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!

Stoke v Villa C64 Style!

Stoke City defied the experts today and if I’m honest totally astonished me too by obtaining a result against Aston Villa that I scarcely believed possible. Having witnessed the defensive frailties at Bolton I feared the worst, unhappily telling colleagues all week that we’d get a footballing lesson from Villa, and that their forward line would run amok against our slow and suspect rearguard. I figured a defeat by at least two clear goals was on the cards and I had genuine fears of four goals flying in at the wrong end. But Stoke produced a memorable display to match the occasion of their first ever Premiership home match in front of a passionate crowd that was given as 27,500.
A full Britannia for the Aston Villa game
Joined by fellow Leeds Stokies Dave and Paddy, the day started well with an uneventful journey followed by home-made soup and North Staffs Oatcakes at my parents’ house in the garden no less. Had Summer arrived?! A planned pre-match pint with some of the Stokies that I’d visited Belgium with sadly didn’t happen, so it was into the ground to soak up the atmosphere rather than beer. We took up position in the South Stand which has been split to allow home fans to sit in what was once entirely the away end. This now meant I had been in every stand in the ground and it was impressive to look out on the Boothen End and the rest of the massive home support from this vantage point high in the South Stand corner.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis had made changes to the side that started at Bolton. Liam Lawrence and Ricardo Fuller both started to give us that extra creative and attacking threat we missed at the Reebok for most of the game. Stoke v Villa and the teams are outThere were debuts for the two Fayes, Amdy replacing Glen Whelan in central midfield alongside Seyi Olofinjana, and Abdoulaye Faye replaced Ryan Shawcross in defence. Carl Dickinson started at Left Back while Richard Cresswell was replaced on the left by Lawrence. On paper it was a stronger side than on the opening day but would it be enough to cancel out Villa’s pace and skill?

Stoke started very brightly, roared on by a noisy home crowd. Most of the first 45 minutes was played in the Aston Villa half, the visitors unsettled by the Potters’ direct and physical play, and in my view were playing well below their capabilities. Rory Delap’s long throw-in routine was utilised regularly to unnerve Villa’s defence, although in the main they had the measure of it and dealt with most of the efforts fairly comfortably. Stoke were industrious and dominated possession without looking really dangerous. At the other end Villa’s chances were limited as Stoke controlled the first half, never giving the away side the chance to settle and get into their stride. They did appear to have a decent claim for a penalty when a rare foray into Stoke’s box saw Olofinjana lean on Agbonlahor and force him over. Referee Mark Halsey was unsighted, peering through a group of players, and he failed to point to the spot. However a few seconds later with 30 minutes on the clock he was awarding a penalty at the other end for Stoke! Delap appeared to be chopped by Villa captain Laursen after some neat work in the box as he attempted to pull the ball back into the danger area. Lawrence stepped up and coolly smote the ball hard and low into the corner just beyond the dive of Friedel who guessed the right way. It was Stoke’s first ever Premiership goal and the place when berserk with incredible scenes of jubilation. With the benefit of a slow motion replay after the game it looked like Delap made a meal of the slightest of clips, but from the stands in real time it looked a certain penalty. Fuller may have added an unlikely second goal just before half-time when he headed a Delap missile just inches wide. The Potters left the pitch to a huge ovation while without a doubt below par Villa trooped off to a half-time rollocking.

HT Stoke City 1 Aston Villa 0, and I decided against another dreadful Britannia cup of tea.

Predictably Aston Villa improved greatly in the second half. Their passing was more incisive, their approach more urgent, and soon Stoke were finding themselves pressed back, dropping deeper in a bid to quell the reinvigorated Villa. The away side’s midfield became more influential as they passed their around Stoke, and used their wide players more effectively than in the first half. There was a sense of inevitability when on 63 minutes John Carew equalised for the visitors. Good approach play culminated in a fine final move, Carew playing the ball into Young who beautifully back-heeled a return-pass allowing the striker to fire across Thomas Sorensen, the ball arrowing into the far corner. At this point Stoke fans would be forgiven for fearing the worst and wondering how many it might become if heads dropped. It was a deserved equaliser and in a quick spell after the goal Villa might have added another as they looked threatening every time they came forward. Gareth Barry was inches away from connecting with Young’s cross to give the visitors the lead. Villa were now dominating the game and their passing and movement had Stoke in forced retreat.

So it was against the run of play when Fuller put Stoke into the lead on 80 minutes. Olofinjana mopped up in midfield, played a ball forward to Lawrence who then slipped in a fine pass for Fuller to chase. A sublime flick on the turn unlocked the defence and the Jamaican powered away from his marker to be able to drill the ball into the far corner from a tight angle. It was something out of the blue from nothing made by the individual skill of Fuller, and it marked Stoke’s best piece of football in the game. The atmosphere had intensified again as the home support sensed an unlikely victory was now possible. Packed Boothen End v Aston VillaBut as the deafening strains of “Delilah” rang round the ground, a silly free-kick was given away in midfield just two minutes later and while the delivery was poor, the napping Stoke defence allowed Laursen to squeeze home from close range. The goal strangled the “Delilah” mid-flow and once again the harsh lesson at Bolton of mistakes being punished at this level had been unheeded.

By now I think the majority of Stoke fans would have settled for a point to remove the risk of conceding a late Villa winner. However in a final piece of drama it was Stoke who stole all three points. Mamady Sidibe, who had replaced Kitson on 76 minutes, sent the home fans wild when deep into injury time he got his head to a Delap throw-in hurled from the left. The big striker didn’t seem to know much about it as he had his back to goal in a crowd of players and merely thrust back his head. It was enough to send the ball into the net and the Stokies in the stands daft on delirium. It was the last action of the game, the perfect time to score, and the Britannia Stadium rocked like Stoke City had won the cup never mind a game.

FT Stoke City 3 Aston Villa 2, and I needed sweet tea for the shock!

Overall it was a very good display from Stoke City with lots of positives. A totally unexpected result and scoreline to be fair. It was a deserved win despite Villa bossing much of the second half and playing the better football during that time. However Stoke played the ball on the ground far more in this game, a few frustrating hopeful punts into the channels littered a game that saw more passing football than Stoke are usually credited with. There were impressive debuts for Faye and Faye, particularly Abdoulaye with his “thou shall not pass” dominance of whoever bore down on him, mixed with an ability to bring the ball out of defence. He also seemed to bring the best out of Cort, while Amdy Faye linked up well with Olofinjana, who also showed some good touches and much promise. The whole team worked hard for each other and showed great character to look for a winner. With Lawrence and Fuller in the side we look more threatening and the wonderful individual skill of Fuller fashioned a goal when I was beginning to question Stoke’s attacking threat and worried about having another goal in the side. When the ball was played on the ground Stoke looked better for it, showing they can pass the ball if they want to, the holding on to possession assisting the first half dominance over Villa. Some minor negatives are the tendency to rely heavily on Delap’s monster throws (about 10 throws produced a couple of clear chances, one leading to a goal), the use of hopeful punts into the channels to no one, and a few occasions of giving the ball away through sloppy passes or being out-muscled. We still sit too deep at times, and the defence is still not as tight as it should be. But it would be churlish to criticise that overall performance after such a great result. It was a huge improvement on last week and Villa are a better side than Bolton. There was encouragement for the future, and much cheer for the next week! Plenty to build on, and it instils hope for the season. With displays like that a trip to the Britannia might not be the pushover and easy three points that opponents might think. Well done Stoke!

Before heading back to Leeds we bumped into Oatcake Fanzine legend Old Stokie, the delight of the win producing a hearty hug from the City stalwart. There was even praise for Pulis from one of his biggest critics. As Old Stokie sauntered off to find his lift home, we made our way towards a celebratory bag of chips in Smithpool Road before the Padmobile made its way back north to Leeds. What a day, what a shock, what a result, what a fine bag of chips too. ;-) Hoarse but happy.