Archive for April, 2011

4 consecutive seasons, managing success, heroes, TCUP

April 27th, 2011 No comments

In the grand scheme of things Villa away was a point gained.  It’s a relief to get our first away point of 2011, but for much of the first half we were poised to take all three.  For twenty minutes after Jonesy put us ahead we were in complete control of the game.  With the home crowd getting restless Villa looked edgy and frustrated.  However, at this level one slight error can prove costly, and so it proved.  From a basic cross from the right Shawcross allowed Bent to get across him and put them back into the game. Bent’s glancing header was skillful and perfectly placed but from Ryan’s perspective it was avoidable and sloppy.  Defenders have to attack crossed balls.  From that point we never looked like winning. In the second half there were plenty of chances to hit them on the break but our distribution was so poor we just gave the ball back to them. With our midfield reluctant to support forwards it was clear we just wanted a draw to end the diabolical away form. We contained them comfortably though. Apart from gathering crosses, Begovic  had little to trouble him in the second half.  So all in all not a bad afternoon’s work from Stoke City. 

The decent afternoons work was succeeded by a tremendous evening’s work at home to Wolves.  We dominated the game from start to finish and got the three points we richly deserved.  This excellent performance has almost confirmed our presence in the Premier League for the fourth consecutive seasona marvellous achievement from Tony Pulis and his players.   This was Jermaine Pennant’s finest performance in a Stoke shirt.  His goal was the icing on a delicious football cake.  The one obvious heartbreaking aspect of the game was Etherington’s  injury.  It’s awful that a player so important to us seems likely to miss such a momentous conclusion to a season he’s enhanced with some glittering football.  We just have to hope his condition isn’t as bad as it first looked.   It’s a tough game sometimes.

Gareth Bale has received the PFA’s player of the year award.  In itself an unremarkable little fact.  One question that has to be asked is why does the voting have to take place so early in the season?  The awards are dished out before the seasons climax when there is plenty of time for players to impose themselves on a season’s story.  The PFA awards remain the games most prestigious.  Acclaim from fellow professionals remains a great accolade.  But to maintain credibility the timing of the ceremony and the voting procedure needs a revamp. 

A principle of football is that possession is 9/10 of the law.  So watching games recently it’s flabbergasting to see teams give away priceless possession by conceding so many unnecessary free kicks.  Players in their own half, and going nowhere in particular, get carelessly shoved or ankles clipped.  It’s utterly baffling that professionals can make these brainless decisions with such monotonous regularity.  The principle is TCUP…. Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.  Some players need to learn how to make the right decisions during a game.

Brisbane Roar forward Kosta Barbarouseshas reportedly been on trial with a high-profile Italian club.  Whether Barbarouses gets a contract in Italy or not it’s indicative of the respect the reigning Australian champions command.  It’s beyond doubt that coach Ange Postecoglou would love to keep the team together.  There are some cold hard truths of football life to contend with though.  If one of the players gets the chance to play overseas could he really afford to refuse that opportunity?  Similarly, would it be right of the club to hold the player back?  How the club addresses these issues will be instrumental in building on current success… or fading back into mediocrity.  Good luck Ange.

Arsenal are about to end their sixth consecutive season without a trophy.  The defeat at Bolton confirmed what millions of football followers throughout the world had realised months ago.  That  for all their skill and style they still lack that priceless winner mentality that makes some teams, well, winners.  For the first time the question marks over the manager’s  position could hold some validity.  Two weeks ago Arsene Wenger stated his belief that second was good enough.  It’s hard to believe that an American entrepeneur who  spent millions acquiring a football club agreeing that second isgood enough.  Stan Kroenke could make his first major decision a ruthless statement of intent. 

During a trip to England in 1999, I was asked if I’d make a special visit if we were to reach an FA Cup final.  Coming at the end of the calamitous Brian Little fiasco, this was akin to him asking me to bear his children!   My response to this glorious hypothetical piece of  dreaming was to promise my fanciful inquisitor that if Stoke got to the FA Cup Final, I’d pay for him and his family to travel to Australia and watch it here with me.  This was of course, the safest promise in history.  Not only would we never ever get to an FA Cup Final, no way would he drag himself and his family to the other side of the planet when he’d prefer be at Wembley watching Stoke.  As we know the preposterous notion has become a reality.  May 14th will be a huge moment in the lives of all Stoke City fans.  It will be the conclusion of the first phase of major investment into Manchester City.  As such it’s entirely conceivable that they will appear in another showpiece under the vast arch in the next few years.  We don’t have that comfort.  For Stoke City 148 years of yearning and dreaming will come to fruition. We’d love it to be the first of many but there is also the possibility that this occasion won’t return in our lifetime.  On May 14th we can be heroes… just for one day.

An RIP, a lethargic start, and a cacophony of FA Cup emotions

April 12th, 2011 No comments

The most frustrating thing about Stoke on Saturday is that we started so sluggishly.  We were up against a team of genuine quality, but allowing them to totally dominate us proved suicidal.   We did however score two brilliant goals.  Hopefully Jonesy’s blast will bolster his confidence and lead him and us to a bright finish to the season.  Despite having spent most of the first half frantically trying (and usually failing) to clear the ball, at half time we were only 2-3 down and alive in the game.  For large spells of the second half we matched our opponents.  We imposed ourselves on the game and kept the ball well in their half.  We couldn’t quite force an equaliser and our spirited resurgence proved  fruitless.  The truly costly aspect of the game was the lethargic start.  For most of the first half we were dreadful, and for that reason it’s hard  to feel that we really deserved anything from the game.

Sadly, Friday April 15th marks the 22nd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.   Policing at football grounds has, for many years, been a sore point amongst supporters.   It was  former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police John Stalker in the 80s who said he was aware that many police knew that football matches were one time they were “Let off the leash”.      On the 31st January1989  we had an FA Cup replay at Barnsley. Thousands of Stoke supporters arrived late due to traffic congestion.   Outside the ground a crush developed and people were getting hurt.  Initial action was to send a police horse running in to the crowd which  only added to the chaos.   To ease the congestion the police opened one of the huge exit gates which allowed the crowd  to get into the game for free. This was the response  the same force used two months later at Hillsborough.  Had there been more Stoke supporters on the away terrace that night we could have suffered that awful disaster.    Same situation, same police force, same reaction.   We, like all football supporters, were actually riding our luck,  not just on that  night, but for years before.   There was very little consideration for the issue of crowd safety over crowd control.  It could have been any of us  with the loss of life…..  and the same scandalous tabloid allegations.  RIP the 96.

Paul Gascoigne and Jimmy Greaves will soon be touring the UK with a roadshow.  This will consist of them both telling stories from their playing careers and discussing openly their well publicised alcohol problems.  The end of the shows will consist of no-holds-barred question and answer sessions.  Showing admirable resilience Greaves has been tee total since 1978.  Paul Gasciogne’s story however has been a much more painful one.   Living out his traumas in the full glare of the media couldn’t have helped him.  I can’t be the only one to fear the worst when seeing his name in a headline.  It is however pleasing to learn that he’s been dry since Christmas.  Hopefully Gazza’s found himself a new focus that can help maintain his sobriety and prevent his life from unravelling again. 

We now look forward to Sunday April 17th and what could prove to be a very special day in our lives.  There are reasons to dislike the semi finals being played at Wembley but this isn’t the time for that debate.  The important thing is that we have reached a stage in the FA Cup that we haven’t reached for 39 long barren years.  In 148 years of history we have only reached three FA Cup Semi Finals.  39 years ago our dreams were brutally shattered.  The game was delicately poised at 1-1 when Arsenal’s John Radford was put clean through on goal but  clearly offside.  Inexplicably, the linesman kept his flag down and Radford gleefully scored to bury our hopes of reaching the final for another 39 years.  Following much confusion over Radford’s goal it transpired that on the far side of the pitch from the useless lino, there was a man in a white coat selling programmes to the crowd.  Stoke wore white that night and the flag carrying cretin thought the seller was a Stoke player.  This allowed Radford to put us out of the cup and generations of Stoke City fans to carry a chip on our shoulder the size of Heathrow Airport!  Surely on Sunday we can’t suffer such a deep injustice?  By the way, I have never ever seen Radford’s horrible goal and I’m not sure it was even televised at all.   But if anyone has a copy and can upload it to You Tube it’d be fantastic to see.  I must be a masochist! 

By the time our game against Bolton kicks off the first finalist will be decided.  It’s fair to say that if Manchester City are as poor as they were at Anfield their loathed red neighbours will effectively receive a bye to the final.  Why did Mancini start without Silva or De Jong?  Their sole consolation is that they can’t play so badly in two consecutive matches.

Our game against Bolton will be an intense tight affair.  Two evenly matched teams playing with a huge prize at stake.  Ties like this are often decided by a moment of  inspiration.  We’ll be hoping It’ll be a Fuller or Etherington making the difference as much as the Bolton fans will be hoping it comes from an Elmander or Davies!  It is great that one grand old club will be in the final. Stan and Nat will be watching proudly from above. Stan with a glass of fruit juice and Nat with a pint of brown ale!  I’ll be in the Pig n Whistle pub in the centre of  Brisbane, anxiously watching the clock and begging our players to take the sacred step 148 years of predecessors have failed to take.

Hearing Abide With Me has always brought a lump to my throat. From childhood, 2.45 on FA Cup Final day symbolised a huge slice of football heritage.  The huge noisy crowd gathered doffs it’s cap in reverence.  When The song starts the mood isn’t just about the game on the day.  We reflect on, and celebrate, the glorious history of the competition.  Cardiff’s shock win over Arsenal in 1927.  It’s George Mutch’s late dramatic winner in 1938.  Stan’s final in 1953.  Nat Lofthouse’s controversial goalkeeper charge in the 1958 final and Bob Stokoe’s ecstatic dash across the lush green turf to embrace Jim Montgomery after his Sunderland team embarrassed Don Revie’s Leeds.   If we win at Wembley we will have the chance to carve our name in history.  The memories Sunday may bring could live with us all forever.  In years to come we could cry tears of joy and reflect fondly  on that day in April 2011 when we finally, after so long, reached an FA Cup Final.  Players might find this hard to believe but that means more than money… much much more.   Come on Stoke.   Our time is now.

Groundless expectation, damaging expansion and hopes of a clean sheet

April 1st, 2011 No comments

Why are England dogged with such ridiculous expectation?  There is absolutely nothing to justify the notion that England are a superpower.   Our record since 1966 isn’t great. In the last 45 years we have reached a World Cup semi two a Euro semi and several World Cup quarter finals. In the same period Holland have reached three WC finals and a semi and won the European Championship. Bulgaria got to a WC semi and a Euro final. Sweden have got to a WC semi and a Euro semi. Poland  reached a WC semi and finished 3rd in 1974. Belgium have reached a Euro final and a WC semi. Turkey have reached a Euro semi and, of course, Greece were European champions.  That’s only the middle ranking European sides. 

So since 1966* our record, when compared to other European football nations, gives new meaning to the word average. Yet people get annoyed because, for example, we’ll never ‘win anything with Capello.’ Its unlikely we’ll win a competition whoever the manager is. We’d all love to but to actually expect England to win a tournament is based on wishful thinking. There is  no great tradition to justify a demand like that.  We should keep our hopes in perspective.   But if we qualify for Poland and Ukraine we can still expect the same filth and fury when we get knocked out.   I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t try to win tournaments.  But I am saying we should keep our hopes in perspective.   Personally, I always look at getting through the group then take it from there. Usually as soon as we face a side with genuine aspirations to win the tournament we get knocked out. In 1990 it was great fun but, with all respect, Belgium and Cameroon weren’t contenders to lift the trophy.           *our record before 66 wasn’t great either…Bela Horizonte anyone?   

From 2016 the European Championship will ludicrously be expanded to 24 teams.  One reason the Euro’s is such a good competition is that so many of the sides have  genuine aspirations to win it. From 2016 that quality will be diluted. Did UEFA decide this  because the cash cow that is England didn’t reach the last one?  I’m guessing it’d be a significant factor. They forget that England didn’t qualify because we weren’t good enough.  They want to ensure everyone gets there that to maximise income…. at the cost of quality.  Nearly half the teams in the qualifying competition will be in the tournament.  A preliminary competition to wed out some the cannon fodder is long overdue.  Failure to do so leading up to the 2016 competition will result in a farcical loss of prestige for what has often been a truly top notch competition.

The suspension of the J-League is jeopardising Japan’s participation in this year’s Copa America. Their domestic league may have to finish too late for their players to prepare for the competition.  If they do have to withdraw it would make sense for Australia to try and take their spot.  It’d be the sort of competitive experience that’s essential if they are to continue to grow on the world stage.  Playing against teams with expansive systems of play would prove beneficial for their game.

England’s victory over Wales was solid steady and professional.  Wales had little to offer.  Had Gareth Bale been fit it might have made some difference but as it is England were rarely threatened.  Parker and Wilshere were composed in centre midfield… is it now time to start phasing out the Lampard Gerrard combination?  It’s certainly time to start building the team around Wilshere.  He showed that he can grow into the playmakers role and develop into a top class international midfielder.  With such a dearth of English talent his skill mustn’t be wasted.  England’s qualification could rest on the final game away to Montenegro in October.  If that’s the case we have to hope we don’t fall victims to the horrendous catastrophe that befell Steve McClaren’s team in 2007.

Amid the excitement of the forthcoming FA Cup Semi…. and the organised chaos of the ticket scramble, it’s easy to forget that we have a game on Saturday against the reigning champions.  Chelsea have returned to form yet still lack the dominant strut they paraded early in the season.  It would be typical Stoke if Torres scored his first Chelsea goal against us.  We are yet to play in a 0-0 draw this season.  If our first arrives on Saturday we wouldn’t be complaining.   A clean sheet will suffice!