Thursday, 26 August 2010

Wolves (a) Sat 14th Aug + Spurs (h) Sat 21st Aug : Here we go again!!!

After the chronic disappointment that was the 2010 World Cup, all eyes swiftly turned once again to that tried and trusted old friend that is the domestic football season. No novelty horns or malformed balls here. Just the regular thrills and spills of match day in all its glory.

With the deflating summer tournament over and done with, fans of all clubs began pouring over rumour sites and message boards seeking out transfer gossip in the faint hope of a major new signing materialising before the big kick off.

Inevitably, expectations rise. This is our season for sure. The squad's in place, the belief is there, and before it all kicks off, you've got nothing but a blank canvas ahead of you, the 2010/2011 footballing story waiting to be written.

Two weeks into the season, you're team's already lost twice, the defence is still leaking goals and the manager still won't sign that elusive box-to-box creative midfielder. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm sure many fans have come back down to earth with a bump at this stage of the season, no points from your first few games, perhaps a Carling Cup exit to boot (don't tell me, you're focusing on the league AGAIN this year), you begin to wonder what you were getting excited for over those distant summer months.

For my beloved Stoke, it's certainly proven to be a disappointing start thus far.

An opening day defeat at local rivals Wolves was compounded by an injury to new boy Kenwyne Jones. Jones has been signed as the target man alternative to Mama Sidibe. Essentially, Tony Pulis wanted Mama....but with goals. A novel idea in a forward I'm sure you'll agree. In theory this big forward ticks all the right boxes, and with any luck will provide an excellent partner to Ricardo Fuller.

Initially we appeared to be in luck as the injury was reported as not being as bad as first thought. Apparently it was only minor ligament damage (how minor can ligament damage be?) and it was suggested that the lay-off would be weeks rather than months as first feared. When asked about the striker's condition after the Spurs game however, Tone was worryingly vague on the diagnosis. Talk of  'injections', 'seeing how it goes' and 'not rushing anything', started alarm bells ringing to most Stoke fans who are by now fluent in the language of Pulis. Not to worry, we've still got Big Mama in the mean time right?................More on that later.

Luckily I missed the Wolves defeat due to being away on holiday. If we were being honest, I'm sure several of the male contingent who went on this holiday were kicking themselves for not figuring out this would be the Premier League's big kick off weekend when we planned this jaunt. Never mind though, with stiff upper lips we shook it off and made a mental note for all future August holidays. Naturally though, come the big kick off, several in our party had their phones out ready for score updates, and as we sat in the foyer of the German History Museum (well worth a visit.....if you're asking) sure enough, the half-time results were in.

"Right, here we go." I thought with misplaced pre-season confidence. "2-0 up? Maybe just a goal. Hell, I suppose a draw at half time is acceptable. Anyway, I'm just glad the season's back and right now I'm relaxed and full of optimism. Hit me with the half-time score, the first of a long and prosperous season."

 "You're 2-0 down".

"Fucking hell."

Sure enough, a text to the old man confirmed it. We were two behind and playing poorly. A glimmer of hope was offered by Faye's 55th minute header, but ultimately, we couldn't muster up another goal or indeed another meaningful shot on target in the rest of the game.

It's telling that on Match of the Day, the last bit of action they showed in this game was our goal, which, bear in mind, occurred in the 55th minute. So, that means for the last 35 minutes of this game there was not a single noteworthy moment of goal mouth action. Another glorious season stretches agonisingly out ahead of us.

Shaking off that disappointment, and maintaining the veneer of optimism that can only be mustered this early on in proceedings, the first home game of the new campaign against Spurs was our next stop.

When Honest 'Arry's side broke the standard top four monopoly to gain that lucrative champions league spot last season, they undoubtedly confirmed themselves as one of the toughest prospects for the rest of the league to face. However, with a packed Britannia on our side, and a host of injuries on theirs, you just had a sneaky feeling we might get a result.

Alas, yet again my optimism was misplaced, and an encouraging performance from the boys wasn't enough to stop us from falling to a 2-1 defeat. Gareth Bale (does anyone else find themselves regularly referring to him as 'Christian Bale' by accident or is that just me?), got lucky with their first goal as a Shawcross clearance cannoned in off his chimpy face. Following a Fuller equaliser however, he delivered a second goal of true class. A masterful dipping volley from the edge of the area that even many Stoke fans had to grudgingly applaud.

Spurs went into the break a goal ahead and comfortably in the driving seat. Stoke emerged for the second half however, revitalised and fired up. New boy Jon Walters was having an impressive debut up front. Then again, being able to both control a ball and remain upright already put him ahead of Mama. It was when the oft overlooked Tuncay came on up front however and the former Ipswich man was moved out to the right wing, that Stoke began to look truly dangerous with a flurry of chances coming soon after the Turk's introduction.

The introduction of Mama midway through the second half was an expected move by Tone and one not particularly objected to by many at the Brit. Whilst the big man's abilities are a source of amusement for most of us, and he clearly isn't good enough to start week-in-week-out, he does provide a big physical presence and can win plenty of headers on his day. He offers that 'something different' from the bench.

Within minutes of his arrival however, he collapsed after an innocuous challenge and was ultimately stretchered off the pitch clearly in a great deal of distress. After the game we'd learn that he had snapped his Achilles and could be out for the rest of the season. Whilst not quite being the tragic loss Tone will no doubt paint it as, the loss of Mama is still bad news for Stoke. As long as Tony plays the way he does, players like Mama will be crucial to the team. Another injury to a striker that means that we must cross our fingers even tighter and hope Jones is back in action soon.

Tuncay then missed a glorious chance from about a yard out, somehow managing to direct a header away from goal when it looked harder not to score. Shawcross then blazed a snap shot over the bar from just outside the six yard box and shortly after that Ricardo had a perfectly weighted volley tipped wide by Gomes in the Spurs goal. The keeper would then thwart Tuncay as well as a long-range effort took a wicked deflection and looked to be dipping into the Spurs net before he coolly palmed it over. It was about this time when I realised we just weren't going to score.

Some games you can just sense it. I'm sure it's the same for every team at some point. Maybe it hits you when the opposition keeper makes yet another spectacular save. Maybe it's when you're star striker balloons over from a yard out. Maybe it's when you hit the woodwork for the umpteenth time. Whatever it is, some games, you just know it isn't going to be your day.

Unexpectedly though, in the 86th minute, came what appeared to be a breakthrough. After a patented Britannia goal mouth scramble, the ball dropped kindly onto new boy Walters's head mere centimeters out from goal. Now please bare in mind I'm writing this from memory so odd facts may be subject to the slightest amount of exaggeration.

What followed next however was perhaps the single greatest injustice in footballing history........ever.

The ball flew towards goal and hit Peter Crouch in the mid-riff/arm area before rebounding out. The Stoke players celebrated like they'd scored a goal, a few Spurs players stopped as if they'd conceded a goal, and all eyes turned to the ref for the inevitable confirmation. However, Chris Foy instead  looked gingerly over at his assistant, who was about ten times further away than he was and had about 20 players blocking his view. Rather unsurprisingly, the assistant couldn't see the incident at all.  Foy however, was just a few feet away from the melee. After consulting his assistant however, and bracing himself for the full brunt of the Britannia's fury, he waved play on visibly explaining that he simply couldn't see it.

Now, I'm not going to focus too much on Chris Foy here. He had an OK game otherwise and being face-on to the incident rather than looking along the line, it's semi-understandable why he wasn't in a position to give the goal if he needs to be 100% sure. In theory that's why his assistant is there, but he too was unable to give a clear answer. No, Mr Foy is not solely to blame, some of the blame must also lie with assorted important figures in the various footballing governing bodies.

Their constant refusal to make any changes that might actually benefit the game, such as goal-line technology, is just astounding. I won't drone on about this debate too much, both sides of the argument have already been argued far more eloquently than I could manage here. All I will say is this, even the most basic, simplistic, cop-out solution to this problem, the extra official behind the goal, would have ensured a goal was given here. It is surely in the interests of the game that contentious decisions like this don't keep arising and the only thing stopping it is the pig-headedness of Mr Blatter and assorted FA chiefs. Anyway, that's a rant for another time...

In the end, Stoke couldn't find a way back and the game finished 2-1 to Spurs. The performance was definitely encouraging and at this early stage of the season there's no cause for alarm, but with an away trip to Stamford Bridge next up, (please lads, keep it to below 7 this time), and then Villa at home, it's not looking like we'll have many point on the board come mid-September.

So, to sum up, two losses, star signing and attacking lynch pin (ahem) injured, controversial late equaliser ruled out and since I began writing this blog we have also had a player refuse to play for us in the league cup...............ahhhhhhhhh it's good to be back.