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 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

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.

More Photos

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.

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.

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.

Bolton v Stoke in C64 stylee!Well the waiting is over, the excitement is mounting, and Stoke City’s first match in the top flight for 23 years is a few hours away. I’m going over to Bolton tomorrow to cheer on the Potters in their first ever Premiership clash. Stoke have made two more signings today, no relation but both called Faye and both are Senegalese internationals, one a defender the other a defensive midfielder. Given the limited number of signings made so far, they are welcome, if very late additions.

Obviously I’ll be cheering Stoke on and hoping they get off to a good start in what will be a massive test over the coming season. But the realist in me is very worried. The new signings tally now stands at five. However we propped up a thin squad last season with loan players and remarkably got by with a collection of hard-working average Championship players peppered with a few quality individuals who could muster a bit of skill occasionally. I estimated we ended the last season with about three lower table Premiership quality players. With the new faces I’d say that number was now seven or eight. It’s still not enough and we may pay dearly for it. Stoke cannot rely on the loan system to bail them out of trouble this season, and the Premiership is a huge step up from the very average Championship they were promoted from. Tony Pulis’ teams are typically well organised, physical and stick to a well rehearsed game plan that favours functionality over flair. But his trademark solid defence had too many cracks last season, and these concerns have not yet been addressed. Now faced with faster and more skillful opponents I fear the worst.

Some Stoke fans will leap on this as negative “doom-mongering”, but I love my football club and think the concerns are valid and needed to be debated. A healthy dose of realism is needed, and supporting a football club involves both praise when due and criticism when merited. If supporters think something is not good enough for their beloved club then they should make their voices heard. Tony Pulis will receive a justifiable extended honeymoon period from the fans following our promotion. I am often a critic of Pulis, no great fan of his style or approach, nor his persona for that matter and have been frustrated by the slow arrival of desperately needed new signings. Yet I want him to succeed, because that is for the good of Stoke City. My head says were are favourites for relegation but my heart has to believe otherwise. The Premiership may expose all the limitations I suspect Pulis has, or he might rise to new levels and surprise us all. As the season transpires Pulis may prove woefully inadequate, and I will not be shy about voicing my criticism, even fury. However for now it is time to pull together, cheer on the lads in Red ‘n’ White and wish the whole club the best of luck for the coming season. I think we might need it!

Goaaarrrnn you rip-roaring Potters!!