Destination this weekend, the short hop, skip, and a jump up the M6 to the Britannia Stadium, home to the ‘Pride of the Potteries, Tony Pulis’ Stoke City Football Club.
Now over the years we haven’t enjoyed too many victories on Stoke City soil, be it at the old Victoria Ground, where we even saw us get well and truly walloped 6-1 back in the depressing (for AVFC) mid sixties, or on our first ‘serious’ visit to their new home last season, when a late, late goal gave The Potters a 3-2 success. Four teams have been triumphant to date though at The Britannia during this campaign, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and believe it or not, that shower from across this great city of ours, the Alliance of Small Heath, and clearly if we wanted to keep our challenge for a top four finish on track, we really needed to join that illustrious gang of four and return to dear old Brum with three more priceless points in the bag.
We’d left Brummagem relatively early this morning, just before 10.30 a.m. in fact, to allow us good time to stop off in Newcastle Under Lyme, and visit some dear friends of yours truly, a family of Stokies to the core, for a pre-game lunch and the usual pre-game banter. Richard and son Dan, two season ticket holders at The Britannia were confident of a home victory, so a lively atmosphere filled their home as the banter, the bluster, and the predictions flew back and forth. At 1.15 p.m. we went our separate ways, bid our farewells, loaded back into our car, and headed off to the stadium. Time for the serious business now.
Bumping into the son-in-law and his cronies as we went for our pre-game refreshment, we learned that Martin had named an unchanged side from the eleven on duty at Reading last weekend, meaning that Gabby, and Luke for that matter, had to content themselves with a place on the bench.
We lined up as follows:- Brad Friedel, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne, James Collins, Stephen Warnock, Stewie Downing, Jimmy Milner, Stan Petrov, Ashley Young, Emile Heskey, John Carew. Subs: Brad Guzan, Luke Young, Steve Sidwell, Gabby Agbonlahor, Nathan Delfouneso, Fabian Delph, and Habib Beye.
While I personally would have preferred to see Luke Young wearing the right back shirt, I suppose we couldn’t be overly critical about Martin sending out the same set of players who had turned last weeks F.A. Cup quarter-final on its head, storming back to eventually win 4-2.
While most Villans seemed confident of a three point haul, myself and one or two others were slightly less optimistic, but our doubts and concerns were pushed aside as we made our way to the stadium, with once again an excellent traveling support backing the claret and blues.
It was a scrappy start to the game, and we struggled to get anything going up front, James Collins having the only real chance of a poor opening , flicking Stewart Downing’s corner inches wide of Sorensen’s goal on 20 minutes.
Stoke countered via the Rory Delap ‘weapon’, but with Emile Heskey giving a helping hand at the back, Richard Dunne and co were able to deal with the aerial threat relatively easily.
We played some pretty one touch football, but not in areas that were ever going to cause the home side concern, and all too often, the final ball found us wanting.
Stilyan Petrov tested Sorensen from distance, but in truth neither keeper was threatened during a first forty-five minutes that lacked in quality, and was a very poor advert for premier league football.
Twice just before the break we had good opportunities to take the lead, with James Milner firing over the crossbar from just inside the area, and then Stephen Warnock letting loose with a long-range effort, which unfortunately sailed harmlessly over the bar. Should have done better lads, in both instances. At least Sorensen needed to be worked.
We were equal to Stoke’s up and at ’em muscular approach, fighting fire with fire I suppose you could say, but we just couldn’t get any passing rhythm going, and while we were easily containing our hosts, we really expected more from a team with top-four aspirations.
The second half was only marginally more exciting, the ball though spending way too much time in the air, whereas the game was crying out for someone to get hold of it, and start spraying defence splitting passes around. Admittedly the blustery conditions hardly helped matters, but it was all so frustrating considering that this was a game that we really needed to win.
We started the second-half the brighter of the two sides, attacking the Boothen End, pushing forward and putting pressure on the Stoke defence, culminating in Stewart Downing firing a shot from just outside of the box, which clipped off John Carew and went into the side netting with Sorensen looking beaten..
Around the fifty-five minute mark Pulis pulled off both of his strikers, Sidibe and Tuncay, a decision that didn’t seem to go down too well with the latter in particular, and replaced them with Dave Kitson and Ricardo Fuller. It hardly helped the home side’s cause though, neither looked capable of conjuring up that moment of magic to unlock our rearguard, although both looked livelier than the two individuals they had replaced.
James Collins made a hash of a clearance, the ball falling to Robert Huth, who found himself in a great position, shooting from distance and forcing Brad Friedel into making a decent save to keep the scores level, and then with fifteen minutes or so left to play, MON made his first change of the game, bringing on Gabby to replace the ineffective John Carew up front.
Jimmy Milner almost snatched the points for us close to the end, sending a swerving free-kick from just outside the box, over the wall, but sadly over the bar also.
Then with referee Kevin Friend looking at his watch, Robert Huth had a great chance to win it for the Potters, but failed to convert a free-header on goal after Etherington had sent in an inswinging corner. We could breathe again.
So overall, a disappointing performance and result, particularly after Liverpool were beaten at Wigan the other evening, and after Tottenham secured another three points from the day’s early kick-off. Some will look at this as a point gained, and maybe if we pick up all three points at the DW Stadium in midweek, our failure to see off The Potters wont be so disappointing. Not a game that will live in the memory for too long though, in fact far from it. I was even struggling to recall the few highlights worthy of mention, to include them in my report.
Here then are my marks out of ten for the players performances:-
Brad Friedel – 6
Carlos Cuellar – 6
James Collins -7
Richard Dunne – 8
Stephen Warnock – 7
Stan Petrov – 6
James Milner – 7
Stewart Downing – 7
Ashley Young – 8
Emile Heskey – 6
John Carew – 5
Gabby Agbonlahor – 6