1) Stoke do (just) enough
Ever looked at what you’ve got left in the fridge after Christmas and just chucked it all into a saucepan to make a sort of Frankenstein’s lobby?
Mark Hughes’ team selection on Saturday smacked of that. Four strikers, a back four with three central defenders (two pints of bass, one pint of bass etc.). Still, it got the job done.
On paper this was not an easy tie. Doncaster have been revitalised by the appointment of Darren Ferguson and had only lost twice in the past two months. They were at pretty much full strength too, making just the one change from their 3-0 win at Southend the previous Saturday. That shouldn’t have made a team 10th in the Premier League quiver, but we’ve all seen Stoke embarrass themselves against this kind of opposition so many times before. Even the Hughes era hasn’t been entirely immune, with scraped, scarcely deserved victories over Wrexham and Luton in the last two seasons not exactly doing anyone proud.
So it was with some trepidation that we ventured to the birthplace of the Mallard and, less impressively, Jeremy Clarkson. In the event though, we negotiated the tie without much fuss, and were able to give our fringe players a decent runout at the same time.
Donny play more football than your average League One team, but the first half was still a disjointed and awkward affair, for which we have to take our fair portion of the blame. Still, we started very much on the front foot, roared on by a noisy away end, and had taken the lead within 15 minutes with a nicely worked goal, Joselu cleverly using the bounce of the ball to get goal-side of his marker and, for the second Saturday in succession, swing over a delightful ball for Peter Crouch to smartly sweep into the net, his striking instincts as sharp as ever.
We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, but that smile was wiped from our collective face just 10 minutes later, when McCullough was able to run through a series of half-hearted challenges before playing in Nathan Tyson. Jakob Haugaard, already diving to his right, got a hand to the shot but it fell for Tyson to follow up and beat Bardsley to the ball, sliding into an empty net.
The remainder of the half was a worrying time. We got sloppier, reduced largely to hit and hope in Crouch’s direction, while the hosts were quicker and put us under pressure. The game turned niggly. Philipp Wollscheid and Nathan Tyson got into an altercation that saw the ex-Derby striker aim a sly kick at one of the softer parts of the German’s anatomy, and when Wollscheid found himself penalised he hulked up, berating anyone and everyone. If his outrage was understandable, he took a leaf out of Vic Reeves’ book and wouldn’t let it lie, his captain having to literally push him away from the referee. A yellow card for defender and striker was the outcome, but Donny had realised that they could wind Wollscheid up.
Despite being fairly ropey for much of the half we still created chances. Mame Diouf was played in but inexplicably dawdled and missed his chance not just to shoot but to even pass the ball to one of several well-placed colleagues. But with the game finely poised at half time you couldn’t help but be concerned for us.
That worry seemed well founded when Doncaster started the half stronger and missed with a couple of potshots. Yet Stoke pushed forward strongly on the counter, and it seemed we’d surely found a breakthrough when Walters’ cross presented Diouf with a free header, only for the Senegal star to direct his effort straight at goalkeeper Stuckmann – and worse, Crouch put the rebound over an open goal from two yards out.
It was an appalling miss and you wondered if it was going to be one of those days. But from that very goal kick we capitalised. Stuckmann shanked his kick straight to Crouch, and when the beanpole striker’s shot was blocked the ball fell for Jon Walters, who dropped his shoulder before unleashing an absolute screamer from at least 25 yards sailing past the hapless custodian. Jon milked his applause, and deservedly so.
It was a gift we quite happily accepted, and settled us right down. Stoke dominated the next 20-25 minutes, and created chances that should have killed the tie off. Joselu, van Ginkel, Walters and Diouf all got into shooting positions but couldn’t find the net.
As comfortable as we’d been however, the last 10 minutes saw Rovers threaten to punish us for our profligacy. Summoning the reserves for one final sustained push, they rained crosses into the box, and as Danny Higginbotham had noted during the previous night’s Exeter vs Liverpool tie, this is something of a lost art that top flight teams rarely have to deal with any more.
It seemed to throw Stoke. Butler looped a header onto the bar. Tyson hooked a shot over from five yards. For Doncaster it was a question of ‘any means necessary’, with even their manager showing he’s a chip off the old block when he had a cynical little swipe at Wollscheid on the sidelines in the hope of getting him sent off. It didn’t work.
In injury time, another high ball was swung in and in came Butler again with a free header from point-blank range. He just had to hit the target but instead he put it over, and we lived to tell the tale.
It wasn’t an especially impressive performance from our lads and we could conceivably have muffed it right up at the end. Yet we’d been comfortable for most of the second half, and we were hardly alone in making heavy weather of this kind of game. With Prem teams heavily rotating for this kind of fixture, there were precious few batterings of lower league teams in the third round, even if, equally, there were precious few shocks either. Most teams did what they had to, and not much beyond that, to get their names in the hat for the fourth round.
Stokies could have gone home grumbling about the prospect of a replay adding yet another game to an already crowded schedule. Instead they went home telling Richard Chaplow he looked like a thumb.
We’ll take that.
2) The fringe players aren’t exactly banging the manager’s door down
Changes were always likely and indeed necessary for this game, especially given the midweek round of Premier League fixtures, and as we say every year, this was the kind of game our second string should have been able to see off without too much bother. Which to their credit they did. That said, there weren’t many who you’d be clamouring to see start regularly based on that showing.
There were exceptions, Walters, with his second goal in three games, providing the requisite hustle and bustle the occasion required. You could make a case for Joselu as well, given his last four appearances have brought one goal and two assists, all of them stamped through with quality. His overall performance though, rather told the story of his Stoke career so far. Some classy play, some loose touches, little goal threat. There’s plenty of promise there nonetheless.
Crouch was involved in both goals and the one he scored himself was a very clever flicked finish, admirable not just for the end product but the way he lost his marker for that crucial second. He’s still, as you’d expect, adept at holding the ball up and winning it in the air as well. The only reservations are that he somehow looks to have gotten even slower as age and injuries have caught up with him, and his presence invites our defenders to lump it in his direction, almost by muscle memory, like that bit in the Bourne Identity where Jason Bourne lays waste to a series of assailants and has no idea how he did it.
Haugaard too, making his competitive debut, proved a commanding figure between the sticks, making some good saves and comfortably taking every ball that came his way.
Elsewhere, performances were less encouraging. This was a game Marco van Ginkel really needed to take by the scruff of the neck, given the tired performances in midfield of late meant a spot could potentially open up for him. Instead he turned in an anonymous, drippy display, exerting no influence whatsoever while midfielders who’ll never be signed by Jose Mourinho or lauded by Johan Cruyff ran rings around him.
Rather than forcing himself into the reckoning, he’s arguably making his way further down the pecking order, especially given whispers of a recruitment drive for the engine room this window. There’s a good player in there somewhere, but time is running out at Stoke for ‘the new Frank Lampard’.
Beside him, Charlie Adam’s ongoing struggle for form continued. Though he produced the purposeful run that set in motion the chain of events that led to the goal, for the most part he was sluggish and sloppy, and his laughable decision to run in the opposite direction from McCullough as he advanced to fashion the equaliser was perhaps the most sad trombone-worthy moment in a broad comedy of errors that managed to suck in at least three-quarters of the back four as well.
Though our first-choice centre halves did largely fine, things were altogether stickier at full back. Phil Bardsley managed to look out of his depth against League One opposition, continually getting the wrong side of his man, giving the ball away, and in one moment towards half time that summed up his afternoon entirely, actually running the ball out of play with nary a soul anywhere near him. Marc Wilson at left back wasn’t quite that bad but was decidedly rusty, giving his winger too much space and making an embarrassingly weak attempt to stop McCullough’s run for the goal.
It’s a pretty thankless task to be called up for these games and expected to turn it on when you haven’t played competitively for a while. Win and you’ve done what’s expected of you. Lose and you’re both a scapegoat and a laughing stock.
However, the fringe players given their chance in the Capital One Cup have stepped up and played their way in, like Cameron and Afellay, and given that this manager has shown he’ll reward good performances from those on the sidelines, and the transfer window is open for those with an eye on the exit, they won’t get a better chance to state their case for regular football.
Few of them took it.
3) Diouf requires patience and understanding
It was William Goldman who famously coined the saying “nobody knows anything” when talking about Hollywood and what it takes to make a box office hit.
It’s apt when pondering the Mame Biram Diouf situation.
Speculation has been rife about the striker’s ongoing absence from the team, especially given that he failed to so much as make the matchday squad for the two games before this one. That absence has been blamed on a niggly abductor muscle problem, though his failure to start a league game since 3rd October or come off the bench since 12th December has raised questions about his general emotional state in the wake of the tragic death of his mother. Add a newborn into the mix, and this has to be an incredibly stressful time for a young man barely out of his mid-20s.
It was nice then, to see him start this game and get 90 minutes under his belt, even if he was used in a wide role, which tends to muzzle his threat. To no one’s surprise, Diouf looked decidedly low on confidence, the ball pinging off him a few times in the first half before he turned down the chance to shoot when played in, turning in on himself as the moment passed him by.
He might have done better with his header that led to Crouch’s open goal miss (and indirectly the winning goal), his header being too tame, too central despite being left unmarked. However, the fact that he got himself into such a strong position was encouraging, and his play did improve as the game wore on. He worked hard for the team, he won the ball back when we’d lost it, he helped us keep it high up the pitch.
Overall though he still doesn’t look quite right or ready for a return to Premier League action. That might be down to a loss of fitness. It might be down to a loss of form. It might be the heavy burden of his emotional loss. People have decried that based on him having played since the dreadful news broke about his mother, and based on seeing him smile at the ground and in training in photos since then. But grief doesn’t have a prescribed time limit before you’re “over it”, nor does it necessarily manifest itself obviously at all times in the mannerisms or behaviour of those struggling with it. There’s no set “way” of coping with it.
Whatever the reasons behind his absence from the starting XI, Diouf is an important player and it’s unlikely that Mark Hughes has lost faith in a striker he pursued for a long time, was prepared to pay a significant fee for and who plundered 11 goals last season. We just have to trust that the manager knows more about the player and the situation than we do, and will manage him back into the fold and the team when the time is right.
4) Match of the Day sees a different game
The BBC is, for the most part, a fine institution and one worth defending from the dark, Daily Mail-reading forces who would happily destroy it. However, it does itself no favours with the agendas it not-so-subtly pushes on so much of its programming.
The thirst for ‘narrative’ is pretty bad in all areas of the British football media, but it’s particularly noticeable on Aunty’s coverage. Commentators appear to have a ‘script’ from before the first whistle and set about busily trying to spin events around it, rather than calling what they actually see on the pitch. You could see it on Friday night, when the pre-determined storyline – ‘Wacky Klopp picks the kids and pays the price’, had Guy Mowbray and Danny Murphy discussing the benched Adam Lallana as if he was Pele, Maradona and Captain Planet rolled into one, rather than a bloke who’s done pretty much nothing since his transfer to Liverpool beyond fall over a lot and make some embarrassing skincare commercials.
The Beeb’s flagship football show, Match of the Day, is notorious for this practice. Highlights are often carefully edited to tell a story, rather than what actually transpired. David Moyes Manchester United were made to look as if they’d dominated games they’d actually been well-beaten in. A violent reaction from a player is highlighted with none of the context of the three or four times he’s been kicked without censure.
On Saturday evening’s MOTD, the theme was ‘the romance of the cup’, as the hard-sell patronising Exeter were given on Friday tipped us all off it would be. The problem was, there really hadn’t been many shocks at all. There were a few draws between Premier League and Championship teams, and the (widely anticipated) close shave for Bolton at Eastleigh, but the only match played on Saturday in which a club was knocked out by a club in a league below them was the titanic scrap between, erm, Peterborough and Preston. So they had to try their best to manufacture some.
Stoke were far from brilliant at the Keepmoat, and Doncaster knocked it about nicely and had some very decent chances near the end, but from the highlights and ‘analysis’ the programme supplied you could be forgiven for thinking the League One outfit were robbed by the boo-hiss millionaire fraudsters from the Potteries. The focus was on their chances, they missed out the fascinating Wollscheid-Tyson subplot entirely, and even tried to make an issue of an incredibly dubious, half-hearted penalty appeal, that saw Alcock go down under a nothing challenge from Diouf after realising he wasn’t getting on the end of the cross in a month of Sundays.
It was desperate stuff, and while the taste of Sky’s influence on the English game gets sourer by the year, at least they’re capable of treating games and teams from every league with some semblance of dignity.
5) Another screamer for the Walters vault
Some supporters have never warmed to Jon Walters. At the risk of generalising, his biggest critics tend to be the biggest critics of Tony Pulis, those who see the two as forever intertwined, one the on-field personification of the other. His over-exposure towards the end of that era has ruined him for them forever, like hearing Peter Kay still drone on about “t’internet” in 2016, or seeing Paul McCartney wheeled out to murder Hey Jude yet again at the end of some sort of national celebration.
It’s not a view I share. I love the bloke. People sniff when he’s lauded for working hard, but the truth is that while that should be the minimum one could expect of a man who earns millions for a few hours of work a week, plenty don’t bother. Ask Aston Villa fans.
He’s no Bojanesque technical marvel but, like Gary Neville, he has squeezed every last drop of his ability out and made it count, and has gone from struggling in League Two with Wrexham and Hull to firing the Republic of Ireland to the European Championships in less than a decade. It’s some story. Has anyone told Match of the Day?
Besides, I think he’s actually a better footballer than he gets credit for. His link play is often neat and intelligent, he can whip in a decent cross, and he is steadily amassing a highlight reel of brilliant, brilliant goals. There was the solo goal against Chelsea. His first goal at Wembley against Bolton. That exclamation point on a training ground corner routine at West Ham. His control and hooked finish on Boxing Day night against Liverpool. His League Cup stunner, also against Chelsea. Even his own goals have a flair for the spectacular.
His strike at the Keepmoat was another for the list. Picking up the pieces after Crouch’s shot was blocked, he advanced, shaped to shoot, carried on a bit and then did shoot, unleashing an absolute rocket that was in from the moment it left his boot.
A scrapper who treats every opponent the same, from Crawley to Arsenal, his battling tendencies were exactly what was needed in this kind of encounter, against a decent lower league side eager to impress. He is showing that the call to award him a new contract was 100% the right one. There’s always the fear when you give a player in his 30s a decent-sized contract that their legs will go, but it’s hard to see that happening with Walters, who wants to play every minute of every game. Forever.
That said, a few weeks on the bench has done him the world of good. He was starting to look knackered, and the rest has seen him chomping at the bit and back among the goals. His high-intensity style means he often fades in the second half of the season as managers flog him into the ground. That isn’t going to happen this season, and the role of impact sub seems to suit him better than anything at this stage of his career, even if it’s a mantle he himself would never favour.
Tipped to be one of the first against the wall after regime change, he, along with Shawcross and Whelan, has proved the perfect bridge from ‘the old way’ to the new. He has pulled us out of the fire on numerous occasions (Saturday was his 11th winning goal for the club) and deserves to be recognised as one of the greatest performers of this golden age for Stoke City.