O Glorious day! Stoke’s Premier League survival was confirmed this afternoon following an excellent 2-1 victory away to struggling Hull. After being relegated before a ball was even kicked this season by all those not considered stupidly optimistic or just plain stupid, that feels fantastic to be able to say. A goal just before half time from top scorer Ricardo Fuller put the Potters on the way to victory, before Liam Lawrence’s stunner fifteen minutes from time made the lead comfortable. Andy Dawson pulled one back for the hosts with a well-taken free-kick late on, but it was nothing like enough to spoil the Stoke party, as the forty point mark was smashed and the club’s Premier League status was confirmed. The result leaves Hull in dire straights, in free-fall and potentially dropping into the relegation zone after the crucial game between Newcastle and Middlesbrough on Monday night. At this rate, and with West Brom winning again today, what odds on them to finish bottom?
No need for a caption here, the picture says it all
Stoke manager Tony Pulis, who is now being heavily tipped to win the league’s manager of the season award, opted for a quirky starting line-up for the game. Buoyed by the news that key players James Beattie and Liam Lawrence had passed late fitness tests and were able to take up the usual positions at the spearhead of the Potters’ attack and on the right wing respectively, you might have expected him to name an unchanged side from last week’s home defeat to West Ham. Instead, he decided to drop Danny Pugh, who had started the previous two games in the left-back position to the bench, switching right-back Andy Wilkinson to left-back, centre-back Ryan Shawcross to right-back, and bringing in former Hull man Leon Cort, who had barely had a sniff of first team action since last December, into the starting line up alongside Stoke’s Senegalese skipper Abdoulaye Faye in the centre of defence. Cort, one of football’s nice guys, has incredibly not been booked in his last 193 competitive matches now, an amazing record for a powerful centre-half.
Pulis decided to shake things up
Pulis’s Hull counterpart, a man I simply love to see us beat, Phil Brown, also made changes to his side for the encounter, with veteran forward Nick Barmby partnering Craig Fagan in the Tigers’ attack, while star man Geovanni was deemed only good enough for the bench, a rather strange decision at this crucial time of the season. Meanwhile, club captain Ian Ashbee missed out with a knee injury, leaving his usual centre-midfield foil George Boateng to take the armband.
The match failed really to take off in the early stages, Stoke winning an early corner that came to nothing, before winger Matthew Etherington was booked for a cynical trip on Hull’s Sam Ricketts, the two players clashing in what was to become one of the defining battles of the match. It was the home side that forced the first effort on target of the game, Gabonese striker Daniel Cousin seeing his header tipped comfortably over the bar by Thomas Sorensen in the Stoke goal.
Sorensen marshals his steadfast defence
With the first half open, but lacking in any real quality, Hull’s first genuine opportunity of the afternoon fell to Australian striker Richard Garcia after the former Colchester player latched onto Barmby knockdown, but he was only able to fire straight at Sorensen, the Danish number one more than equal to the strike. Though Hull had edged the opening exchanges, the nerves you might expect from a side that had won just one of its last nineteen games, and was perilously close to dropping into the relegation zone for the first time all season, began to creep in midway through the half as Stoke began to get a foothold in the game, Lawrence sending a dipping effort from a tight angle narrowly over the crossbar of Hull ‘keeper Boaz Myhill’s goal.
With the half drawing to a close, the Potters were on top, and were unlucky not to score five minutes before the break, when Lawrence, who was central to most of Stoke’s attacking play, saw his half-volleyed effort deflect of Hull’s Guinean defender Kamil Zayatte and sail inches wide of the post, when it looked for a long time bound for the bottom corner. This disappointment was short lived for the rowdy travelling Stokies though, as the deadlock was in fact broken from the resulting corner, taken by none other than Lawrence. His whipped cross caused confusion in the Tigers’ ranks, allowing Fuller to react fastest, swivelling instinctively and guiding the ball through a mass of bodies into the corner of the goal from ten yards out, showing a touch of the poaching class he at times seems to lack and giving Stoke a very welcome lead to take into the half-time break.
The Hull players are flattened following Fuller’s ninth of the season
With Stoke looking good for the win in the second half, Irish international Glenn Whelan twice came close to scoring spectacularly around the hour mark. First, he saw a stinging twenty-five yard effort land on the roof of the net with Myhill sprawling, before he controlled a loose ball well with his chest twenty yards out and struck an excellent volley against the angle of the post and bar, to the frustration of the Stoke fans behind the goal who thought he had doubled the advantage.
With the Tigers looking anything but predatory, it seemed to be only a matter of time before Brown would make an attacking change, and an injury to Zayatte after a clash of heads with Cort gave him the chance to do so, introducing Geovanni, French midfielder Bernard Mendy and on-loan Manchester United striker Manucho. His hopes of an instant response were dashed by Lawrence in the 73rd minute however, as the winger celebrated a surprise call-up to join Whelan in the Republic of Ireland squad this week in fine style. Found wide and twenty-five yards out by Fuller after a mazy run from the Jamaican, Lawrence brought the ball inside, before hitting a spectacular swerving, dipping strike into the far corner, Myhill a mere spectator. It was his third goal of the season, and I doubt he’ll ever score many better.
Lawrence celebrates his stunning strike with Ryan Shawcross
With Stoke seemingly shutting up shop, Hull were handed a lifeline in the fifth of six minutes of stoppage time at the end of the match, Whelan penalised for jumping in to a tackle on the edge of the Stoke box and Dawson converting the resulting free-kick. With everybody expecting a right-footed attempt from Geovanni, it was instead the left-footed defender who took the kick, catching Sorensen by surprise as he was unable to get across to the ball as it flew inside his left-hand post. Nothing should be taken away from Dawson though, as it was a very well struck and well directed free-kick.
A frisson of excitement then rippled through the KC Stadium crowd, the previously mute home fans rallying their side with one last battlecry. They were forgetting however, when it comes to battlecries, it’s got to be Pottermouth, and when it comes to staying up in the Premier League against all likelihood, it’s got to be Stoke. They did go close in the final seconds though, with the Stoke fans fearing a collapse of Aston Villa proportions, as Whelan’s outstretched foot deflected Geovanni’s shot into the side netting, with referee Howard Webb amazingly awarding a goal kick rather than a corner, a decision which incensed the suddenly animated Hull players, and cheered their Stoke counterparts, who sensed the end was nigh. The whistle was blown from Sorensen’s long hoof upfield, with Borwn and Pulis sharing a very frosty handshake while the Hull players swarmed around Webb, furious that they hadn’t been given a corner. They were right, but if it meant that much to them, perhaps they should have considered turning up for the first ninety-five minutes of the game, during which they were very poor against Stoke’s superb defence.
Look up hero in the dictionary, and you might well find this picture
Hull’s late and inconsequential rally was ultimately far too little to marr a fine day for Stoke City Football Club, as safety was confirmed and the win saw us climb the table to twelfth place on forty-two points. With other results going the way they did, it’s now impossible for us to finish below fourteenth position, and whatever happens in the final two games against Wigan and Arsenal, which we can now enjoy free from any pressures, that represents a season of fantastic achievement. For Hull meanwhile, the Premier League fairytale is fast becoming a horror story, as they remain seventeenth and could fall into the relegation zone if the game between Newcastle and Middlesbrough is not drawn. The KC Stadium tannoy played Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over at the end of the match, but with a tricky trip to Bolton and the daunting visit of Manchester United on the last day, many now believe it is. Stoke safe, Hull down? Life can be so sweet sometimes.
Brown gets mauled by the Potters
Stoke Side: (4:4:2)
Shawcross Cort Abdoulaye Faye Wilkinson
Lawrence Delap Whelan Etherington
Substitutions: Cresswell for Beattie (78), Pugh for Etherington (85), Kelly for Fuller (90)
Unused Substitutes: Simonsen, Sonko, Olofinjana, Camara