After the Stoke match yesterday I was a little confused. I didn’t quite understand what had happened, so I phoned up Sky Sports’s Jeff Stelling to ask if he knew what was going on. After much gloating about the result of the FA Cup match between Stoke and Hartlepool earlier in the season, he told me that we had achieved something called an ”away win”, and that it was actually quite common for the away team to score more goals than their hosts, and thus claim all three points. Considering myself something of a Stoke City aficionado, I was surprised to find that I could not remember us ever having one before, so I did a little research. I turns out we had nine last season, seven the season before that and a whopping ten before that. How fast the travails of the Premier League dull the memory. Incredible.
Away win, well I never! No wonder Matthew Etherington was so happy
Could this have been the defining result of our season? Almost every game seems that way now. The result all but confines West Brom, without doubt the worst team in the Premier League this year, to relegation back to the Championship, where they will play pretty football against the likes of Peterborough. The differences between Stoke and the Baggies were clear to see yesterday, one side with a bit of fight, one with none, one side with a solid defence and a clean sheet, one without. Most markedly however, was the contrast between the two sides at the other end of the pitch, the hosts enjoying almost 70% of the ball, but failing to score, and Stoke showing a little bit of attacking class, with goals from strikers of a potency that Baggies fans can only dream of in Ricardo Fuller and James Beattie, Fuller’s coming courtesy of a goalkeeping error from Scott Carson in just the second minute of the game, and Beattie’s a sweetly struck left-footed shot early in the second half.
In a season where it seems that a negative approach has often proved our downfall away from home, I was delighted to see Tony Pulis pick a side without a holding midfielder, with the injured Salif Diao replaced by Rory Delap in the centre of midfield, while former gambling addict Matthew Etherington, starting his first game in two months on the day of the Grand National, came into the side on the left wing, adding width to the Stoke side which included Liam Lawrence on the other flank, the first time we have lined up with two true wingers on the pitch to start a game all season.
It was West Brom who made the first foray forward in the opening minute of the game, but after their move broke down, Stoke ‘keeper Thomas Sorensen was able to coolly find left-back Danny Higginbotham who hit the ball long towards Fuller. Baggies centre-back Shelton Martis misread the bounce of the ball, allowing the Jamaican to get in behind him and run at goal. Twenty-five yards out, Fuller tried his luck, striking the ball low, but tamely, towards goal. What should have been a routine save turned into disaster for Carson, the ‘keeper, who has had a catastrophic season, allowing the ball to pass under his body and into the net, giving Stoke’s top scorer his eighth strike of the season and sending the travelling army of stoke fans into raptures. Carson turned down a big money move to Stoke in the summer, and having signed the reliable Sorensen on a free transfer, it seems that in the style of the Matrix (possibly the worst film ever made), we have dodged a major bullet.
Fuller opens the scoring, while Carson was so depressed he reportedly left the stadium and threw himself over a bus
A very good start almost became even better for the Potters minutes later, as referee Martin Atkinson awarded Stoke a free-kick on the edge of the West Brom penalty area. Irish international midfielder Glenn Whelan took the kick, sending it towards the top corner of the goal, only to be denied by an admittedly fine save from Carson.
The remainder of the first half failed to live up to its frantic start, as the home side experienced the lion’s share of possession, but failed really to trouble Sorensen, their best opening falling to James Morrison, who made poor contact with his half volley sixteen yards out midway through the half, allowing the Dane to easily gather.
Rory Delap and Borja Valero scrap for the ball
Though it was West Brom who looked the more likely to score in the closing stages of the first half, it was Stoke who struck four minutes into the second, Beattie doubling the advantage. The West Brom defence once again showed the basic ineptitude that has cost them so dearly this season, failing to close down Fuller in the final third, and allowing him to pick out Etherington. After several ricochets, the ball finally fell to Beattie twelve yards out, and he was able to power in a left-footed strike, Carson helpless despite getting a hand to the ball. It was an extremely accomplished finish on his wrong foot by the striker, though he later joked on Match of the Day that he has no weaker foot, and it was an alright finish. It was Beattie’s sixth goal in ten matches for Stoke, and eighteenth of the campaign, and while many are hailing him as the best signing of the season, it is somewhat surprising that he has been overlooked by England manager Fabio Capello of late, following the injury crisis in the England squad. But then again, he does play for Stoke.
Beattie scores, then celebrates his goal by flooring Liam Lawrence
A triple substitution by West Brom manager and football purist Tony Mowbray shortly after did seem to inject a little energy into the home side’s play, and with twenty-five minutes remaining, Chris Brunt, playing as a makeshift left-back was very unlucky not to pull a goal back. Picking up the ball some distance from goal, the former Sheffield Wednesday man unleashed a ferocious drive, which had Sorensen beaten, but rebounded back of the crossbar, keeping Stoke’s two goal cushion in tact.
The incident summed up the game for the Baggies, who were unable to break through the disciplined Stoke backline as the game drew to a close, despite some heavy pressure. On loan forward Marc-Antoine Fortuné did have the ball in the net for the hosts with five minutes remaining, deflecting substitute Robert Koren’s strike past Sorensen, but the French Guyana born striker was denied a fourth goal in English football by the offside flag of the assistant referee. The video replays show that this was a good decision, as the Stoke defence, disciplined all match, had kept an excellent line to move out, leaving Fortuné a yard offside.
Some typically dogged defending, with Whelan and late substitute Danny Pugh making sublime blocks, saw Stoke over the finish line to seal a momentous win on a very memorable day. As well as being our first ever away win in the Premier League, it was also our first top flight victory on the road since May 1984, and sealed our first ever Premier League double, having beaten West Brom 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium back in November.
It is with a feeling of elation that I write that the result moves Stoke up to thirteenth in the Premier League table, six points clear of the relegation zone on a day on which almost very other result went our way, meaning survival now looks well and truly on the cards. It is with a degree of pleasure that I also write that the Baggies look all but down and out, eight points from safety with seven games remaining. Isn’t life sweet sometimes!
Though yesterday’s win was undoubtedly huge, the next two home games are the two that can categorically keep us up, with Alan Shearer’s Newcastle and Blackburn, both struggling at the bottom of the table visiting the Britannia Stadium over the next two Saturdays. On this form, we have nothing to fear.
Stoke captain Abdoulaye Faye shows what survival would mean to him, and the Stoke fans agree
Stoke side: (4:4:2)
Wilkinson Shawcross Abdoulaye Faye Higginbotham
Lawrence Whelan Delap Etherington
Substitutions: Cresswell for Beattie (73), Pugh for Lawrence (74), Olofinjana for Fuller (88)
Subs Not Used: Simonsen, Kelly, Sonko, Camara
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