Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dad.....what's an 'FA Cup run'?

Long before Lou Macari, seasons before Mark Stein, and decades before Rikki Dadason, Stoke City were actually a rather high flying club. I'm sure any of us with relatives over the age of 35 have been reminded many times that back then it was the likes of Liverpool and Man United we used to call rivals. On top of this, we regularly played in front of 50 000 fans, won most games by four or five goals and all the while played the kind of silky flowing football that would make Arsene Wenger break down and weep at the mere sight of it.

Ok, well maybe I exaggerate slightly, but the point remains that in years gone by, we were actually a powerful force in English football, regularly making forays into the latter rounds of the two cup competitions. For those of us raised on Division 2 football and Martin Carruthers, this all seems a little hard to believe I know.

In the past twenty or so years, our record in the cup competitions, has been pretty awful to say the least. The League cup in recent years has seemingly been an opportunity for Stoke to aid the smaller North West clubs in progressing to the next round. Rochdale, Oldham, Macclesfield, these titans of the modern game regularly prove too much for Stoke to handle in the junior cup competition. There have been some bright spots however. Drawing with Liverpool at Anfield. Beating Man United in the first leg at the Vic. We even dumped Chelsea out in late 90's which was also a bonus. That's all I can really recall however.

In the FA cup, our record is hardly any better. Not including the past two seasons, take a few seconds now to try and remember a memorable FA cup victory. I tried. You know what I came up with? 2-0 at home to Lewes. That's it. That's my total enduring memories of 'the magic' of the FA cup. Upon browsing our record, the forgotten memories come flooding back. Telford, Nuneaton Borough, even the Vale proved too much for us. EVEN WEST BROM BEAT US. That's right, even our perennial scalps, the baggies, beat us in the cup. It even took us a replay and a penalty shoot out to beat Tamworth.

This year however, for the first time in a long while, we were treated to some degree of Cup magic. It may not be a cup run that will be talked about for years to come, but it certainly was an enjoyable ride while it lasted.

We overcame York in the third round with relative ease. Their was the typical early scare as York went ahead, but three goals, including a sublime free kick from Etherington, was enough to comfortably see us through.

Next up were Arsenal at the Brit. I'm always more confident when we draw teams at home, as I'm sure most teams are. You always sense that at home, it's always possible we can get a result against anyone on our day. Unlike when we play away from home of course where the opposite applies and we can lose to anyone on any given day. Arsenal came into this game with a number of injury worries and a typically weakened team as priorities lay elsewhere. That's not to take anything away from the teams performance however as we still faced a team including Fabregas, Campbell, Traore, Walcott, Denilson in it's starting line up and saw the likes of Eduardo and Ramsey come on for most of the second half.

As the game went on, Arsenal rapidly ran out of ideas and were simply no match for our physical game, and with about five minutes to go, somehow, we were 3-1 up and cruising. I could scarcely believe my eyes. It was so comfortable, even I wasn't overly worries about us giving the lead away. We were the team on top and we even had a fourth goal disallowed late on. A comfortable 3-1 win at home over Arsenal, that's one for the record books.

I actually said after the game, that with Arsenal and Man United now out, the only teams we wanted to really avoid were Chelsea (more on them later) and Man city. Naturally, we went on to draw the blue half of Manchester away in the fourth round. Typical.

As it turned out, this was one of the most enjoyable away days of the season so far. A lacklustre home support were easily out sung, as the travelling Stoke fans were in typically fine voice, with a wide array of witty (kind of) songs aimed at poor Wayne Bridge over the John Terry shenanigans.

It was a close game, and one that was only broken up in the first half thanks to a comically bad own goal from England's Ryan Shawcross (as he shall henceforth be known). Wright-Phillips latched onto a through ball and reached it just before the on coming Tommy Sorenson. Flicking the ball forwards, he and England's Ryan Shawcross gave chase to a ball that was seemingly bouncing harmlessly out of play. England's Ryan Shawcross took no chance though and in attempting to shepard the ball out, manged only to crumple gracelessly to the ground, keeping the ball in play with his head, and in doing so laying it off right into SWP's path who gratefully slotted it home. One destined for the Christmas blooper videos come December.

Stoke gave as good as they got though and almost pulled level through a spectacular Danny Higginbotham strike from about 30 yards out. We were directly behind Higgy as he struck this, and a sweeter strike you won't see all season.

The second half saw Stoke looking lively, whilst City looked progressively more and more toothless. With their wealth of attacking talent, you expected to be bombarded with wave after wave of flowing football but alas it was never to be. Eventually the Potters equalised through a Rory long throw and a clinical header from Fuller.
As the game wore on, City missed a couple of good chances and Santa Cruz in particular wasted a golden chance for the home side. In the several games I've seen him play for City now, I'm yet to understand what exactly Santa Cruz brings to the side. Maybe with a run in the side he'd look slightly sharper, but he seems completely innocuous at times and it's a relief in anything when he is brought on for Adebayor or Tevez.

Ultimately the lads held on for a good away draw, and the travelling supporters celebrated as if we'd won the game. Taking the tie back to the Brit gave us a great chance of progressing to the Quarter finals and for once what ITV commentators would call 'the magic of the FA cup', was surrounding me.

The second leg was a tight affair for the most part, with both teams going all out for the win. It took a silky move between Tuncay and the returning Dave Kitson to break the deadlock on 79 minutes as the rejuvenated striker showed what he is capable of and deftly slotted home Tunny's flick from close range. The Brit erupted, but the celebrations didn't last long as Craig Bellamy showed his quality to slam home a knock down from Adebayor just two minutes later.

With the two sides cancelling each other out, the game was evenly poised, but a few minutes after he set up his team's goal, Adebayor was shown red by referee Steve Bennett for raising his arm in England's Ryan Shawcross's face. I actually missed this at the time, and to be honest it seemed fairly innocuous. Replays later showed that the Togolese forward did raise his arms to fend off England's Ryan Shawcross, and certainly caught him in the face. It was perhaps a harsh red card as there was little or no intent, but by the letter of the law he had to go. Let's see it as karmic justice for a certain questionable refereeing decision that occurred in our last meeting with the blues (it still smarts Wiley).

Once he had gone, there was only one team going to win, and despite holding out to force extra time, two quick goals from England's Ryan Shawcross (nope, still not tired of it) and Tuncay saw Stoke stride into the lead and never really look like losing it.
When the final whistle went, Stoke fans celebrated their first FA cup quarter final in decades and spent the rest of the weekend eagerly awaiting the draw.
I would put good money on the fact that every Stoke fan uttered the phrase "anyone but Chelsea" in the run up to this draw. Anyone else and you really fancied our chances of getting a result.Sure enough though, the draw rolls around and with crushing inevitability, we wind up drawing Chelski. Of course. Who else would it be. At Stamford Bridge too. Perfect.

At home and as I've already said, you always give us an outside chance against anyone. At the Bridge though, against an in form Chelsea, it was always an uphill task.

Ultimately, it proved one top 4 team too far. We were by no means over run by Ancelotti's boys, but at the same time, we never looked too dangerous. An early chance powered in from the edge of the area by Whitehead was cleared off the line. Not too long after, a similar chance fell to Frank Lampard up the other end and unfortunately, his chance ricocheted into the goal and past a helpless Sorenson. I always think that Frank must be a real whizz at pinball. His knack for guiding the ball into the goal whilst ensuring it hits the maximum number of bodies on the way in must be transferable to something.

As the game wore on, we struggled to create chances and when Chelsea doubled their lead it was game over. The boys hadn't disgraced themselves, but were ultimately beaten by a superior Chelski team.

Ah well. Que sera, sera. We had a good run and it was fun while it lasted. We'd finally rekindled a bit of the magic of yesteryear and kept our interest in the FA cup going longer than that typically gloomy January weekend like normal. For once I could take part in that tense, if not slightly over blown, experience of a new rounds draw and it's numerous possibilities and permutations. Only one game shy of Wembley still represents a good achievement for Stoke and is a sure sign of progress.

Maybe this is the start of a glorious new era of Cup endeavour from the Potters. Maybe we can go that extra step or two next season and give our fans a trip to Wembley. (I could rant here about the absolutely shite decision by the FA to have the semi finals at Wembley which not only devalues the final itself, but also benefits no one but the assorted London bigwigs and sponsors who get two days out in the hospitality lounge rather than one. I could make that rant here.....but I won't). Who knows, next year, could really be our year.

...................Mind you, we could just lose away at Rochdale.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Arsenal (h) Sat 27th February - Never really at the races.

Beauty and the beast. Skill versus strength. Continental flair against dogged determination. Over the course of two seasons and five meetings between the two clubs, the matches between Arsenal and Stoke have come to epitomise the contrasting styles of football on offer in today's Premier League. Arsene Wenger has built up a young and hungry side that plays the beautiful game "the right way", and is a joy to watch to the neutral observer. On the other hand, Tony Pulis has built up a solid and determined squad that plays a version of the beautiful game "his way", which can barely be stomached by neutral observers....and for that matter a fair number of Stoke fans too.

I have never had very strong feelings either way towards the Gunners. I'm not old enough to remember the FA and League cup semi-final controversies from the 70's that have forever turned many older Stoke fans against the side. Just mentioning the words 'Arsenal' and 'semi-final' to my dad is enough to prompt Vietnam Vet style reactions as he winces and yells "you weren't there son, you don't know what it was like, you don't know what we went through".

I also only patchily remember the era of 'boring, boring Arsenal' under George Graham. For most of my adult life thus far, the Gunners have been under the tutelage of Mr Wenger and have played some breath-taking football that it's hard not to be impressed by. The likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Ljungberg and more recently Van Persie and Fabregas, have provided some of the most impressive and memorable goals in Premier League history.

Set against the mass corporate juggernaut of Man United, the billionaire's play thing of Chelsea, and, well, Liverpool, they come across as the more sensible and likable of the big four. It has to be said however, that this accolade has been achieved despite the best efforts of their long serving manager Arsene Wenger. Few managers can match the Frenchmen in his ability to frustrate and annoy with his one sided view of the game.

How could he never seen Patrick Viera foul someone? Every week on Match of the Day when Patrick had emasculated yet another opposition midfielder i'd watch convinced that this was the time Arsene would have to admit his team was capable of foul play. Just once. I was sure he'd slip up once and admit it. Alas, it was not to be, the wily Frenchman was so persistent we all stopped caring and grudgingly accepted his unflinching stubbornness. You won that round Arsene.

Since Stoke's arrival in the big time, we have, perhaps inevitably, encountered the wrath of Mr Wenger on several occasions. After a bruising encounter at the Britannia last season, Wenger called the Stoke team 'cowards' due to their penchant for heavy tackling, and even went as far as to suggest we went out of our way to deliberately injure his players : ( Sound familiar?

Then, earlier on this season, in what was clearly a thinly veiled critique of our style of play, he was quoted as suggesting the long throw should be banned as it is against the idyllic view of footballing purity that he believes in. (

Then of course, there was his take on the unfortunate events that occurred during this Saturday's encounter at the Britannia.

Before I get too into this topic, I think it's only fair to mention that before the game, Wenger did actually offer Stoke a rare compliment of sorts. He conceded that we have progressed from last season and now fully capable of combining our usual direct game with passing and movement. (Why Mr. Wenger, stop, you flatter us too much. We'll be attempting the counter attack or the short corner next!)

And so to the cause of Mr Wenger and Arsenal's ire, THAT tackle by Ryan Shawcross on Aaron Ramsey.

My humble opinion is thus; it was a slightly mistimed tackle, that was not overly aggressive and certainly wasn't in any way malicious. The vast majority of the media and general football watching public seem agreed on this, with the only slight point of contention being whether it was a red card offence or not. It certainly wasn't an excessively aggressive tackle and it should be noted that Ryan's studs were down and he went in one footed.

It was slightly late, due to Ramsey nicking the ball off Ryan's toe at the last minute, but the ball was there for Ryan to go for, and he had every right to try and win it. The more I've seen the incident, the more undecided I become. It probably isn't a straight red offence, but I can understand why Ryan was sent off. The referee didn't feel he had a choice due to the horrific injury Ramsey suffered, and it was this injury that swayed him (

While this would seem to be the pertinent debate, Arsene wasted no time in wading straight in after the game and describing the tackle as "unacceptable", adding that it was "ridiculous" that Shawcross would only be suspended for only three matches : ( It was his opinion that once again Stoke had deliberately set out to injure his side and Ryan's crime was one so terrible that a lengthy ban was the necessary punishment.

In the heat of the moment, this could almost be understood. He was upset and angry that one of his hottest prospects was facing a lengthy lay off from such a dreadful injury. A man with the media savvy and wealth of experience that Arsene has however, should not really be making such wild and unfounded accusations. Giving him the benefit of the doubt however, lets say he was upset and speaking in an emotional state. Allowing the dust to settle, maybe he'd see he was perhaps a little over zealous and shouldn't have said what he did.

Alas, it hasn't proven the case. Arsene has stood by his guns (pardon the pun), and is maintaining his hard line stance. Now we all know how frustrating Wenger can be, but when it's against your club, it tends to rub you up the wrong way that little bit more.

It's worth noting however that even my Arsenal supporting housemate who normally gives Arsene a run for his money in the astonishingly biased viewpoint stakes, has agreed that the challenge was not malicious and merely mistimed. Anyone who knows my housemate will know how big a deal this is. I've seen him on a regular basis flatly deny clear Arsenal infractions and yet somehow see heinous crimes committed by the opposition that everyone else in the room, and of course the biased commentators, did not see. Even he agrees that Ryan did not set out to injure Aaron Ramsey Arsene. Even he.

Such is the stubborn nature of Mr Wenger however. He does not like Stoke's style of play, he does not like any physicality in the modern game, and everyone is out to hurt his starlets. This is what he believes and nobody is going to change that. He is an infuriating man who makes it harder and harder for me to enjoy the brilliant football his team can produce.

Providing we stay in this league for the foreseeable future, as I truly believe we will, then I can see games between our two clubs maintaining a bit of tension and bite for a few seasons yet

The game as a whole takes a backseat once such a horrific injury occurs. It really is a sad sight to see and I know all Stoke fans wish Aaron Ramsey a speedy recovery. This weekend there will have been much worse tackles committed that will have led to no such injury. Liam Ridgewell's for Birmingham on James McCarthy and Michael Ballack's on Carlos Tevez, were both arguably worse challenges, in that they were cynical and showed no obvious attempt to play the ball. Yet due to circumstance, the victim in those two incidents didn't suffer a horrific injury. It really was an unfortunate incident that nine times out of ten would not have had the outcome it did. Get well soon Aaron Ramsey.

To be honest, the game taking a backseat is probably for the best in this instance. Stoke were never really in it, and despite taking an early lead, were struggling to contain Arsenal from the off. Today Arsenal stood up to Stoke's aerial dominance and despite needing two late goals, never looked in danger of losing the game.

I still maintain that I'd rather the Gunners won the league than any of the other 'big 4'. I want to enjoy their flowing football and see them triumph over United or Chelski, but Christ on a bike if Arsene doesn't make it hard for me to do so at times.