sprightly as ever) but who else do we we have on of the bench to provide us with that much needed attacking edge? That's right, you guessed it.....Mama Sidibe.

This move by Tone was never in any doubt to any regular attendee of Stoke's games for the past 2 or 3 seasons. Big Mama is a Tony Pulis favourite, nay, THE Tony Pulis favourite. For several years he proved the basis of our attacking play. Big hoof up to the lofty Mama, he flicks it on and then Fuller beats as many defenders as he can and smacks it in the net. This fool proof plan surprisingly doesn't work quite as well in the Premier League as it did in the Championship. John Terry ET AL find it a bit easier to contain this ingenious tactic.

Many thought Mama would struggle with the step up to the Premier League, but to be fair to him, he's equipped himself reasonably well. Knowing his own limitations, he usually sets about winning as much as he can in the air and holding the ball up as much as possible, whilst leaving the more frivolous footballing jobs such as beating men or, you know, scoring goals, to his team mates.

It is Mama's limitations that contribute to one of the more surreal moments of the game. After a nice bit of interplay between Etherington, Whitehead and Fuller, Ricardo superbly curls home his first goal of the campaign to give us a precious one goal lead. Shortly after, another bit of link up play between Lawrence and Fuller puts Mama through on goal. About 8 yards out, and to the right hand side of the goal, this is a guilt edged chance and one any Premiership striker should slot away with no hesitation. Mama however, manages only to skew the effort well wide and the shot just about manages to avoid going out for a throw. A goal here and the tension is lifted, the supporters can relax slightly (though never too much knowing Stoke), and judging by Pompey's own overwhelming crapness, a win would be all but assured.

So, Mama misses, and what is the crowd reaction? An almost synchronised groan followed by a lighthearted chuckle. That's right, a groan and a chuckle. You can hear people chortling to their mates and noting "that was typical Sidibe" or "ah well, it was Mama" as if it is almost acceptable and all just a big in-joke amongst Stoke fans.

This miss is treated with the same kind of warm reassuring reaction that you give your drunken mate on a Friday night when he drops his kebab on his shoes and falls headfirst into a bush. "Haha, typical Dan, he's harmless really. It wouldn't be a night out without him making a tit of himself". This is the attitude that we Stoke fans have towards Mama. He only be a grafter with limited abilities......but he's OUR grafter with limited abilities. It seemingly wouldn't be a Stoke game without one vintage Mama miss.

Luckily though, we held on for the win. Pompey looked a very poor side and they really are going to struggle if they don't invest in some fresh talent come January. The post-match atmosphere around the ground was one of grudging satisfaction. We got the three points, were 9th in the league, but the dismal performance had hardly set pulses racing. I for one subscribe to the mindset that as long as we win, I don't care too much how we got there. It's games like today that do test this theory however.

If Ricardo hadn't of shown is class in producing a top draw finish, we could very easily of drawn that game 0-0. The mood afterwards would definitely of been markedly different had we drawn with the league's bottom club at home. A result that was certainly not a million miles away from happening.

On Radio Stoke after the game the legendary Stoke commentator Nigel Johnson was conducting his usual interview with Tony Pulis. As always, the gaffer justified his team selection and complemented the lads for working aaaarrrrd. Gingerly warming my hands on the car heaters I almost missed one choice nugget from Tone. Lamenting to Nigel about Tuncay's continued lack of games, Pulis decreed "you can't play Ricardo and Tuncay together in the same team". Come again Tone? You can't play two extremely talented and creative forwards in the same team? I beg to differ. What you mean is, they can't play together in one of YOUR teams.

Now I am not part of the ardent anti-Pulis brigade, after all it's playing Tone's way that got us into the top flight, but lets tell it like it is here. Few other managers would decide there is no way to play two top draw players in the same side as each other simply because one of them isn't capable of playing 'the Mama role'.

It would appear the Tuncay conundrum shows no sign of being solved just yet.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Mythical 95th Minute Lob

Losing 3-0 at home to Shrewsbury. That was how it all began for me. On a cold, dark and grey (probably) Saturday afternoon back in 1990, aged five years old, that was how I was first introduced to the club that would come to monopolise my weekends for the following two decades.

It was Stoke's first season in the third tier of English football after a disastrous run under Alan Ball the year before. The one man relegation machine had somehow inexplicably kept his job going into the new campaign, but departed half way through what was to prove a disappointing season for Stoke as we limped home to a paltry 15th place finish.

It would be very easy for me to say that the proceeding twenty years followed in the dismal footsteps of that bleak Saturday back in 1990, but if I’m honest, supporting Stoke has provided it's fair share of highs along the way, as well as some pitiful lows.

For every 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Birmingham there is a last minute play-off victory over Cardiff. For every 0-0 draw at home against Nuneaton Borough in the FA cup, there's beating Man United at home 2-1 in the League cup. Three promotions and two Autoglass/Autowindscreen victories(whoever the unglamorous sponsor of this prestigious cup competition was at the time) aren't a bad haul across nineteen odd seasons, especially when balanced against only one relegation in the same period.

Even in seasons where we don't really achieve anything, we quite often still manage to instill a bit of drama into the proceedings, be it a couple of unsuccessful dalliances with the play offs, or narrowly avoiding relegation on the last game of the season. In this respect, I suppose it has been quite exciting to support Stoke and taking my 20 years of support as a collective whole, it sounds like a veritable thrill ride compared to some other clubs.

But this is the problem with only examining the highlights of something, it disregards the long periods of tedium where nothing of note really happens. It's like when you see a trailer for a new film where you know they have just shown you the four or five best bits out of two hours of predictable drivel.

It is these moments of predictable drivel that really test the patience of the football fan. It's easy to keep going back week after week when your team is running away with the league and in all likelihood going to win the majority of their matches. What really tests your loyalty, whoever you support, is whether you can still drag your beleaguered body, all hungover and weary, down to a drafty stadium with a few other hardy souls on a chilly winter's evening to see your heroes struggle once again against an away team whose own stature is best exemplified by their possession of an away following which could literally of come in a taxi.

So why do we do it? For me it's a combination of three things: enjoyment, blind loyalty and a perpetual fear of missing out.

In the first instance, one thing's for sure, supporting Stoke is often far from enjoyable. I am a firm subscriber to the mantra however that you've got to be there for the bad times to fully appreciate the good. The buzz experienced after a last minute winner can only truly be appreciated if you are there yourself to witness the other 89 minutes of nail biting action (ahem) in person.

Surviving relegation on the last day of the season back in 2003 was greeted with wild scenes of celebration hitherto rarely seen at Fortress Britannia. This hard earned 1-0 win over Reading is all that sticks in the memory from that grim campaign, with the memory of the other 45 forgettable games discarded thanks to this glorious 90 minutes. The elation of surviving relegation in this manner was made all the more sweeter by the fact that I knew I'd earned that victory. After sitting through the misery that constituted the vast majority of the previous 22 home games, this rare moment of joy was the much needed pay off that made the rest of the season worthwhile.

Blind loyalty on the other hand is hard to explain in words, it's just a feeling that develops over years of continual match attendance, a feeling that you really ought to be at the game. You owe it to to the club. Quite where this feeling comes from, I cannot explain, but if you miss too many games, you can develop a genuine sense of guilt at letting the team down. That and you run the risk of being labelled a 'part-time fan' by disappointed family members.

Then finally there's that eternal fear of missing out on something special. Every game, before those 22 cretins kick off and balls it all up, has the potential to be great. How can you possibly know that this won't be the day where you come back from 3-0 down to score four goals in the last ten minutes including a bicycle-kicked lob from the centre circle in the 95th minute to seal the win? Granted if you'd of seen a forward line of Richard Cresswell and Vincent Pericard play you would of been fairly secure in the assumption that this wouldn't happen....but you can never know for certain. Despite their best efforts, the match day experience can never truly be replaced by TV and the Internet, the special feeling you get from being their in person can never be matched.

The dream of that 95th minute lob never goes away, and at some point, it will happen.

I guess the bottom line is that if you go to watch football regularly, it becomes an unavoidable part of your routine. Without it, your weekends feel empty and trivial. Summer's are by and large merely a barren wasteland for football fans where repetitive weekends roll by filled only by menial tasks and feigning interest in lesser sports like rugby or cricket. The bizarre enthusiasm that greets the start of transfer speculation season in mid June is the clearest sign of the desperation to fill the void.

For me, it's hard to imagine a football season existing and me not attending most if not all of Stoke's home games. It has become a crucial part of my routine and a massive part of my life. As such, I felt it was about time I made my own attempt to chronicle the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies supporting a football team and give my own take on the strange beast that is the football fan.