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!

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Stephen Foster aka Winger (left) discusses tactics with former Stoke City Manager Johan Boskamp, Denderleeuw, April 2008

On the 30th June I was working late, waiting to go to a Green Party meeting in Leeds city centre so I thought I’d pop on the Stoke City Fanzine Oatcake Message Board to pass a few minutes before I headed off. I expected wild transfer rumours, amusing tales, and the usual banter. What I did not expect to find was a thread about the death of Stoke author Stephen Foster. Having been reported missing, his body was found near his home in Norwich on 23rd June. The cause is believed to be drowning. At the time I found it hard to put into words what a shock this was and how incredibly sad this news is. I felt empty. My thoughts and condolences go out to all of Stephen’s family and friends as their pain will be far greater than mine. I did manage a few lines on the message board, but they were not sufficient.

So I’ve been wanting to produce a more worthy tribute to Stephen ever since learning of Stephen’s passing, but have struggled to get past a terrible sense of sadness, a feeling can’t really put words to, but just left me incapable of getting very far without giving up. But following the memorial service on Saturday 16th July at Mow Cop which Stephen would have undoubtedly called “sensational”, and was an uplifting, moving, and humorous celebration of his life, I felt it was time now to record my thoughts.

My first encounter with Stephen was not in person, but his book “She Stood There Laughing”. Reading it I felt several emotions. First off he spoke for me almost perfectly, describing that season in a way that I’d agree with 99% of his views. Secondly he repeatedly made me laugh out loud, startling fellow bus passengers in the process. Thirdly he made me envious. I harboured a dream of becoming a writer myself, and working on the old adage of “write about what you know” I’d considered doing something about my home town or Stoke City. However here was an author who had produced the sentiment of what I’d wanted to say, but had written it in such an eloquent and witty style that I could never have managed. The talented swine! I realised I’d best stick to the day job!

Having read the book and learnt that “Winger” on the Oatcake Message Board and Stephen were one of the same, I enjoyed following and contributing to threads that Winger and fellow “Pulis Hating Wankstains” (the name given to fans who dare criticise the manager Tony Pulis) frequented. Like his book his posts were articulate, sharp, reasoned, well observed, and very funny. I could usually rely him to back me up when I expressed a non-conformist opinion.

Somehow, and the exact details elude me for once, I got roped in to a weekend away in Brussels, and a trip to watch Johan Boskamp’s FCV Dender. I probably invited myself along more than likely. This was the first time I was to meet Stephen in person. By this point I’d read more of his works, including the awesome “It cracks like breaking skin”, and I half worried that he might demonstrate the sort of self-importance bordering on arrogance, a trait one often finds with people that have obtained some fame or notoriety. I feared sharp put downs or sarcasm which also often go with the territory of the artiste. Yet I should not have worried, because Stephen is from Stoke, and so possessed that down to earth nature forged with self-deprecating humour that so many people of the Potteries exude. Yes there was banter. Yes my lengthy detailed instructions on how to navigate the Brussels Metro system and find the hotel were read out loud for the group’s amusement, along with my propensity to use lots of exclamation marks, but there was no malice in this performance. Just good hearty ribbing, the sort mates give out all the time, the sort that indicates genuine affection. I will treasure the memories of that weekend forever, there were more laughs than I can possibly recall.

That weekend led to greater contact: meetings at games, emails, text messages, blog post replies, all containing the trademark eloquence and wit. When I spent 6 months in 2009 living in the USA with my American girlfriend to “see how things go”, I wasn’t allowed to work as a visitor in the USA so had plenty of time on my hands. This led to the honour of proof reading his book “And She Laughed No more”. Stephen was also kind enough to give his frank, detailed and valuable constructive criticism of two short stories of my own that I sent him. The first needed much improvement, but the second was much better, enthusiastically received and to get that sort of praise from a writer I respected meant a great deal to me. In the email exchange about the stories he asked who my literary heroes were. I couldn’t tell him at the time that he was one of them, but I can at least tell you all now.

In “And She Laughed No More” Stephen very kindly included a comment of mine, one of my replies to his blog. He also kindly wrote alongside it that I was a person who lived his life to a code, to a set of principles, something that impressed him and he admired. Well the feeling is mutual. Stephen was someone I admired a huge amount, was a hero, and an inspiration to me. Maybe because he was someone I could relate to – fellow Stoke exile, working class background turned “middle class gayer” who appreciated the arts, the beauty of the English language, and a decent bottle of wine as much as a trip to the Britannia Stadium and a cheese oatcake, and someone who confessed that writing didn’t come easy for him, constant rewrites and much turmoil before something approaching satisfaction with the result is achieved. I felt an affinity with Stephen because of all of these things. But more simply than that, because he was a decent, genuine, caring, generous, funny person who would go out of his way to help you. My regret is that I didn’t get to spend more time in person with you Stephen to tell you all of that, and that I won’t be able to share tales of the new addition to our family – a RSPCA rescue whippet-cross that I think you would have certainly approved of and enjoyed meeting.

It’s so sad that you’ve gone Stephen, but there’s so much to celebrate about your life. From Saturday’s service it was obvious that you have touched so many people’s lives in a positive way. You will be greatly missed.

Rest in peace lad.

It has been some considerable time since I added an update to this blog. Back in September 2009 in fact, then still still a couple of months away from ending my Florida adventure. Maybe with a hint of appropriate consistency I am once again sat at the table in the Jacksonville Beach apartment, this time just for a brief two weeks holiday, the very place where the last blog entry took shape.

A great deal has occurred since that last blog post. The arrival of my parents in Florida in July provided a lot of potential material to post, photos to edit, and yet limited the available time to carry out such tasks. I fell behind with the entries and apart from a couple of retrospective postings, lost the drive needed to catch up and continue a regular offering. Furthermore a restructure at work turned my attention to submitting a job application, preparing for a video conference interview via Skype, and the days in the local Beaches Library were dedicated to retaining my own job rather than the observations of Florida life. Once the interview was complete Tina and I then spent ten days in Italy, attending her brother’s wedding in Siena. Those ten days provided more items to write about but little free time, the most notable event was proposing to Tina in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Rome on 23rd October. She accepted by the way!

Leaving Tina and Florida in mid November and returning to the cold, bleak Leeds streets, and a workplace where staff morale was the lowest I have ever encountered, was as hard as it was painful. I had obtained a position in the restructure, a promotion in fact, but no joy could be taken from it when colleagues and friends were unsuccessful and in danger of losing their jobs. Most shocking was the tragic news that during the six months I was away two colleagues took their own lives. The mood at work was sombre at best, sometimes mutinous, motivation absent, and the feeling towards management close to outright fury. This atmosphere, the cold weather, and the returning to an empty house every night left my mood very dark, and the last thing on my mind was writing a blog.

But there are positives. Tina and I have, with her ex-husband’s co-operation and support (in fact he suggested it), decided to live in the UK. Tina came over for Christmas which was a happy time, and we looked for wedding venues, settling on Temple Newsam House in Leeds. We now are embroiled with the frustrating and complex task of sorting out the application for settlement in the UK for Tina and two of her boys, so they can be over in time for a September wedding. Having been used to having Tina, her boys, and the cats around for six months, not to mention being in a location where mid November still allowed cycling after dark in t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, it was remarkably hard to go back to Britain to the solitary life. Furthermore the need to save money has necessitated a frugal life of simple pastimes, staying home reading, watching TV, or browsing the internet. I have so far failed to see a Stoke City match at the Britannia this season, my football fix obtained from a few trips to the now defunct Farsley Celtic FC.

One distraction I have embraced enthusiastically is a greater involvement with the Green Party as the General and local Council Elections loom. I helped during the unsuccessful campaign in the Leeds ward of Hyde Park & Woodhouse byelection in February, and have been leafleting around the Farnley & Wortley ward with the aim of getting Cllr Andy Parnham re-elected and helping Cllr David Blackburn’s Parliamentary campaign for the Leeds West Constituency. Leafleting has a rather soothing and stress-busting effect. When striding up an unknown driveway, one’s concentration is locked on folding the leaflet correctly, the potential awkward letterbox that makes insertion a chore, and the possibility of some slavering beast waiting on the other side to remove any straying fingers. All worries of the day at work, or the months ahead are gone, the mind is cleared and focused on the simple task of getting the paper through the slot without incident, and the exercise is also good for body and soul. While this blog as suffered, I have been busy updating the Farnley & Wortley Green Party website and have also assisted with the Headingley Green Party’s new site too. I have also agreed to be David Blackburn’s election agent during the General Election campaign.

While this latest holiday in Jacksonville Beach affords me the time to restart blogging, I must give credit to another source of inspiration. A contractor called David has been working in our office since my return to Leeds. Stoke born and bred, a similar age to myself, and a great fan of Stoke City during my favourite era – the Lou Macari Years in the early 1990s – so no wonder we have stuck up a rapport and shared plenty of laughs. David discovered my blog by accident, and has apparently been working his way through past entries. It was his compliments about the stories and enjoyment of them that gave me the impetus to write something new. Sometimes the thought of “what’s the point” flits across one’s mind, but if other people do appreciate the efforts made, it is flattering and galvanises the resolve to continue. I find writing fulfilling, people seem to enjoy reading my observations, and if I can provoke thought and positive action from just one person then the whole exercise is worthwhile. So thanks David, and we must keep in touch when you move to your next contract.

In the meantime I think I should make the most of the sunshine and head outside. Who knows what things are going on out there that are just asking to be written about!

Beaches Leader 22 May 2009 - Rain pummels BeachToday is my fifth full day in Jacksonville after arriving on Tuesday night. Amazingly this is the first day I have actually been down to the beach to partake in my “usual” morning bike ride, in fact the first time to the beach for any reason. The sun is out, the sky has patches of blue, and the temperature is up. Nothing surprising about that you might think, but for the last few days we have suffered heavy showers for the majority of the day. I for one have been getting sick off it. Yesterday was Tina’s day off from her main job so we had almost a full day to do something before she did a couple of hours at her second job. But the weather was so dismal it ended up being a day of wandering around stores, and I won’t bore you with that, the only excitement being the discovery of a $8 DVD player at the Goodwill Thrift Store. Needless to say it turned out to be knackered, and a quick piece of internet research convinced me while the likely new part was only $1.59, the act of soldering it back in place was neither my forte nor worth it! So back it went to the store for a refund.

Any road I digress. The weather has been the main talking point around here and you can see that the usual laid back attitude has been affected, a grumpiness more at home on the wet Leeds side streets being evident amongst the locals. They are used to tropical storms, they are used to flash heavy showers that last an hour or so, but several days on the trot is unusual and unwelcome. The local newspaper, The Beaches Leader weekend edition reported that between last Monday and midday Thursday a total of 9.58 inches of rainfall fell at the Beaches area, Wednesday’s storms accounting for 3 inches alone. The rain was also combined with heavy wind gusts up to 53 mph, the average around 44 mph. The wind was enough to force the closure of Jacksonville Beach Pier after boarding broke away. Meanwhile the drainage system has struggled to cope with the deluge, and there has been flooding in some streets, the rain also setting of alarm systems of some of the nearby buildings, the block of condominiums across the road from us particularly annoying. The newspaper also reported that the pier wooden struts showed that around two feet of sand had been blown or washed away during the storms.

But today was thankfully different. I woke to sunshine and hastily set out on the bike to enjoy the beach and test the new rear tyre. Jacksonville Beach 24 May 2009 (I’d been out briefly two days earlier and pumped the tyres at a local gas station. Imagine my surprise several hours later when there was a loud explosion in the lounge, the brief smell of burning, a startled yelp from the cats, and I found the rear tyre had actually blown up! There was a lengthy gash with some strange green seepage trickling out. Unnerving. So my shopping purchases had included a new tyre, inner tube, and foot pump).

Anyway the tide was coming in so there was little beach to actually ride along so I switched back to the road after a few blocks. Sea at Jax Beach 8:30am 24th May 200910th Avenue Lifeguard Seat 24th May 2009Even at just after 8am the sun is very strong, so it was a short trip to avoid getting burnt. The forecast is for more heavy showers today during the afternoon, so hopefully I can get out beforehand to avoid them, but for the time being I’m listening to Stoke City getting a football lesson at Arsenal as half time approaches. The idiot BBC Stoke commentator John Acres opined at kick off that Stoke “could get something from this”, fancying a draw. It’s currently Arsenal 4 Stoke City 1. I ask you.

It’s a few minutes into 2009 and I sit on my sofa back from a New Year’s Eve party I attended almost out of a sense of compliance because to be honest I don’t particularly enjoy New Year celebrations. However 2008 was such a remarkable year personally that I feel it deserves some moments of reflection. It was a year of many highs, a few lows, but it was never dull, and provided some very special memories.

The year 2008 actually started in a sad way. After spending a wonderful couple of weeks around Christmas with Tina over from the USA, 1st January 2008 was the day I had to take her back to Manchester Airport for her flight home. We didn’t know when we would next see each other, although it was likely to be late March or April when my Annual Leave entitlement was replenished. December had marked the flourishing of our relationship to something stronger than just “friends with benefits”. On the way back from the airport I tried to cheer myself up with a trip on the East Lancashire Railway, but the drizzly day, and the feeling of missing someone special beside me prevented a real upturn in spirits. The house seemed empty, I felt like a part of me was missing, and the year was off to a bad start.

Yet there were plenty of highs too. I lost almost a stone in weight, getting myself fitter and leaner for when I next saw Tina, and making myself feel more positive about my appearance. I started being mentored by our Head of Department in February and the first session alone went a long way to raising my confidence and increasing my positivity. In early March I obtained a worldwide recognised qualification in software testing, and later that month the wait was finally over – I was heading to Florida to see Tina. Those 17 days opened my eyes and I went from showing general disdain for all things American to contemplating a whole new lifestyle for myself over there. Tina and I did some touring around, some highlights being the Ocala National Forest area with Juniper Springs, the JFK Space Center, and walking in the Apalachicola National Forest.

I enjoyed myself so much that I returned home and immediately booked to go back in June. In the meantime I went to Coniston in the Lake District and was taught how to drive a 7.5 inch gauge steam locomotive for the first time, something I’d continue to do regularly for the rest of the year. Furthermore I had a fantastic trip to Brussels in April, meeting fellow Stoke City message board users who have since become friends, and with them experienced the quite surreal moment of being introduced former Stoke manager Johan Boskamp. A week later I was in Scotland walking in the Cairngorm mountains when news trickled through that Stoke City had won promotion to the top flight of English football for the first time in 23 years.

May was finished off by a trip down to the South West walking in Exmoor and Dartmoor with my friend Jen, and taking in two preserved steam railways during the Bank Holiday period, while the final Saturday of the month presented a beautiful day in the Lake District walking up 4 peaks around Buttermere. Then came another trip to Florida in early June. Another Stoke message board name became a face as Tina and I met Calvin and his wife Margaret for the first time, and another friendship began, while again there were road trips to see parts of Florida neither of us had seen before. I also met a new addition to the family – Hadley the kitten – and Tina’s youngest son. The trip was enough to make me decide I wanted to spend much longer in Florida, so plans were made to rent out my house, ask for a sabbatical at work, and spend several months with Tina to see how the relationship developed.

This is where the year took a bit of a nose dive. A new boiler and double-glazed windows were needed to get the house up to scratch to rent it out, and I hoped this work might be done by August and October was suggested as a best case scenario for my arrival in Florida. However delays with projects at work, the complexities of arranging finance and the availability of the contractors meant that the house improvements were finally completed at the end of October! I still had decorating and minor DIY work to finish too. I was not in Tina’s good books. The excitement of meeting Johan Boskamp again when he brought his team FCV Dender to a friendly game at Leeds Utd, plus Stoke City starting their first ever season in the Premiership punctuated the downturn. But when it became obvious that Tony Pulis was going to deliver his usual brand of negative football, it took the shine of things. The obstacles in the way of an extended stay in America seemed to becoming more difficult to overcome, leading to a growing malaise and a growing waistline as I put back on the weight I had previously lost. Still I did turn some of my energy to positive things like discovering my political activism again, joining the Green Party and attending an anti-war demonstration in Manchester. Overall the tail end of the year was bleak, and I was angry with myself for not achieving what I had set out to do. Self doubt had returned.

Yet the year ended on a positive note. Tina secretly arranged a wonderful gift for my birthday in November – a ticket to see Leonard Cohen live at the M.E.N Arena – and I also decided to spend Christmas in Florida, luckily managing to obtain a cheap fare. How can anyone complain about a year that saw three trips to Florida?! The final visit in many ways was the best of the three. There may have been no road trips but there was plenty of quality time with Tina and two of her boys, seeing Calvin and Margaret again, and spending time with Tina’s family. It reinvigorated my desire to spend some serious time over there, and strengthened my belief in our relationship at a point where I was beginning to wonder if it could actually work.

The year 2008 has been memorable. I have been exceptionally lucky to experience what I have. Only a perfectionist like me would pick fault with it. Despite the achievements and experiences I still feel a certain disappointment about not being able to see though all my plans and not completing what I intended. This coming year has a lot to live up to, but if I do manage to achieve those dreams then 2009 will be equally memorable. Now it’s time to strap myself in and enjoy the ride however choppy.

Stoke City 2  Arsenal 1 - all you need to know!

“Are you Tottenham in disguise?” sang the Stoke fans to the visiting Arsenal fans. Cruel. But the scoreboard above says it all. A most unlikely scoreline, Arsenal’s millionaires and artistic expressive talents defeated by determined effort and a more direct approach. A report to follow soon, but for now here’s some photos of the event. Click them and they grow…

Fuller waits at the back post to flick in Delap's throw
Fuller waits at the back post to flick in Delap’s rocket throw-in

Pulis and Wenger
Who would have thought the one on the left would overcome the one on the right? Not me!

Delap - strikes fear into Premiership defences
The architect of Arsenal’s downfall. Delap strikes fear into Premiership defences

Ok so turning up five minutes before a match might not be the best idea but there were mitigating circumstances. Firstly my Sunderland supporting colleagues and I had to travel down from Leeds after work on a busy motorway network. Moreover the opportunity to get a feed at my parents’ house was too good to miss, especially the cake.

So I found myself in a long queue at the ticket collection point with five minutes before kick off. Tempers were fraying as the Ticket Office employed its own unique style of ineptitude. The queue descended into farce as the match started, people shouting out their names before even reaching the window, and the law of the jungle took hold. I’d printed out my details to make it easier, or so I thought. My surname in big letters at the top was clearly not prominent enough. In any case a bloke next to me shouted louder so the assistant scurried off to find his tickets arriving back to me with a blank expression even when I explained she had my piece of paper still behind the glass. Thankfully I checked the envelope before I departed the window as it contained only my Arsenal and Hull tickets and not one for the match that night. I was amused to see that any Sunderland fans arriving to claim tickets did not receive the usual printed version, but a slip of paper with their name on, more akin to a school chitty. “Take this to turnstile 47 and show it to them there duck”, said the assistant. I wondered if it excused the recipient from games lesson.

I finally found my seat 15 minutes into the match, so I feel I cannot provide an adequate match report. However the offering was so poor there’s little to report in any case. It was not one for the purists and no great loss if you’d remained at home and followed it on Teletext. Indeed I missed plenty more of the game as a creature that appeared half human half Ewok kept blocking my view as she and her offspring leapt up at the slightest hint of excitement. Needless to say the excitement was actually minimal. Apart from one decent move resulting in Fuller hitting the post after Tonge slipped in a delightful reverse pass, Stoke largely employed the Delap missile as their main creative outlet. Sunderland, who showed little appetite to perform, largely coped with this approach until Fuller darted in to head home a Delap throw on 76 minutes. Kenwyne Jones forced a good save from Sorensen late on but there was no way back for the under par visitors.
FT Stoke City 1 Sunderland 0

It was a vital three points that pulled Stoke out of the relegation zone but it was far from pretty, and not just the football. Mrs Ewok’s partner was revealed towards the end of the game minus his shirt, a portly youth settled several rows behind us proudly displaying his naked belly. As I said, far from pretty. Indeed after the long delay on the M6 returning to the Leeds and the arrival well after midnight it was hardly worth the effort! At least I had bragging rights in the car, although there was little to brag about!

Stoke v Chesea C64 stylee

On the face of it a two-nil defeat to Chelsea might not seem a bad result, certainly no disgrace, or an embarrassment. But this was a very comfortable win for Chelsea achieved in second gear with the bare minimum of effort. There was a sense that if Stoke had somehow put the ball in the net, the Blues would have stepped up a gear, brushed the impudent newcomers aside and notched a few more themselves. Chelsea cornerThe visitors were superior in every department, as one might expect, but the disappointing aspect is that Stoke’s cause was not helped by the team selection and the one dimensional approach of the manager.

Since the first couple of matches of the season I have opined that Stoke’s reliance on the Rory Delap throw, and the tactic of pressuring of opponents down the channels to obtain throw-ins was both limited and worrying. The lack of real creativity, pace, and the ability to supply other quality deliveries into the opponent’s penalty area leaves Stoke rather short of goal scoring opportunities. This was not addressed on transfer deadline day either. The only threat has come from the Delap exocet or the flash of brilliance from Fuller. It was therefore rather troubling to find that Delap was ruled out by a hamstring injury, and Fuller was on the bench. Dave Kitson and Mamady Sidibe were to start up front, while striker Richard Cresswell was asked to deputise in left midfield. This arrangement worked in the Championship, but it is highly questionable that Stoke will get away with this approach in the Premiership.

The atmosphere was magnificent again as the teams took to the pitch, the Stoke fans providing their part of the bargain when it came to making the Britannia Stadium an intimidating pace to visit. But as the game got under way the Stoke team seemed to give their visitors too much respect and Chelsea were soon comfortably into their stride. Vintage Pulis as Scolari looks onMichael Ballack was involved twice early on, sending a dipping shot from thirty yards that Thomas Sorensen tipped over, and the German international forced a Sorensen into a smart save with a header from the resulting corner. Stoke were in more trouble on 13 minutes after Seyi Olofinjana lost out in a midfield tussle allowing Frank Lampard the opportunity to send in a sublime chip through for the unmarked Didier Drogba. The striker controlled the ball beautifully and seemed certain to score, but his attempted prod to Sorensen’s left was blocked by the keeper’s outstretched leg. Chelsea maintained possession with ease during the first half, patiently building with sharp passing and movement, probing Stoke for weaknesses and a potential opening. It had all the characteristics of a training game for the visitors, with Stoke offering little in the way of a threat.

Indeed behind me in the stands Stoke fans were getting impatient with the efforts of Dave Kitson, questioning his work rate and desire. Up to press this season Kitson has been one of one Stoke’s most hard working players, unfortunately the system utilised by the manager had seen him out of position and contributing more in midfield and defence than in front of goal. Against Chelsea he was up front but deprived of anything resembling service, other than hopeful balls forward for him to chase or battle in vain against a strong top quality rearguard. There were signs that he was beginning to get disillusioned with his lot, not surprising to be fair, and until Stoke find a way of supplying quality balls into the box, they will not get the most from their £5.5m striker. Kitson did earn a corner on 34 minutes which Sidibe eventually got a head to at the near post, but his tame effort from a tight angle would not squeeze past Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal. Stoke were given a lesson in finishing moments later when Chelsea swept up the field with a string of intricate passes to open up Stoke’s defences down the home side’s left. Pulis scratches headLampard played a delightful ball over the defence and Jose Bosingwa had kept pace with the attack to chest down the pass and fire home from an angle with Griffin helplessly getting the final touch. It was a deserved lead and was comfortably taken into half time with Stoke offering little other than eager chasing as Chelsea seemed to have plenty of time on the ball as they continued to move it around at will.

HT Stoke City 0 Chelsea 1 and Pulis left the field rightly scratching his head

The half time break saw Stoke and Chelsea legend Alan Hudson draw the lottery tickets, and Stoke also needed to pull something special out of the hat if they were to turn the game around. However the game was almost put beyond them in the 47th minute. Alan Hudson at half timeA Lampard shot was steered wide by a Stoke foot and from the resulting corner the immense Abdoulaye Faye collected the ball safely and advanced seemingly untroubled out of the box. Unfortunately his sloppy pass was picked off by Florent Malouda and he fired in a shot from the edge of the area that Sorensen did well to tip on to the bar. Kitson was substituted on 53 minutes and replaced by Ricardo Fuller. Clearly this introduction sparked Stoke into life, giving them fresh impetus and more of threat. Stoke’s tempo had been increased and Chelsea started to look less comfortable and knew they were now in a battle. But for all of Stoke’s extra belief and the encouragement from the passionate crowd, the only real moment of note they produced was a powerful header from Leon Cort at a corner which Mikel nodded clear on the line. Fuller curled a shot high over the bar on 69 minutes, and while Stoke were enjoying a period of dominance the cutting edge was lacking, and they ultimately paid as Chelsea killed off the game with a second goal.

There appeared little menace on 75 minutes when Bosingwa swung in a routine ball from the right wing, but Cort slipped while attempting to chest down to Faye, who also slipped for good measure, teeing up the waiting substitute Nicolas Anelka to finish hard and low into the far corner from about 12 yards. Big Phil watches onThis ended any Stoke hope, and the play swung back to a confident Chelsea. An Anelka run eventually set up Ballack for a shot just wide on 79 minutes, then an unmarked Lampard should have done better than softly shoot into Sorensen’s arms from 12 yards on 83 minutes while Stoke’s defence was dozing during another good move. Michael Tonge (who replaced a disappointing Liam Lawrence on 64 minutes) managed a shot from 20 yards in the last minute of normal time, but it flew well over the Chelsea bar.

The final whistle went to end what was in the main a comfortable victory for Chelsea who were in total control apart from a spell in the second half when Fuller’s introduction lifted Stoke and injected much need confidence and pace. However I got the impression that Chelsea could have easily stepped up a level if needed should Stoke have grabbed a goal. Typical spirit and hard work from Stoke, but an impotent as an attacking force without Delap and Fuller on the pitch. Stoke need to find alternative ways of creating scoring opportunities if their stay in the top flight is to last longer than this season.

FT Stoke City 0 Chelsea 2 – and Pulis has a bit of thinking to do.

The evening was spent in the company of Stoke fanzine message board legends at a curry house in Dresden. The post mortem of the game was carried out over a decent feed and with plenty of gallows humour.

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Since the end of last season Stoke have added 10 new faces to the squad, the majority with Premiership experience or lower Premiership quality. Doesn’t sound too bad. Indeed they might allow Stoke to make a bit of a fight of it. It is steady if not spectacular building by manager Tony Pulis. But while £20 million pounds spent sounds a lot, especially for Stoke, the Transfer Deadline passed without any real exciting additions, and critically the key areas of weakness in the side were not fully addressed, something which may prove critical in the months ahead. My pre-deadline shopping list would have included the following as minimum: a dedicated left-back, a dedicated left-midfielder, preferably a winger, a creative central midfielder, and at least one more striker. The actual purchases were another central defender who can play left-back if pushed, and two midfielders, one of which is able to play on the left, and neither really proven at this level. From what I’ve seen so far, for all the spirit and effort shown by the Stoke side, and indeed an increasingly inclination to pass the ball around more, the overall approach is still fairly limited. The main tactic is to chase balls down the flanks and put the opposition under pressure deep in their own half forcing them to concede either corners, or more typically throw-ins. Rory Delap will then hurl in one of his monster throws, and Stoke try to capitalise on the confusion in the penalty box. The introduction of creative or wide midfielders might offer other attacking outlets, so players of this nature were an absolute must, but whether the ones that arrived are of the suitable standard remains to be seen. A huge concern is the inability to add to the forward line seeing as an injury to or suspension of Fuller and Kitson leaves Stoke fielding Championship standard strikers that can be best described as “honest”.

The final word must go to the departure of another “honest” striker, Jon “The Beast” Parkin who Stoke sold to Preston North End on deadline day. Parkin split fans’ opinion down the middle into two clear camps. He was either detested as an unprofessional waster whose lack of fitness was an absolute disgrace, while to others he was a characterful cult hero serenaded with the chant “Beast, Beast, Beast”. Parkin could have had great appeal, even hero status, forgiven all his indiscretions if he’d scored more often. A professional footballer he may be, the Beast’s appearance was more in keeping with the watching faithful. He was almost of comic book story proportions, real Roy of the Rovers stuff. Picture if you will Melchester Rovers needing a win to avoid relegation in the last match of the season, the manager and his assistant frantically trying to conjure up a goal from a desperately dire display. The clock is ticking and with 5 minutes to go the scores are tied at 0-0. A big lad is needed up front, but the star forward is out injured and the substitutes bench has been decimated by a stomach bug. They look round and spot the giant Parkin in the crowd, unshaven, half cut, and enthusiastically tucking into a pie, gravy stains down the front of his replica shirt. “Here laddie we need you”, shouts the assistant, “Come over here and get these on”, hurling him a pair of boots. Parkin straddles the advertising hoarding with one last mouthful of pastry, squeezes into the boots and a borrowed pair of shorts, then takes to the pitch as the crowd roars on one of their own. His first touch is to barge past the opposition’s strapping centre halves, and get his considerable weight behind a deep cross into the box to meet it first time with a thunderous volley which rockets past the hapless keeper and bulges the back of the net. The stadium goes berserk, Melchester Rovers are safe from relegation, and Parkin staggers off the pitch exhausted but the unlikely hero.

Pure fantasy, but I’m sure there’s large parts of the Stoke crowd who would have forgiven, nay revelled in a hero who rolled up to the ground 15 minutes prior to kick off, nourished by a pre-match meal of pub pie and chips washed down with three pints of Marston’s Pedigree, before belting home a couple of wonder goals to help his team to victory. Frankly they’d have loved it. No doubt Parkin’s behaviour was never that unprofessional, but then again given his appearance few would be surprised if that was his match day routine. Personally I thought it shame he never showed his true talents, whether it be through lack of fitness, or either the reluctance of the manager to pick him, or use Parkin in the wrong system. When used as an impact player coming on late in the game, his deft touches and intelligent reading of the play often gave Stoke a different dimension, fresh impetus, and a more skilful attacking edge. Sadly he lacked the fitness to maintain that drive for a full 90 minutes, which was no doubt his undoing, and the reason he was not considered part of Stoke’s Premiership plans. Farewell Beast, you had your moments, you could have claimed hero status but ultimately you wasted your chance. Good luck at your new club, and as tradition dictates you are sure to score against us when Stoke next play your new team!

While most of the national media have been frothing over the drama of Dimitar Berbatov moving from Tottenham to Manchester United and neighbours Manchester City’s astonishing swoop for Robinho from Real Madrid, over in the Potteries Stoke City were involved in their own transfer deadline day maelstrom. Could Tony Pulis bring in the faces that might help the Potters avoid relegation from the Premiership after only one season?

From 7pm my monitoring of the situation was constant. Sky Sports News remained on the television, while the laptop in the lounge kept tabs on the Stoke City official site, Oatcake fanzine messageboard, BBC Sport Football Transfer Live Text, and Sky Sports Deadline Clock Watch simultaneously. The tension mounted as midnight approached, the sums Stoke were allegedly offering are still hard to grasp. Stoke fans are used to no news deadline days, or aged journey men arriving either for free or “nominal fees”, in otherwise a few grand and a dozen oatcakes. But this year Stoke had a dedicated Sky reporter outside the Britannia Stadium, and after the Manchester clubs must have received the most interest as bids of £5 million and then £6 million for Cardiff’s midfielder Joe Ledley flew from the Potters’ fax machine.

Yet as I now turn in for the night it seems a bit of an anti-climax, possibly a disappointment. The latest news at 01:15 is:

- Cardiff City turned down a £6m bid for Ledley refusing Stoke permission to talk to the player
- Wigan Athletic also were unwilling to sell striker Henri Camara after Stoke showed late interest
- Defender Danny Higginbotham rejoined Stoke from Sunderland for a fee believed to be around £2.5m
- Midfielder Tom Soares arrived at 8:30pm and was signed from Crystal Palace just in time before midnight for £1.25m
- Another late move saw midfielder Michael Tonge bought from Sheffield Utd for £2m
- Jon “The Beast” Parkin left Stoke to join Preston North End permanently after an initial loan

Stoke have added to their squad, but will it be enough? More analysis and comment after a much needed sleep.