1) The archetypal brave defeat
The scoreline wasn’t a surprise. It was Tony Pulis’ third straight 1-0 win over Mark Hughes and his former paymasters from the Potteries. Yet it’s fair to say none of us expected things to unfold the way they did. Previous encounters with Newport’s finest have been insipid, lifeless affairs, ground-out victories for Pulis, Kempy and chums. This one was packed with incident and drama.
In a frankly surreal 90-odd minutes at the Brit on Saturday, what should have been an absolute sickener – another home defeat, with the man in the cap smiling on his return – instead saw the defeated hosts receive a heartfelt ovation from the Britannia faithful. They deserved it.
Mark Hughes picked an interesting team, with the Jon Walters contract wrangle meaning he again missed out on the matchday 18 and Charlie Adam’s mysterious lack of involvement at Luton on Tuesday night explained when he was handed his first start since the opening day, with Marko Arnautovic dropped and Ibrahim Afellay moving wide.
We know from bitter experience that if a TP side concedes early away from home it’s adios, muchachos, and with that in mind we made a very positive start to the game. The opening 25 minutes represented our most fluid football of the season so far, with Xherdan Shaqiri and Glen Johnson dovetailing well on the right, Adam orchestrating from a central position and Diouf causing problems with his pace. Shaqiri worked some magic to free himself of multiple markers before whipping an angled shot just wide. Adam found space and shot just over. A beautiful through ball from Shaqiri saw Diouf caught just offside. The Senegalese hitman then had a great headed chance saved by Myhill from Adam’s cross. We were getting balls into the box regularly, and it looked as if the opening goal was a formality.
The Baggies, for their part, had showed a familiar lack of ambition and it was essentially a game of attack vs defence. Finally, they did manage to fashion a good opportunity when the ball broke for James Morrison to slam a shot from just inside the box that forced a top save from Jack Butland…and it was at that point that Stoke’s day took the kind of comical plunge you’d usually see from a Roadrunner cartoon, one where Wile E. Coyote takes a few steps off a cliff and then suddenly realises there’s no ground beneath his feet.
Afellay was leading a counter attack in the wake of that Morrison chance when he was cynically fouled by cynical foul merchant Craig ‘Bobby from King of the Hill’ Gardner. There followed some handbags whereby Gardner appeared to poke his chin, provoking the Dutch international to swipe at his face in retaliation.
Out came Michael Oliver’s red card, and we were down to 10 men, our bright start in ruins.
Still, things couldn’t get much worse, right?
We actually managed to create another good chance after this blow, when Diouf beat Myhill to a cross but couldn’t quite force the loose ball home. Six minutes later though, a strong coming together between Adam and Craig Dawson on the Stoke left saw the linesman go into the biggest flagging frenzy this side of ‘Hacksaw’ Jim Duggan. Oliver had a little chat with his theatrical colleague, and sure enough, another red card was being waved in the direction of one of our players, this time for an alleged stamp. We would have to play the remaining hour of the game with nine men.
Luckily, we were playing the only opponents you arguably want to face when you’re two men down – a Pulis side on their travels. True to form, his team was packed with centre backs and midfield plodders, and they struggled to make their advantage count. We threw ourselves fully into a sterling defensive effort, galvanised by an incensed crowd who provided a stirring soundtrack. Nobody does ‘adversity’ quite like us…
Yet even TP couldn’t resist taking off a defensive midfielder and chucking another striker on. All we had to do was make it to half time and regroup…
Sadly, for that one moment in first half stoppage time we switched off, and when Rondon got goalside of Geoff Cameron to meet sub Rickie Lambert’s teasing ball, he glanced a header just beyond Butland and into the far corner. The damage was done.
The arrival of Callum McManaman at the start of the second half suggested that the visitors wanted to inflict yet more pain, but it never really happened for them. We continued to defend heroically, while Shaqiri took much of the attacking burden on his shoulders, Diouf moving wide so the Swiss could act as a kind of false 9, popping up all over the final third and leading a swarm of tesco bags a merry dance, his best moment coming when he curled a shot over having half jigged and half bludgeoned his way through a Baggies task force of defenders.
Understandably, ‘the magic dwarf’ tired, and his replacement, Arnautovic, picked up the baton. With a point to prove, Arnie played that same false 9 central role brilliantly, his strength and touch meaning the ball stuck to him in the final third. The Baggies had several chances to really kill us off (not helped by our propensity to tit about with the ball in defence, which isn’t advisable with nine men) but didn’t take them, while every Stoke player on the pitch was busting a lung and driving forward to get the ball up the pitch, giving the WBA defenders more problems than they might have expected. We forced a couple of corners and had the ball in good positions around their box on numerous occasions but just couldn’t find that one key opening.
In the last minute of added time we got our one shot at the fairytale, winning a free kick about 30 yards out. Arnie stood over it. We all held our breath. For some unknown reason though, the Austrian is just useless with a dead ball, and this was another disappointing effort that trundled into the wall, as the match finally slipped away from us.
Exhausted, our players collapsed to the turf as the home fans showed their appreciation of the effort each and every one of them had put in.
For Pulis, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. The big story of the day should have been his victory on his return to the scene of his greatest triumphs. However, he was eclipsed by the red cards and the efforts of our remaining players.
It’s hard to feel his reputation was enhanced with either club by the final whistle either. From a Stoke perspective, things started well; the warm, rapturous reception he received from the home support was richly deserved. However, his animated attempts to get our players sent off (coming from a man who supposedly hates that sort of thing) left a sour taste, and further strained already frayed inter-Welsh relations further lacerated, with Mark Bowen going mad at our erstwhile manager over his behaviour. The bizarre sight of Pulis and Bojan squaring up, meanwhile, felt like an iconic image, old Stoke vs new Stoke distilled into a single picture.
From the point of view of Baggies fans, his team laboured to victory against nine men and failed to truly ‘go for it’ at any stage. The fact we gave them such a game was borderline embarrassing, however the ever-blinkered Birmingham media might dress it up. Plenty of West Brom supporters were less than enamoured of the performance, and you just wonder if his stay in Smethwick might be a short one.
Marc Muniesa’s pre-match words proved prescient though. It wasn’t about him. It was about us. Even in defeat, we can be proud of our team.
2) Harpooned by our own stupidity
Watching Newcastle’s new bad boy Aleksandar Mitrovic get himself sent off just 12 minutes into the day’s early kick off allowed us all a good pre-match chuckle. A couple of hours later, it didn’t seem so funny.
Hughes has been quick to point the finger at the referee in the aftermath, and while he certainly has a point over the inconsistencies in Michael Oliver’s performance (and believe me, I’ll get to him later), we really only have ourselves to blame where the dismissals are concerned.
Afellay’s red card is a bit soft. It’s a love-tap at best, and the manager’s suggestion that the same punishment should be meted out to both him and Gardner is a valid one. It could easily be argued that a stern talking to both players would have sufficed.
The truth is though that Afellay should know better. He gave the ref a decision to make that he really had no need to, and did so in such an obvious fashion that it couldn’t be ignored.
You wouldn’t think it to look at him, given he’s quite a softly-spoken, baby-faced individual who loves his mum, but Afellay is clearly something of a hothead. His fate was foreshadowed about 10 minutes beforehand, when Dawson shoved him into the family stand and he reacted angrily. Already wound up, he fell right into the irksome Gardner’s trap.
However, Afellay isn’t a kid. He’s 29 years old, he’s been playing since the age of nine, and he has graced four different leagues, in addition to playing 50 times for the Netherlands, including World Cup and European Championship appearances. He should know better.
He was actually playing his best football since arriving before the sending off, linking well with Erik Pieters on the left and going past defenders. However, he has to accept that English football is physical and he will get roughed up. If he can’t handle that, he shouldn’t be here.
Sympathy for Charlie Adam is in short supply. Having seen the replay numerous times it looks as if he knows exactly what he’s doing and while it isn’t a stamp, he makes sure he stands on Dawson as he untangles himself. That’s considered violent conduct. It’s a red card.
Again we’ve had the ‘where else is he supposed to put his foot?’ argument. The short answer is ‘somewhere else’. It would be easier to give him the benefit of the doubt if he hadn’t done it before, when he apparently had no choice put to plant his studs on Olivier Giroud. He does, much like A Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge, have a penchant for ‘a bit of the old ultraviolence’ – ask Gareth Bale, Cesc Fabregas or Paulinho. Stoke fans have tried to explain away these incidents on every occasion – are we really kidding ourselves he’s just unlucky every single time?
Even in the unlikely event that Saturday saw him become a victim of his own reputation, if you’re already down to 10 men, and you’re aware of that reputation, shouldn’t you be exceptionally careful where you’re putting your feet?
The frustrating thing is that before it happened, Adam had justified his surprise inclusion. He was playing well, making things happen and again underlining that 4-1-4-1 only works with him as part of it. Then we saw the ugly side of him again and it just served as a reminder that this is a player, for all his talent and important goals, who simply cannot be relied on week in, week out.
The silver lining to the three match suspensions both players will serve is that it might just allow the manager, very much in the fashion of his predecessor, to stumble upon his best team. One of Afellay and van Ginkel needed to be taken out of the side – that problem has been neatly solved. Arnautovic, who shouldn’t have been dropped in the first place, can come back in, and we now have the option (aside from any late arrivals on Tuesday) to finally hand Stephen Ireland the start his form deserves, or bring Marc Wilson into central defence and push Geoff Cameron into midfield.
It’s ironic that we earned our reputation, fairly or unfairly, as Neanderthal bully boys under TP’s care, and the one afternoon we actually live up to it is against his team. The man himself would probably have afforded himself a wry titter at that. We, for all the strong work of the majority, can only curse our own indiscipline.
3) The return of Michael Oliver’s big boy trousers
I know there are a few readers who have a little cry whenever I say anything nasty about a referee, so feel free to skip this bit by all means if that applies to you.
Michael Oliver didn’t cost us the game – we did that to ourselves. That doesn’t mean, however, that he wasn’t diabolical.
Oliver is a man entirely shameless in his naked, ruthless ambition to climb the greasy totem pole of officialdom, and yet again he decided to make an example of unloved, expendable Stoke City to further his own ends.
It doesn’t help that both the club and Hughes have history with him. There was most famously the Swansea thing, where decided he would be the one to finally penalise Ryan Shawcross for holding in the penalty area at corners. There were the penalties denied us at against Man Utd and Leicester. And there was that time when as Fulham manager Hughes got him demoted.
We all know Oliver’s schtick by this point. He is the big man on campus who is desperate to show, as ostentatiously as possible, that he is not affected by a noisy, angry crowd, and so goes out of his way not to give the home side decisions even if that’s the correct course of action. Hence him making Afellay walk but letting Gardner off.
When the red cards only amped the crowd up further, it served to make him all the more determined to give us absolutely nothing. Joleon Lescott was allowed to manhandle Diouf with impunity. Shaqiri was hacked down numerous times and he waved play on. Myhill embarrassingly timewasted repeatedly against nine men without so much as a hint of rebuke.
This hard man enforcer act would be easier to swallow if Oliver wasn’t such an egregious, stone cold, custard-coloured coward when reffing the big teams. Why hasn’t he given any more penalties for grappling at set pieces since that day at the Brit last October? It’s much easier to make the bold, brass-balled calls in a Stoke vs Swansea, but put him in charge of a game featuring a top side and he’s shown himself to be a serial bottler. He famously denied Fulham a stonewall penalty against Man Utd. Failed to dismiss Diego Costa for a stamp far more blatant than Adam’s or red card Jordan Henderson for a clear handball in a bad tempered cup tie between Chelsea and Liverpool. Let Joe Hart get away with practically headbutting him. What gives, Mickey?
Fast-tracked as the boy wonder of refereeing at the age of just 25 shortly after the Stuart Atwell experiment went down in flames, Oliver has designs on being the new poster boy of officialdom in the wake of Howard Webb’s retirement – and boy is he being obvious about it.
Far from being the new Webb, he comes across merely as the new Rob Styles, an egotist with an agenda.
4) No fight? Really?
Whenever we go on a bad run under Hughes, we’re invariably told by some that the team has gone ‘too soft’, has ‘signed too many foreign fancy dans’ and has ‘lost its identity’. It’s a myth even propagated by Danny Higginbotham recently, a man who makes less and less sense the more we hear from him and who apparently, despite being reared at Manchester Utd, cannot fathom the notion that football might be played without sticking 10 men behind the ball and whacking it long to the big man.
The idea that we lack fight (the implication always being that we miss Tony, whose teams always fought to the death) is pure nonsense of course. You don’t finish in the top 10 in the Premier League without a healthy amount of desire. Even looking at the season so far, we matched an expensive Liverpool team despite being understrength; claimed a point from two goals down against last year’s fifth-placed side; and took an away point the following week even while not playing well. However, if Saturday’s showing doesn’t explode that idea once and for all, surely nothing will.
Every Stoke player on the pitch after the 31st minute, subs included, was heroic. Roared on by a furious crowd, they turned in a committed team display, closing down space, being first to loose balls and getting in vital blocks when West Brom players got into crossing and shooting positions. We just happened to be punished for one split second lapse by a £15m striker otherwise made to look distinctly ordinary.
Fine though the team performance was, there were some standout individual displays as well. Too many foreign fancy dans? Tell that to Shaqiri and Arnautovic, who ran themselves into the ground in that central attacking role, despite being constantly swamped by defenders. Tell it to Diouf, who worked hard as usual. Tell it to Marc Muniesa, who was never overmatched physically against the likes of Lambert and Rondon. Tell it to van Ginkel, who finally showed some box to box nous in his best performance in a Stoke shirt to date. Tell it to Geoff Cameron, who (his role in the goal apart) was excellent in two positions, repelling attacks at centre back and then driving forward from right back. Tell it to Erik Pieters, who all but collapsed from exhaustion at the final whistle.
The spirit of the performance however was embodied by Glenn Whelan, comfortably the game’s man of the match, who was simply magnificent. It was interesting that in the early going he appeared to have been given license to drive forward more, with van Ginkel dropping in to fulfil the hlding brief while Whelan motored forward. Perhaps that’s one way of patching up the Nzonzi gap for now.
Once we were reduced to nine men however, Whelan engaged warrior mode. It really was a captain’s performance, the Dubliner patrolling the base of midfield to get in the way and calm things down, always making himself available and making sure we kept the ball. He was precisely the cool head the situation required, plugging the gaps as per usual and coordinating things when we had the ball, making sure his team mates were aware of who was available and watching out for any lurking danger. He remains the moral compass of this team.
Stoke might not be as defensively assured as they once were, but there can be no questioning the commitment of the group. That quality, infused in the DNA for almost a decade, remains intact regardless of personnel changes.
It promised to be an emotional day, but in the end, the most stirring stuff came from our players. They gave everything.
5) Evidence of excellence in the first half hour
It’s been somewhat lost in the narrative, amid the result, the red cards and the grit of our brave if ultimately doomed performance, but the first third of the game, Stoke looked like a fluid, enterprising, balanced and dangerous side.
I’ve been a critic of 4-1-4-1, but with an on-song Adam in it the system looks far more like the real deal. The new additions on the right hand side impressed, with Glen Johnson threatening and Shaqiri, nominally playing on the right wing but in effect buzzing around in almost a free role, again teasing his enormous talent with his pace, dribbling, and weeble-like quality to not allow himself to be knocked off the ball. Even Afellay was looking sprightly and positive on the left before his silly sending off.
The old guard were having their moments too. Whelan was showing signs of a hitherto unseen engine, Diouf’s movement was worrying Albion’s defenders, Adam’s vision was an asset and he linked everything nicely when he got into the final third. We were really stretching a team that had simply come to defend, and finding gaps we might not have expected to in the process. We were creating chances, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’d have won comfortably had we managed to keep 11 men on the field.
The flip side of course is that few teams this season will be as placid, happy to sit back and invite us on as this Baggies team. However, having struggled to create chances in previous games this season, and found it hard to unpick packed defences over the past few years, the fact that we did threaten going forward for that brief opening period is a step forward.
Gaps in the squad remain in central defence and midfield as well as out wide, and another will open up if Walters goes. However, we have seen in flashes so far that we are really not far away from being a very good side. Patience and maybe a cheeky deadline day signing will go a long way towards making us a force.
We have no wins from four, we’re in the bottom three and we have suspensions and injuries. Yet the quality in the squad should be there for all to see and there’s plenty to be positive about.
In short: we’ll be fine.