Stoke City 2 Crystal Palace 1 (HT 0-1) 24th August 2013

My dislike of Tony Pulis’ style and methods were well known, and an aversion to being bored rigid and wasting £30 on a ticket in the process kept me away from the Britannia stadium all of last season. I did not miss much by all accounts. So it is perhaps understandable that I was delighted on 21st May when Pulis was relieved of his duties as manager and left the club by “mutual consent”. I could at last get excited about my team again, dream of more creative players joining the club, and actually had the enthusiasm to attend games once more. An enthusiasm that had been throttled to death by “Pulisball”, a combined unwillingness and inability to evolve, and years of inane patronising post-match interviews.

For the nine days that followed I could barely concentrate on anything other than who would be appointed Stoke City’s new manager. Rafa Benitez was linked, as too were Robert Martinez and Roberto Di Matteo. I was hoping that any one of these three would be appointed to give us a dramatically different new approach, making good use of the club’s new state of the art training facilities at Clayton Wood, and bringing through Academy players. So my initial reaction to the appointment of Mark Hughes on 30th May was one of slight disappointment and a feeling of being rather underwhelmed by it all.

However that feeling did not last long. Hughes’ first press conference impressed me, and I saw why the Stoke Board saw him as a good fit. As Daniel Harris wrote in today’s Guardian, “That Mark Hughes knows something about football is often forgotten. But as manager of Blackburn he bought good players for bargain prices and extracted the maximum from all those available to him. Then, at Manchester City, he signed Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany, again for relatively little money, and his eventual sacking seemed a trifle premature.” Stoke had been crying out for left-back for ages, so I was very pleased that Hughes’ spotted that immediately and brought in not one but two left-backs, one a Dutch international, and the other a Spanish U-21 international from Barcelona. Both players in their early to mid-twenties. What the hell was happening?! Hughes also wanted to change Stoke’s style on the pitch, developing a more creative, attacking and passing team. I began to warm to the idea of Hughes as our manager. In every aspect he looked a step up from Pulis. I was actually looking forward to attending a game, so I swooped for a ticket for the opening home match of the season against newly promoted Crystal Palace.

Stoke City v Crystal Palace Watching BBC’s Match of the Day, and listening to Crystal Palace fans on BBC Radio Five Live after the game made me rather annoyed. The way MOTD was edited, the pundits’ “insights” on the match, and the opinions of the Palace fans all pointed to Palace bossing the first half and being the much better team. Rubbish. Despite being “turned around” and forced to attack the Boothen End in the first half (which is usually a bad omen), Stoke started positively and dominated midfield and possession for at least the first 25 minutes. Palace looked cagey and stood off allowing Stoke to pass the ball around comfortably but without the necessary pace and incisive delivery to put Palace to the sword. Crouch should have done much better with a header that looped over following a good cross from Etherington on the left, and what MOTD failed to show was Stoke had three consecutive corners as they applied pressure and Palace could only scramble the ball clear.

The turning point in the half came as Palace launched an almighty hoofed clearance that Pulis would have admired, which should have been harmless and easily dealt with. However the bounce was awkward, and the usually solid pairing of Shawcross and Hugh made a complete mess of defending it allowing Marouane Chamakh to slot home a goal out of the blue that was frankly against the run of play. Stoke immediately had an excellent chance to level, when Adam delivered a superb ball in only for Crouch’s header to come back off the woodwork and hit the Palace keeper, dropping to safety. If that had gone in the first half may have continued in Stoke’s favour. But to Palace’s credit the goal gave them confidence, while Stoke’s visibly drained away. The visitors started to press higher up the pitch, closing Stoke down, and the home side began to make errors and look very uncomfortable. Shawcross was not having a good game defensively, and the visitors almost added to their lead when Moxey took advantage of some hesitant defending to drill an angled shot just wide of the far post. A Shawcross clumsy foul earned him a yellow card and gave Campana the chance to send in a free-kick fractionally high from a dangerous position. Half-time was a welcome break and a chance to reorganise.

Whatever was said by Mark Hughes at half-time worked. Stoke played at a greater tempo and began to dominate again in midfield. Stoke displayed a lot more intent during the opening ten minutes of the second period, with Crouch again spurning a decent opportunity from 5-yards, and both Nzonzi and Walters failing to hit the target when well positioned. Some members of the press have subsequently written that Stoke’s comeback was built around more typically Pulis tactics using the throw-in to good effect.

New manager, new supporter. Fellow Leeds Stokie Paddy’s son attends his first ever Stoke game. Lucky mascot!

Yet the equaliser on 58 minutes came from a short throw-in on the left, a delicate clip into the box which picked out Crouch who controlled it, headed it behind him to Walters who played a short pass to Adam in space to slot a perfectly weighted shot from around 12 yards into the far corner past the despairing dive of the keeper. It was a lovely finish and sent the crowd wild, and four minutes later the Britannia was rocking again as Stoke scored what proved to be the winner. Good pressure forced a throw-in deep in Palace’s half on the right hand side. A long throw was flicked goalwards by a Stoke head, the Palace headed clearance in the six yards box was not good enough, and in the ensuing confusion Huth’s committed tackle broke to Shawcross who swivelled well and found the far corner from about 7 yards out.

The goals had undeniably changed the entire complexion of the game, with Stoke looking by far the more likely to add to their tally, rather than Palace managing to find themselves an equaliser. Nzonzi was incredibly unlucky when he went agonisingly close to scoring, smiting a superb effort towards the far corner which rocketed off the post to safety. New Palace loan signing Puncheon had a strike gathered at the second attempt by Begovic after a break resulting from some sloppy midfield play by Stoke who were looking to break themselves. Despite four minutes of injury time Stoke were comfortable as Palace ran out of steam and belief, and Mark Hughes had his first three points as manager.

Positives
1. It was good to see Stoke passing more with a much greater completion rating, building patiently and keeping possession for long periods.
2. It was good to see Charlie Adam given a role in the side as most of the invention came from him and he scored a quality goal.
3. I wasn’t bored at any time during the match and I enjoyed the experience despite fearing at half-time we might be having to settle for a disappointing 1-1 draw.
4. Hughes realises where the weaknesses are and is trying to address them.
5. There were positive substitutions made at the correct times. Etherington was replaced by Pennant, and Crouch was replaced by Jerome, looking to maintain an attacking force where another manager may have brought on defensive players to hold on to the 2-1 scoreline.
6. There were 14 efforts at goal, 5 on target.
7. Pieters and Cameron had good games at full-back and got forward too.
8. There was the spirit to come from behind and win.
9. The struggling forwards were helped out by goals from other areas of the team.
10. There wasn’t a bloke on the sideline dressed in a tracksuit and baseball cap flinging water bottles about! ;-)

Negatives
1. There don’t look many goals in our current forward line. Crouch’s finishing is disappointing, Walters lacks the pace and for me is a good Championship level player but punching above his weight at this level. There’s little on the bench that suggests goals either. At least Hughes is trying to rectify this looking for new signings.
2. Apart from his superb shot and a few decent touches Nzonzi looked somewhat half-hearted and disinterested for much of the game.
3. We lack pace and width in the current side. Without signings we will struggle to carve open some of the better teams while the passing remains pedestrian. Despite one good cross I don’t think Etherington is the player we once was and now looks incapable of taking on and beating a fullback.
4. The midfield needs more creativity, vision and people who can drive forward. On a few occasions a ball was won in midfield by a committed charge forward, the player laid it off sideways and continued his run into space for a return pass, but the receiver turned and passed it backwards to slowly build from the back again allowing the opponents to regroup and relieve the pressure. One such build up went wrong and allowed Puncheon to break and have an effort on goal.
5. Wilson was largely invisible in midfield. I don’t recall seeing him much at all.
6. Usually solid defenders Shawcross and Huth didn’t have convincing games at the back.

Conclusions
Apart from Pieters, Hughes put out players that were from the previous manager’s squad. He did include players that were not Pulis “favourites” and found it difficult to get a game. I’m pleased Adam looks to be part of the plans. It will take time for the players to adjust to the new system and methods Hughes wants to employ. But I think elements of his style (e.g. the physicality) will not be too far away from what the players were used to under Pulis. We need to improve the squad, but Hughes recognises this and is trying to bring new players in that will help develop the new direction we have embarked on. All in all I was more than satisfied with the performance, and there were positives to take away from it. Goooaaaarrn Sparky!

The Labour Party seems to be in disarray at the moment. Despite an unpopular government delivering painful austerity measures, Labour has seen its opinion poll lead being slashed. Its leader, Ed Miliband, is being criticised by his own veteran MPs on one hand, and is not seen by the public as prime minister material on the other. Labour is struggling to get over its message and with its recent acceptance that it must match the government’s spending plans if it is elected, you begin to wonder what is the point of the party at all. It is at best centrist, some might say centre-right, so anyone who wishes to vote for a party that is on the left of British politics can forget about Labour.

I was once a member of the Labour Party, and I joined the Green Party primarily for two reasons. Firstly I feel that unless we address the climate crisis any other issues will be irrelevant because within the next century (maybe sooner) we will have an uninhabitable planet for humankind. The Green Party is the only party that properly addresses that. Secondly I believe that social justice has to be part of the change we need to address the environmental crisis that we face. I once felt that Labour stood for social justice but with its steady move to the right it no longer realistically represents the most vulnerable people in society, nor the class it was created for.

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett and Andy

Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett with Andy at an event in Leeds

The current incarnation of the Labour Party is a shambolic disgrace, and the Green Party is the only real alternative for those people who wish to vote for social justice. Although it irritates and worries some of the Green Party veterans, that is the reason many Green Party members who joined in recent years are ex-Labour.

Now despite the turmoil Labour currently faces, due to our country’s electoral system, media, political funding etcetera, it will always be a massive task to enlighten people to the fact there is a tangible alternative to Labour if you want something different from the same old same old. The difficulty Labour faces at this moment in time maybe seen as an opportunity for the Green Party, but to be doing things right we should be hammering away at them all the time. That is why I wrote and moved the Leeds Green Party Strategy document which attempted to strengthen all the areas we need to in order to mount a stronger and more sustained challenge – increase party funds, increase membership, increase activists, raise the party profile, improve our media communications etc. all things that will help us get our message across to more people, and help us target more wards. We need more people to spread the word in order to attract more people to the party. We don’t yet have enough activists. That is a problem, and one we must address. People have busy lives and we have to be grateful for whatever contribution they make. The key is better organisation of what resources we have, and utilising them in the best way possible. The trouble is that organisation is not seen as very exciting.

One of my dreams would be that at all the wards in Leeds (but at the very least all the solid Labour wards) received one of our leaflets which highlights our key national policies with a Leeds slant, and the hard work of our councillors in Farnley & Wortley. This would mean that many more people would (a) know we exist (b) know something of what we stand for, and (c) might see us as worth a try given they have been badly let down by Labour. But it is but a dream. Just targeting predominately Labour wards with such a leaflet would run to over £4,000, not to mention trying to find the people to deliver it. One leaflet will not make a huge impact, it takes constant leafleting work and regular canvassing to turn a ward into a viable target, but it would make people more aware of us and maybe bring in some new members.

There must be a mixed approach. Campaigning on national issues is important to ensure people learn what we stand for. We also need to do some “bread and butter” local issues that affect people on a daily basis, and show that electing Green councillors makes a difference and unlike Labour we never take our constituents’ votes for granted.

Patch

Patch

This is Patch, the latest addition to the family. Patch is a sweet natured, 12 years old, Jack Russell Terrier who lost her previous owner and needed a new home to make the rest of her days as happy as possible. Step forward the Pointons!

Patch was staying at the boarding facility where Tina works as her elderly owner had gone into a hospice as he had dementia. Patch had been there several months, and both Tina and Patch had taken a shine to each other. Lethargic and asleep most of the time, Patch would come alive when Tina was in work. Sadly her owner passed away and Patch’s future looked uncertain. There was about a week in which she had to find a new home before the boarding facility care ended. Thankfully Patch’s care was being covered by the excellent Cinnamon Trust, a charity for people in their last years and their much loved, much needed companion animals.

Given her age and the fact she is completely deaf it was likely that she would have been overlooked and found it hard to get a new home. Members of the old man’s family didn’t want her. One person did take Patch home for a trial but brought her back the next day because Patch caused the woman’s cat to hiss and the cat was not to be upset. Tina and I had discussed getting a second dog as a companion for Bevan. But we had envisaged another sighthound, probably an older female to keep him in check. We were not convinced the timing was right for another sighthound as Bevan was still in training to sort out some of his issues on lead. A rescue greyhound or whippet with issues of their own were probably not the best choices now.

Yet Tina had fallen for Patch and asked if we could at least foster her until she could find a permanent new home. Having met Patch it was hard to say no. So on 6th June we took Patch home for a 24 hour trial, following a walk with Bevan under the watchful eye of our trainer Wendy, ensuring that both dogs would get along. Thankfully Bevan has always been respectful of older female dogs in the park so we expected him to treat her as the alpha dog (as the eldest female is). The way that Bevan accepted Patch into our home and let her share his “territory”, sofa, bed, and us couldn’t have been better. He clearly is very fond of her and protective of her.

Patch and Bevan

Patch and Bevan

So the idea of fostering swiftly changed into one of adopting Patch. We passed the home visit which went perfectly, Patch, Bevan, and Amelia the cat all sitting together on the sofa while the Cinnamon Trust volunteer was there. Patch has had an eventful first few weeks with us. We noticed her teeth were in a shocking state, and her mouth had open sores and gum disease. It was causing her distress and affecting her ability to eat. She had to undergo an operation to remove five teeth, and have the rest cleaned and de-scaled. Once the pain of the operation subsided you could tell she was a lot happier, her appetite returned, and Patch was able to eat crunchy kibble and was no longer limited to wet food. Having got that ailment sorted out we went on a short break to Brixham in Devon where she picked up some sort of bladder infection leading to me visiting the site laundry far more times than anticipated to wash dog beds after night time accidents! So that was another course of antibiotics.

Apart from the discomfort of the infection, Patch seemed to enjoy her holiday, exploring the nearby wood, and playing on several beaches. On one day we ventured into Cornwall and walked along the cliffs at St Agnes, some of the most stunning coastline in Britain. As well as the scenic beauty of the place there are remnants of the old tin mining industry, ghostly engine houses and chimneys built close to the cliffs. We knew that this walk would be too long and involve too much climbing for Patch, so we bought a carry bag for her, and she was in her element sat on a cushion and receiving lots of fuss and compliments from passing walkers.

I don’t know whether it is because Patch lived with a man for most of her life, but she has formed a strong bond and attachment to me. If I leave the house she will stand on the sofa so she can look out of the window to await my return. She loves to curl up next to me wherever I sit, and at bedtime. Patch is such an easy going affectionate dog that so far has got on with all dogs, cats, and humans she has met, it is hard not to fall for her. She is a welcome addition to the family and I hope she enjoys a long happy life with us.