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.

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