Picture the scene. Sky are meeting Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore on Saturday 5th of December.
Sky man: “We’ve got a bit of a problem, you see we let the work experience kid pick the Christmas TV matches and…well…he chose Stoke vs Wigan. Naturally, you can see our concern”
Scudamore: “Of course I can see the problem and I’m particularly concerned. Everyone knows that the proper supporters abroad who do what they can to watch their team on television, and it doesn’t seem right to repay them with those sort of teams. They want the likes of Drogba and Ronaldo”
Sky man: “Well Wigan have a greasy manager and a team of ‘flair’ players who spend lots of time on the floor, that must be a plus?”
Scudamore: “Yes, but we need to guarantee action. I will allocate that senile old fool Mike Dean as referee for the game, that will ensure some controversial incidents. It’s only Stoke and Wigan, who cares about the result?”
And so the scene was set for Mike Dean to spend 99 minutes wandering all over the pitch making enormous cock-ups. ‘A Wigan player on the floor with no apparent cause? Better book the nearest Stoke player, dirty Stoke must have done something.’ ‘A sliding tackle that involves you handling the ball in the box? Play on!”What’s that, Wigan want to make a substitution at half time? They won’t mind if I make them play with 10 men for the first few minutes.’ ‘Does Chris Kirkland have his arms around Tuncay’s neck as the ball goes into the box? Play on!’ ‘Who needs the offside rule, have a penalty!’ ‘Oh look, you’re on the floor again, I’ll book another Stoke player’.
In all seriousness, it is about time that the FA took action against these cheats. FIFA have refused to clamp down on diving, feigning injury and time wasting in international football, and so the FA must take a real lead in the war against the disease that is killing the game. It only takes one independent viewer to watch today’s game and decide ‘Gomez and Koumas – one year bans.’ Maybe that’s a little extreme, but unless the authorities take real action against these cowards who are killing the game, it will continue to flourish. Happily, asides from the occasional indiscretion from Fuller, we’re a team that abhor such antics and I’m proud of the fact that we’re one of the few teams in this league (the only other I’ve seen are Sunderland) who play the game the right way.
Soapboxing out of the way, now on to the match:
Sorensen – 6 – A third consecutive penalty save is a great achievement, but there’s no overlooking his culpability in the second goal and possibly even the first.
Huth – 6 – Had a decent game until the stupid penalty incident
Shawcross – 8 – Good at the back and a well-taken header
Faye – 8 – Back to his best, won everything in the air and was strong in the tackle
Wilkinson – 7 – Decent game, wrongly booked for a fine tackle on the captain of the Wigan Falling Down Society.
Delap – 5 – Sorry Rory, you just aren’t a right winger.
Whitehead – 6.5 – Poor first half, a much improved second half
Diao – 5 – Even with the cheat sympathiser referee, he gave away some very obvious fouls in dangerous positions.
Etherington – 6 – Awful first half, better second half.
Tuncay – 8 – Fine debut, a real threat when going forward. Could have had three goals.
Fuller – 7 – The turning point was when he went off. Even when it’s not working for him, he’s worth the pressure he keeps the defence under
Whelan – 6 – Didn’t do much.
Beattie – 6 – Ditto.
What a very strange game that was. I don’t suppose I can get away without a huge comment on Tuncay’s home debut. To be honest, I’m really unsure of where we go from here, because he had a very good individual game and when he went forward with Fuller and Etherington we looked very good. He provided excitement, entertainment and a goal. It could have been even better, as there were so many ‘almosts’ – inches off one ball across the boss, just didn’t get enough on the end of a Fuller shot, a smart throughball that baffles the opposition players around him but just gets blocked by the defence. What’s more, he looked fully fit and he performed one of functions that we’ve missed with Mama out of the team, one that neither Kitson nor Beattie have provided. He was full of energy and did plenty of work on the opposition midfielders when they have the ball. That’s a big part of the withdrawn striker’s role and we’ve honestly missed it. However, there’s a catch. The way we set up, we have two get out balls:
1) Long ball up to the target man who wins it in the air. Fuller then keeps it in the opposition half as the team then catch up. We then keep the ball in the opposition half.
2) Etherington sprints out of defence with the ball and creates a chance on the break. Possibly wins a set piece, where the rest of the team then push up and create a chance.
When Etherington doesn’t perform, as he didn’t in the first half today, we then only have one get out ball. When Tuncay and Fuller are up front, we don’t have the first option. That’s not a criticism of Tuncay – running about the pitch winning the ball in the air against players like Scharner and Boyce. The problem is that it means we get trapped in our own half under pressure from the opposition, just like in the first half today. It’s all well and good to say that we need to play it along the floor and to his feet, but we just don’t have the players. Neither Diao, Whitehead, Delap or Whelan are of sufficient ball playing calibre for us to completely change our style of play. I think the answer may lie in the midfield. Scharner won absolutely everything in the air today and if we could have a player like him in the middle, I think that would allow us to play Tuncay and Fuller up front without having to worry too much about link up play, as Scharner would be able to get on the end of every long ball. Perhaps a pipe dream, but I’d love to see him at Stoke on today’s performance, so long as well drill his tendency to fall over out of him. I must admit, I’m very, very excited about the prospect of Tuncay and Fuller up front, so long as Fuller is big enough to put up with having another attacking star in the side.
The first half was very poor, partly for the reasons I mentioned above. It was massively frustrating when they scored, the referee had awarded them another nothing free-kick and Sorensen got a good hand to the initial header. Unfortunately, it bounced back into play off the bar and Boyce (another very good player, to be fair to Wigan, massively under-rated) got a free header. Very frustrating to concede a goal like that, especially amongst the confusion that followed, where the physios were rushed onto the pitch. Then, on the 35th minute, we got right back into the game almost by chance, a massively disappointing goal to concede from Wigan’s point of view. We had a corner and the ball ended up with Whitehead on the halfway line. To the fury of just about everyone, instead of knocking it back into the box he played it back to Sorensen. The team dropped back and Sorensen lumped it forward. “Aha”, you might think “And so Tuncay was beaten in the air by Scharner and nothing happened?”. Not so. Huth had stayed up for the corner and won the ball in the air. The Wigan defence, meanwhile, had fallen asleep and let Tuncay burst into the box, completely unmarked, and provide a fine finish. It was exactly what we needed and I think it was exactly what Tuncay needed. He was pretty clearly overjoyed and on the pitch was a breath of fresh air compared to the miserable Kitson – jogging around with a smile on his face, making jokes with everyone, having a laugh with Reid and Pulis – it must be good for the team.
We came out for the second half and put in a much better performance. We kept the ball in the opposition half a bit more, Etherington found his feet and Tuncay was electric. There were so many nearly moments with him, so many balls he was almost on the end of. The Wigan defence were all over the place and you could see why they conceded 9 goals against Tottenham. The futile tippy-tappy that they insisted on performing around their own box resulted only in us winning the ball back off them and creating another chance. Then, massively against the run of play, the referee gave a free-kick against Huth because another member of the Falling Down Society had fallen over. Sorensen was in no-man’s land and Figueroa flighted the ball perfectly into the top corner. You have to think it was poor from the goalkeeper, but you cannot take away the quality of the strike from Figueroa, I’m sure it’ll be amongst the contenders for ‘goal of the season’. Happily, we got the equaliser barely a minute later and it was no less than we deserved. Unfortunately, we just couldn’t break the door down and I couldn’t work out what we could do. The manager decided to try James Beattie, but I’m afraid that was the turning point in the game. Beattie played up top but he’s no Fuller and Wigan’s defence enjoyed a break from the pressure he applies. The result was that we became trapped in our own half, gave away a penalty (explain to me again why we’re losing Roberty Huth to suspension because of a penalty that you can only assume was given because the linesman confused a man in the crowd with a Stoke player) and fortunately, Sorensen saved it. I then expected us to go back to taking the game to Wigan, but instead we indulged in some keystone cops style stuff where we completely lost the plot. I think this period was typified by Wigan mishitting a corner to the near post, giving us a chance to break, but Whelan thumping it out for a throw-in next to the corner flag.
So, all in all, a game with a lot of positives and negatives. The negatives: Wigan’s consistent antics, our set-piece defending, the two silly goals, the third penalty we’ve given away in four games, our poor first half performance and the hopeless referee. Positives: Tuncay, the number of chances we created, Wilkinson’s tackle on Melchiot and Abdy looking imperious once more. I’ll leave you with the words of The Chairman of Wigan’s Falling Down Society, Roberto Martinez:
‘It’s not fair, in Spain the referees give everything to players who are smart enough to spend time on the floor, they don’t give enough protection to my valuable flair players and that goalkeeper came off his line a little bit to save a penalty that was deserved because all Stoke players are nasty thugs. Still, you can’t rely on the referee for everything and my brave superstars play brave football, like Tony Mowbray’s West Brom last season.’
I may have taken some liberties and paraphrased rather a lot with that quote. Oh well, here’s hoping for a good result next week against Villa