Well as I’d pretty much expected, Stoke City got a stark lesson today about how the Premiership poses a real step up in quality even when faced by fairly ordinary opposition. Many Stoke fans saw the trip to Bolton Wanderers as an ideal opportunity to pick up a point or even better, grab a win. Wanderers’ narrow escape from relegation last season and the physical style favoured by their manager Gary Megson was considered good reason for Stoke venturing to Lancashire with genuine optimism. But after the ninety minutes were up Stoke were given a clear sign of what a battle lies ahead of them if they are to avoid the drop back into the Championship.
Fellow Leeds Stokie Paddy and I set off today full of a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and in Paddy’s case, full of potent painkillers for a bad back. What might have been a journey full of rapid chatter was rather subdued, my travelling companion feeling rather queasy from the medication. Indeed his first act to mark arriving at our first Premiership away ground was to to unleash a “pavement pizza” into the shrubbery. Maybe it was a comment on my driving, or a portent of what was to come during the match. Parked up and feeling perkier we joined the throngs of supporters making their way to the impressive Reebok Stadium.
As the teams came out the first thing that annoyed me was our yellow away kit. There was no clash with Bolton’s kit so why not wear the famous red and white stripes to mark our return to the top flight? Plus as style guru Paddy correctly pointed out, the yellow shirt clashed horribly with striker Dave Kitson’s ginger hair. Injuries meant Stoke fielded a weakened side (well even weaker than the best weak side we’d have hoped to put out), key absentees being the creative force of striker Ricardo Fuller and midfielder Liam Lawrence who both started on the bench. It seemed an odd team selection playing Full Backs Andy Wilkinson and Andy Griffin on their opposite sides, but that’s Tony Pulis for you, the master of playing people out of position.
However Stoke City made a bright start even if the game did not. I felt in the first 20 minutes or so Stoke edged a physical contest that was far from pretty, too many aimless hoofs, up-and-unders, and bouts of head tennis from both sides. But Stoke didn’t seem overawed. The two banks of four of defence and midfield held up the home side and the Bolton fans around us were getting frustrated and a bit worried. Stoke might have taken the lead when a freekick by Glenn Whelan was met by the head of Leon Cort, but Jaaskelainen produced a fine stop from close range. However as the half wore on Bolton started to play more on the ground and that’s when Stoke looked a bit more stretched, and the two banks of four were less effective as the home team passed around them with increasing ease.
Any hope of taking something from the game evaporated in the last 15 minutes of the first half. Bolton’s first goal was spectacular but a fluke, when on 34 minutes Steinsson chested down a fine crossfield ball on the right of Stoke’s area. The right-back volleyed over a cross, which swerved on its way over a stranded Thomas Sorensen and into the far top corner of Stoke’s net.
My main moan is that he had time and space to whack it from out there. Our whole team at this point was dropping deeper and deeper with Kitson feeding off scraps. Stoke don’t tend to press much, they sit back and let opponents come to them. It might work and frustrate in the Championship but not at this level. Bolton’s second goal on 41 minutes was a combination of poor defending and some quality from Kevin Davies the striker, holding off Ryan Shawcross and Wilkinson and backflicking a header home from a looped freekick by Cahill. The Potters desperately needed half-time to regroup, but conceded again two minutes into injury time after giving away a free-kick on the left around 30 yards out. Joey O’Brien’s delivery was met by the unmarked new siginging Johan Elmander, who powered a header past the helpless Sorensen. It was just poor defending, I think Shawcross just let his man run in unmarked. It was also stark proof if anyone needed it that you get punished severely at this level for any mistakes.
HT Bolton Wanderers 3 Stoke City 0, and I managed to resist the half time potato, cheese and butter pie.
During the second half Bolton let their foot off the gas but still had chances to extend their lead, a mistake from Wilkinson slipping up and letting the Wanderers man dance clear was nearly punished by Elmander on 49 minutes. It took a goal line clearance too by Kitson to prevent a fourth Bolton goal on 75 minutes. Stoke looked at lot better when Lawrence and Fuller came on as subsitutes, more threatening, and you’d expect the duo to be in the usual starting side, which might have made a difference to the result of the game if they had started. Indeed Fuller got himself on the scoresheet and into the record books when he grabbed a goal four minutes into injury time. Substitute Carl Dickinson looked up on the left before swinging over a fine cross which picked out Fuller’s run, allowing the Jamaican to plant a powerful header past Jaaskelainen from 12 yards.
FT Bolton Wanderers 3 Stoke City 1, and wish I’d had that pie at half time.
Positives: the last gasp goal meant the players go off remembering that rather than a 3-nil defeat which will give them a boost and raise their spirits. It’s something to take into the next game, and it was a good goal too. For large parts of the game Stoke matched Bolton in the physical stakes, and looked threatening from set pieces. The Stoke fans were magnificent as well. I thought Kitson worked hard with meagre support, and even got back to clear off the line to prevent a Bolton fourth. It’s the opening game and we will learn with experience. It might wake people up about the task in hand and be more realistic about Stoke’s actual quality.
Negatives: a side like Bolton, who we targeted as a realistic hope of getting a result against, were fairly ordinary but still had too much quality for Stoke making them pay for errors. The defence is a big worry and the Full Back selection was a mystery. Stoke lack pace and creativity. Stoke’s banks of four could be left chasing shadows too easily after the initial 20 minutes, not the quelling force they could be in the Championship. The football wasn’t very pretty, and sadly ultimately not effective either. Stoke need a left-sided midfielder too as Cresswell is not that man.
I’m no fan of Stoke manager Tony Pulis and his adopted style of football, and it will win few plaudits in this division. Nor am I keen on his persona or dress sense! (I’ve never understood why he turns up in a flash suit then changes into a cap, tracksuit and his trademark bright white trainers for the game. He looks more like a twocker than a Premiership manager). But I’m a pragmatist and I have some sympathy when he says it is hard to bring in players to improve the squad. Today he could not pick the best 11 due to injuries too. My concern is that we do need strengthening throughout the side and whatever the reasons if we don’t bring in some quality we will struggle badly. Let us see what some new faces do to the team, but I think it might be a long hard season if today’s match is anything to go by. I dread to think what will happen when we encounter a team with pace and skill throughout the side.
Just before we headed off for the M61 motorway we met up with Norwich-based Stokie Stephen Foster and his son to “compare notes” on the match. He advised us of an astonishing Guardian newspaper article where Pulis advocates the return of National Service for Britain’s youth, a view that makes me like him even less, if that is indeed possible. One final tale of the unexpected was being collared by an Evening Sentinel journalist for our opinions of the match. He filmed a brief interview with us that might make it on to the paper’s website. We were unable to muster much enthusiasm, though at least I managed to refrain from uttering my frank and profane view on Pulis until off camera!
To complete a miserable day, Farsley Celtic lost 2-3 at home, and FCV Dender lost 1-3 at home to Standard Liege. Seems like it’s a day for threes.