Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Wigan (h) Saturday 12th December - Surprisingly entertaining

To me, home games against Wigan always seem slightly less enticing than ones against other teams. I maintain that their existence in the Premier League is simply a joke that's gone too far. Even Wigan's own fans can't really believe they are in the top flight. Any of them that can still remember playing their home games at the rustic Springfield Park in front of two or three thousand fans will still be pinching themselves at the sight of nearly triple that amount cheering the team on against the cream of the footballing crop.

For years they were a run-of-the-mill lower league team, barely scraping by season after season. Then David Whelan comes along with his bottomless cheque book, throws untold riches at the club and proves everyone wrong by turning them into a comfortable mid-table Premiership team. If nothing else, David Whelan has proved that you can in fact polish the proverbial turd.

However whilst Wigan the club may be a top flight team, Wigan the town seems largely indifferent to their status. Their average attendance is creeping up slowly, but Wigan is predominantly a Rugby League town, and the football club hasn't really captured the local imagination. This is a fact plainly demonstrated by the wide array of empty seats that are always visible on Match of the Day for any Wigan home game. Their small fanbase is further exemplified by their pitiful away followings that have lead to such crap jokes as this one:

How many Wigan away fans does it take to change a light bulb?

Both of them.

It is thanks to this small, (no, lets call it what it is and stick with my original choice of descriptive word...pitiful.) It is thanks to this pitiful away following that it's always hard to get too excited about the visit of Wigan to your ground. Banter will be non existent and you almost feel bad for singing classic gems like 'is that all you take away' or 'can you hear the Wigan sing?' to their hardy few. It's almost like bullying someone much smaller and quieter than you. Obviously it's easy to do, but you should really pick on someone your own size.

Their was a slight shock in store for Stoke fans today as Tony had finally opted to start with Fuller and Tuncay together in attack. "BUT THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE," I hear you cry, "Tony said himself you cannot play those two players together!!!" Today however, Tony did the unthinkable, and played two quick and skillful players up front. First three forwards on the pitch against Arsenal, and now this. Whatever next........only one defensive midfielder? No, surely not, that's just crazy talk.

It should be pointed out that both big Mama and James Beattie were nursing injuries so Tone didn't have much choice in his forward line selection. (Though I wager he gave the first entry in his mobile's speed-dial, 'Cresswell', a long hard stare before making his decision. Cresser may now be on loan at Sheffield United, but he will always be in Tony's thoughts.) Nevertheless, this is what most Stoke fans had been waiting for, a chance to see the two 'flair' forwards teaming up to terrorise defences.

Unfortunately, Tone still opted for a fairly defensive midfield, with Whelan only on the bench and both Diao and Whitehead in the middle and Rory out on the right wing. This dynamic combination isn't particularly conducive to fast flowing football, although luckily Etherington was on top form out on the left wing. Tony also forgot to remind his players that we don't actually have big Mama on the pitch anymore. As a result of which, for the first 30 or so minutes, we witnessed a big long punt being sent up for Fuller and Tuncay to chase after, only for Wigan's back four to effortlessly nod the ball away. One might of hoped for a slight variation in tactics in order to suit are new look forward line, but alas, it wasn't to be.

After going a goal behind, Stoke did gradually get the ball down on the deck a bit more and, sure enough,began to look a bit more dangerous. After the Brit had engaged in a spot of collective groaning when Whitehead passed the ball back to the keeper from the half way line rather than deliver an incisive ball forward (maybe), the ball was one again lumped upfield by Thomas Sorenson. Luckily Ryan Shawcross had stayed up from the proceeding attack and so was able to flick the ball on into the path of the marauding Tuncay. The Turk kept his calm and ran on to slot the ball home from close range to mark his first goal in Stoke colours. Tuncay gleefully celebrated in front of the home fans, and one sensed this was the outpouring of several months of frustration at warming the bench that we were witnessing.

In the second half Stoke looked the likeliest to snatch a winner with Whelan, Fuller and Tuncay all going close. It was the Latics however who retook the lead with a freak goal by their full back Figeroua. As I'm sure we have all seen by now, the powerful defender took a quick free kick in his own half and spotting Sorenson off his line, proceeded to twat the ball half the length of the pitch with inch perfect accuracy into the corner of the net. It's hard to complain too much after such a class goal. You have to appreciate the audacity of the effort, and besides, we equalised through a Shawcross header moments later to undo all of Figeroua's good work.

The excitement didn't end there however as thanks to an utterly useless referee's assistant missing their player being offside by about 3 feet when he was fouled, Wigan were awarded a controversial penalty in the last minute. Watching the reply on Match of the Day, it was really hard to see how the assistant missed this. I think assistants get a hard time over offside decisions, as often its a matter of centimeters and requires a split second decision. This time however he has no excuse as the player brought down was sauntering around in a clear offside position for what seemed like a good five minutes before he was brought down. Nevertheless the penalty was given.....

Thomas Sorenson has saved his last two penalties for Stoke, and 4 out of his last 5 including when on international duty. Naturally, as Rodallega stepped up to take the spot kick, I turned to Keeling Senior and wisely predicted "there's no way he'll save three in a row."

Luckily I'm about as adept at predicting penalty outcomes as Kevin 'you know David Batty better than anyone ....will he score' Keegan. Sure enough the timid penalty went straight down the middle and Tommy batted the ball away with his legs. Cue wild celebrations from the Stoke faithful as Super Tommy came to the rescue once again to earn us an acceptable draw.

5 penalties saved out of 6 speak volumes of Tommy's abilities, and this season especially he has really proved that he was an absolute bargain buy, costing as he did nothing at all. Unlike a certain Mr Carson who wound up at perpetual yo-yo favourites West Brazil Albion after rejecting a multi-million pound move to Stoke. I think Tone made a wise decision there.

Overall, it's hard to be disappointed with a draw when you've so narrowly averted losing in the dieing moments, but in all honesty Stoke should have won the game comfortably. A freak goal and a terrible decision by the officials almost cost us very dearly. We showed a lot of creativity and Tuncay and Fuller proved they could play together which is a major positive. It was a game we should have won, but conversely one which we have to count ourselves lucky we didn't lose.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Arsenal (a) - Saturday 5th December - An acceptable defeat.

It's hard to get too bothered by a 2-0 loss away at the Emirates. The best passing team in the league has completely decimated other sides on their home turf and realistically we were never likely to get anything out of the game.

For this encounter I was resigned to an afternoon refreshing the BBC online vidiprinter as not only was it an expensive trip to the capital which i couldn't afford, but also, alas, I was in work.

Relying on the internet is always a particularly unsatisfying way of monitoring a football game. If you can't be there in person, then it is a truth universally acknowledged that sky sports news with Jeff and the boys (and to a lesser extent BBC's final score with....whoever they can scrape together) is the next best thing.

Refreshing a web page to keep yourself updated is a far from efficient method of following football. You never feel at all in control and are left at the mercy of your Internet provider. I had the vidiprinter on one tab, the BBC 'live premiership scores' on another, the online 'BBC Final score' on another (on mute...obviously), and finally the Stoke Oatcake message board on another. Much like a man wearing two watches never truly knows the time, this myriad of online updates ensured that I was continually on edge, flicking continually between them all in the hope that one of them had match updates a few seconds quicker than the others.

During last season, I was in a similar situation when Stoke played away at Chelsea. It was an emotionally draining and permanently scarring afternoon which had a profound effect on my football watching from then on. I had managed to find an OK stream of the game online and was sneakily monitoring our progress in between calls at work. With 87 minutes on the clock, Stoke were somehow a goal up. Delap had sprinted past two defenders and deftly chipped Cech in the Chelski goal. (This in itself is enough to have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief...but it gets worse.)

On 87 minutes, I could take the pressure no more and did what any sensible person would do. I locked my computer, cut off all connection with the outside world and went and sat in the toilets, thus permanently freezing in time events at Stamford Bridge. Or so I thought. It would appear no one informed the Chelsea team of this little rule and I returned 4 or 5 minutes later to see Chelski had equalised and were really piling on the pressure. The following is a vague outline of my stream of conscience in the next minute or so:

Right, ok, I can accept this. A draw away at Stamford Bridge is nothing to be scoffed at. Mind you, Frank Lampard is looking a bit dangerous. He's pushing on quite well. There's no time left though now. 93 minutes. Game over. A hard fought draw. Frank is really pushing on though. Crikey, we should have cleared our lines there. Oh god. What's he doing there...no. Oh god no. Tackle him. Frank, FRANK, FRAAAAANNNNKKK NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. *smash*. WE HAD A DEAL FRANK. I FROZE YOU!!!!!!!!!!

That smash was the sound of me slamming my head-set against the monitor as Mr Lampard rifled home a winner from the edge of the area to scenes of pure ecstasy from John Terry and his motley crew.

This wasn't meant to happen. I froze you in time Frank.

This match almost tipped me over the footballing edge, it was just so brutal. There is something so apparently unfair about last minute goals. It's the finality of it, the lack of time for any response and the fact it makes the other 90 minutes seem completely pointless. It's even worse when it comes against a top team that you have so very nearly claimed a memorable scalp off.

Ever since this Chelsea game, I have developed a phobia of sorts towards last minute goals going against us. Ohforfuckssakephobia, we shall call it for now. As Keeling Senior can confirm, there is now never a game that goes by that I don't genuinely assume we will concede a last minute goal. It is actually an alarmingly common occurrence for Stoke, so it isn't entirely ridiculous. Our usual gameplan which sees us sneak a lead and then sit back and soak up pressure, is always asking for trouble.

I am mainly sharing this anecdote with you to illustrate the potential hazards of monitoring your team's progress online. Another reason however is that Stoke's away day at Arsenal was so run-of-the-mill and predictable, it barely warrants a blog entry of it's own.

A game where one team has 67% possession to the other team's 33%, is only ever going to end one way and if it wasn't for Tommy Sorenson in Stoke's goal, it could have been much worse.

There was one shock in store for Stoke fans however, as Tuncay Sanli was handed his first start for the mighty potters. Ricardo Fuller is one yellow card off a suspension, and seeing our upcoming home game against Wigan as far more winnable and thus important, Tony wisely relegated him to the bench for the trip to the Gunners. This presented Tuncay with a superb chance to achieve automatic Stoke legend status. Unfortunately, from all accounts, despite a lot of hard graft and tireless running, all Tuncay managed to achieve was a nomination for the Filippo Inzaghi award for most offsides in any one game.

Sure enough though, the BBC website informed me that Fuller was about to make his expected cameo performance. With the game only at 1-0 and Arsenal struggling to unlock our defence, he was all set to secure a memorable draw for the Potters. Naturally, I assumed Tuncay was coming off. James Beattie was already on for Mama Sidibe, so obviously we would trade like for like.

Tone had other ideas however. Maybe it was a rush of blood, maybe he hit his head and had a momentary lapse in concentration, but Tone decided to do something practically unheard of in the Potteries for the past 4 or 5 years. He opted to keep three forwards on the pitch. That's right folks. You heard me correctly. 3 forwards.

I could almost picture him now, cackling like a deranged mad scientist at the audaciousness of his hair-brained scheme. "That's what I'll do, I'll play three forwards mwahahahahahahaha. They said it couldn't be done, they said no team has ever done something so dangerous, but I'll show them. I'LL SHOW THEM ALLLL!!!!" . And with that Tony threw caution to the wind and went all out for that illusive goal.

About 3 minutes later. Arsenal scored their second and the game was safe.

We had had three forwards on the field for mere minutes, and our defense had been breached.

I can picture Tony now, baseball cap dropped to his feet, hands clasped to his sweating furrowed brow, and a a vacant stare into the mid-distance like a shell-shocked soldier. "What have I done. What did I do!!!!! How can I ever look Big Sam in the eye again?????".

"Never again!" Thought Tone, as he turned his back on the field of play and collapsed into Peter Reid's arms a broken man. "NEVER AGAIN!!!"

This dramatisation may not be quite how it happened, but you can bet that Tone would have taken note of what had occurred this fateful day. He would think twice before eschewing his tried and tested 'keeping it tight' method again.

The match day experience brought to me by BBC and the Oatcake message board was once again fairly disappointing, but this 2-0 loss was both expected and acceptable.

Unlike that dark day back in January. God damn you Frank Lampard.

Some wounds never heal.