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!

Bolton 3 Stoke 1 in C64 style

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.