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.

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