1) A bright finish we never saw coming
Before kick off, three points seemed unlikely. At half time, they looked impossible. Another thrashing looked a distinct possibility, while at the other end it had seemed as if the next man in a Stoke shirt to score a goal at the Brit might be one of the old boys returning to pay tribute to Andy Wilkinson, like Chris Iwelumo.
Or maybe not.
Yet here we are. A come-from-behind victory for the first time in over a year, a first goal from a corner for 17 months. And despite injuries, tactical meltdowns and a really poor second half of the season, we have ended the season warm and snug in lovely, familiar, faithful ninth place. It’s hardly a Leicester fairytale, but in its own way, we’re as symptomatic of the peculiarities of this Lewis Carroll-esque rabbit hole of a campaign.
Make no mistake about it, for an hour Stoke were ungodly awful. The gulf in class between ourselves and The Hammers, still very much in the Europa hunt days after a thrilling victory over Manchester United in what apparently was some sort of significant home game for them, was embarrassing at times. They had pace, power and quality from front to back. They outmuscled Stoke, out-thought us, outpaced us. We didn’t look as if we had a goal in us, while they had a balanced front three of height (Carroll), quick feet (Lanzini) and sheer brawn (Antonio) that got behind us with ease. A warning shot across the bow came from Lanzini, before Antonio, following a corner (quelle surprise), was given too much time to turn and struck a low shot into the corner, beyond the feeble efforts of Imbula on the line.
They could have scored another couple in the first half alone. Cameron’s misjudgement of Antonio’s cross put Sakho clear, but the Frenchman shot into the side netting. Antonio and Sakho went close. Kouyate’s shot was deflected just over.
So bad were Stoke that after half an hour I was fully paid up to the idea that we’d lost the plot completely and were heading for a relegation battle next term. Hughes picked a very un-Hughes-like team, with in-form players jettisoned for no apparent reason (Bardsley, Adam), and the performance bore all the hallmarks of our last few dreadful defeats. We again played directly into the visitors’ hands by insisting on playing the ball out slowly from the back, the first defender invariably greeted by a maelstrom of pressing West Ham attackers. They were showing us everything that succeeds in this season’s Premier League, while we persisted with this half-speed tiki taka, like the boy at an 80s school disco who still turns up in flares, clinging to the previous era’s trends while everyone else moved on.
The second half picked up where the last one left off, with our defence sliced wide open by the pace of West Ham’s play, Antonio crossing for Sakho (completely unmarked, obviously), only for Shay Given to make the biggest contribution of his Stoke career to date with a brilliant, point-blank save.
And then came the most curious of resurrections. Potters’ history won’t quite put it in the same bracket as the famous 80th minute ‘Britannia roar’ against Man City, but this was a moment cut from similar cloth. In the 54th minute, Ryan Shawcross collected the ball. He turned and beat the forward closing him down. Then he marched forward, skipped past another player and set off down the wing at speed, only halted at the expense of a throw in.
Shawcross’ run pumped up the home crowd something fierce. This was all we’d wanted to see, some energy, some fight, some positivity. After things had threatened to turn mutinous before the break, now players and supporters were back on the same page, and the team too, seemed to wake up to the fact that they could actually play a bit. From that throw, Imbula exchanged passes with Joselu, made space for himself and hit a low, clean shot from just outside the box into the far corner, giving Randolph no chance. Back in the game from nowhere and galvanised for more, Stoke’s hibernation was over.
Or at least it sort of was. Though we now looked dangerous for the first time in the game, with Bojan and Imbula running at players, an injury to Sakho momentarily took the sting out of the play, and our defence was soon threatening to implode again. A couple more set pieces set off panic in our back line, and it took heroics from Given and Glenn Whelan, with two brilliant goal line clearances apiece in the space of a minute, to keep The Hammers from re-taking the lead. Whelan’s latter stop from Valencia’s overhead kick came with nine-tenths of the ball over the line.
We carried a threat of our own now however, aided by the manager’s unusually helpful substitutions. Charlie Adam provided drive and guile, Mame Diouf, on up front for the disappointing Joselu, supplied thrust, and now it was Stoke who were dangerous on the break. Adam nearly caught Randolph by surprise with one of his trademark 50-yarders, the custodian clawing frantically at thin air before finally knocking the ball over the bar. The beefy Scotsman was not finished however; with minutes remaining, his corner caused chaos and was in the end turned behind for another one on the opposite side of the pitch. From there, Adam swung in another great ball, and we finally profited from somebody else’s terrible defending, as Diouf powered a header into the net with two minutes remaining. Off came the shirt to reveal a warm tribute to his late mother as the disbelieving faithful rubbed their eyes and tried to come to terms with the fact that we’d won it with a set piece.
And so, despite having far less to play for than Slaven Bilic’s men, it was Stoke who took their first three points since mid-March to lift the gathering gloom. In a season that often felt like one of regression, we end with a smile on our faces, right back where we started from. That’ll do nicely, provided we don’t treat it as a false dawn.
2) The captain jolts his charges back to life
It was the game’s extraordinary turning point. Stoke looked in a state of terminal decline, slow, weak, messy, porous, overmatched by opponents who’d figuratively and literally passed them by. Then, five minutes into the second half, that bizarre, out-of-nowhere jinking run down the wing from Ryan ‘wizard of the dribble’ Shawcross turned the game on its head.
‘Leading by example’ is such a cliché, but there’s no other way to describe the impact of Shawcross’ moment. This was his Agincourt speech or his Churchillian broadcast. In that one moment he got the crowd back onside, showing that somewhere in this Stoke side there was still some battle, some energy, some will. That message was received loud and clear – the other players seemed to realise both what was required and what they were capable of, and the equaliser duly arrived seconds later.
Suddenly that tempo, missing for most of the season at home, was there. Bojan looked to take defenders on. Imbula, quiet in the first half, now ran riot. We moved the ball more quickly, we were cohesive, we found space, we caused problems, with Arnie, Adam and Diouf all playing their part as well. It just took the man with the armband to stir them from their slumber.
From his personal perspective, Ryan was much more like his old self as well. Though he, like the rest of the back line, were iffy during the first half, those leadership qualities came flooding back throughout the second, as he mopped up trouble, got his head to everything and stood up well to the threat of Valencia.
That restoration of confidence seeped through to the rest of the side, and underlined yet again his importance. Our belief, our identity even, is bound up with the fate of the captain, and that’s enough to make you flush with pride and quake in terror at the same time.
3) More tantalising glimpses of the player Imbula could be
The loss of form of Giannelli Imbula had been symbolic of Stoke’s late-season decline. After an explosive introduction to English football, more of the kinks in our record signing’s game became evident. He held onto the ball too long, refusing to play the easy pass. He was almost entirely one-footed. The defensive side of his game was non-existent. The manager even moved him into an advanced role to try and compensate.
The second half against West Ham represented a big return to form for the young Frenchman however. His goal displayed everything that marks him out as a potential star; strength, confidence, the ability to go past players and a surprisingly sweet shot for a man who only had six career goals before his arrival in ST4.
There was also notable improvement in those weaker areas. Back in the deeper midfield ‘Nzonzi’ role, he moved the ball quicker, and showed much greater discipline, recovering the ball more than anyone.
His role is the most pivotal in the side, and when the man playing there performs well, so do Stoke. When he doesn’t, there’s a gaping hole.
The adjustment process is proving difficult for Imbula, as it has for some of our other recent imports. On the final day however, our record signing gave us reason to be excited again. He is capable of absolutely bossing this league.
4) Old guard’s days as untouchables are coming to an end
The day was won by the spine of the team – Given, Shawcross, Imbula, Bojan – but the rest of the starters left a lot to be desired. On another day, The Hammers would have been out of sight – even after we’d recovered from a shocking first half that could easily have seen us three down, it was the visitors who had the lion’s share of the best chances. Valencia should have had at least one if not two. Only but for the grace of a series of goal line clearances did we survive the scrambles that ensued after two West Ham corners.
Our defending, despite the captain seizing the game by the throat and dragging us with him, remained wobbly. Geoff Cameron, bafflingly preferred at right back to the in-form Phil Bardsley, had a shocker, his hesitance to blame for Antonio having the space to turn and score, continually caught upfield, and never knowingly aware of who his man was. Erik Pieters was pathetically easy to run past at times. Philipp Wollscheid, like Cameron, didn’t always seem entirely sure who he was supposed to be marking.
Ahead of them Glenn Whelan put in a shift, but he’s somehow even slower than he was. Having started every game but one, he looks knackered, and his days as a regular are surely winding down, while Jon Walters still doesn’t look fit since returning from injury.
We have an ageing squad, and it’s becoming clear that once-key players are increasingly becoming fit only for a squad role. Yet that flinty core must be replaced with similarly driven, physical, battle-worthy players.
This is a very decent side, and ninth (again), after the injuries, sales and thrashings, feels like winning the lottery. But there is a lot of work to be done over the summer just to stand still.
5) An emotional winner…and not just because we scored from a corner
The script called for one of two things: one last sumptious Arnie strike, or Stoke finally, after 56 games and 313 attempts, scoring from a corner.
Inswingers, outswingers, short ones – it didn’t matter what kind of corner we took, we were incapable of finding the net with one. They’d become a waste of time, and we were just two minutes from going an entire season without scoring from one when Charlie Adam delivered a whipsmart cross and up popped Mame Diouf to send a brilliant header into the back of the net. As fairytale endings go it’s a decidedly mundane one, but a fitting end to the campaign nonetheless.
From the manager’s perspective, he’ll have been pleased to see his subs combine to win the game. He got his changes absolutely spot on – right players off, right players on, made at the right time, and they injected the necessary craft and cutting edge to make a difference. Adam was harshly dropped in the first place, and promptly set about taking control of Stoke’s attacking play. The goal owed almost everything to his two dangerous dead balls, which ultimately ended with the ball in the back of the net.
It was also apt that the last goal of our season was scored by Diouf. After a nightmare year, the catharsis that swept through him after his goal was genuinely moving, as he unveiled a tribute to his late mother before engulfing himself in the Boothen’s embrace. It was a shame Mike Jones saw fit to book him for it, but not surprising.
Diouf’s goal offered a reminder of his devastating aerial ability, as he twisted in the air to meet a ball that was slightly behind him. All five of his goals for the season have come with his head. The pace and work rate he displayed and the runs he made, having been finally restored to a central striking position, also underlined the fact that he is the best centre forward on the books. Hopefully, with his head and heart in a better place, he’ll be back leading the line next season. You do wonder what might have been had he been firing on all cylinders this time round.
Diouf replaced Joselu, who had another forgettable afternoon. The Spaniard clearly has qualities – four goals in 10 starts isn’t a bad return – but he just never takes his chance when given a run in the team. Against West Ham he was all but invisible. He anticipated nothing, didn’t gamble and get into dangerous areas, was constantly offside and didn’t bother chasing or closing down West Ham’s defenders when they had the ball. He just generally didn’t look fussed, and is in danger of pushing himself further down the pecking order.
But back to Diouf, who re-stated his case for a recall quite forcefully. The Senegalese star is perfectly capable of 10-15 goals a season, and after talk of big name strikers like Batshuayi and Berahino, maybe we can save our money after all.