On the walk, Kyle and myself spoke about the monstrosity of friendship scarves. As I explained to the visitors, we are truly blessed with boozers around Stamford Bridge. Even moving just one mile would be horrific. Walt kept mentioning throughout the day that virtually all stadia in Germany are out on the edge of towns and cities with hardly any bars nearby; I could tell that they were enjoying the close proximity of the twenty-five or so bars within a twenty-minute walk from Stamford Bridge.
Next up was a five-minute walk to The Mitre on Dawes Road; a pub that we used to frequent for the best part of a season in around Surprisingly, I seem to be the only one who can remember this. It must have been something they put in the drinks. Our good friend John, with his son Chris, was celebrating his birthday out in the beer garden. The laughter and banter continued. How often I have thought this; that a game could be put back a few hours so we can just wallow in the fuzzy camaraderie of friendship and football.
I was so pleased that Kyle got to meet some really fine friends on his first visit to Stamford Bridge. We sauntered — sauntered I tell ya! In the busiest pre-match for a while, the team news had passed me by. I felt for the four visitors, who had hoped that Eden would start. It was obvious that the manager was saving him — and his bruised shins — for Arsenal away on Wednesday.
We had already heard that the Stoke City team would be hit with injuries, but nobody really expected such a weak B team. Seeing Charlie Adam on the pitch was a real shock, and it was a reminder of how much I disliked him. I had a feeling that he would soon be sneezing and coughing over Danny Drinkwater. Either that, or kicking lumps out of him. Stoke had only brought around 1, It did not surprise me. After just three minutes, a cross from a free-kick wide on the right from Willian was perfectly played for Toni Rudiger to leap high at the back stick and to head home.
This was as clean a header as it gets. It was a fine goal. We could have not have asked for a better start. The dream start continued. The midfielder controlled the ball with his thigh and then purposefully prodded the ball towards the Shed End goal. Time again seemed to stand still. The net bulged and the stadium erupted. I can well remember the disdainful comments from many when we signed him from Leicester City. Soon after, we had hopes for another goal, but Alvaro Morata — bursting through in the inside right channel — was sadly denied at the near post by Butland.
Kyle was getting all of the action on a plate for him. On twenty-three minutes, Willian passed to Pedro. The Stokies in the away section responded with an audible dig in that particular twang of theirs. I had to agree. I could detect a few supporters trying to get things started in The Shed but it was all very piecemeal. In the Matthew Harding, there had hardly been a song in the first quarter of the game, despite our fine play.
It is hardly worth me writing that neither the East nor West Stands were joining in; they hardly ever do. We moved the ball around at will. Stoke, on a very rare attack, bundled the ball in via a break from Diouf, but the referee had signalled an offside. At the break, we all dreamed of a cricket score, with memories of a shellacking in our vintage.
Their record at Chelsea in recent years has been simply shocking. Thibaut was forced to throw his word search back into his goal and block a shot from Berahino as Stoke threatened in the first few minutes.
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Rather than see us push on and go hell-for-leather in search of more goals, there was a definite air of frustration among the Chelsea fans as Stoke attempted to get the tiniest of foot holds in the game. Nothing really materialised, but it stemmed our flow of intent and desire. Things fell a little flat. Legs were being saved for Wednesday. Michy Batshuayi replaced Alvaro Morata, who had not enjoyed the best of outings.
With twenty minutes remaining, Willian burst into the penalty box and was adjudged to have been sliced down by a Geoff Cameron. From my vantage point, it looked a soft one. With two minutes remaining, Zappacosta pounced on a loose ball and smashed the ball low past Butland.
Throughout the game, Stoke City had been truly shocking. They offered hardly anything. In some respects, this was some sort of non-football. Yes, we have been spoiled over the recent — how many, twenty? In the league alone, we have enjoyed these wins against a few of our main rivals —. In the circumstances, I suppose a defeat of a weakened Stoke City team is regarded by many as hardly on the same scale. Noise or no noise, we jumped past Manchester United into second place. The same, could, quite possibly be said of Chelsea as we leave and look set to enter As Mourinho continues to annoy those inside and outside of his Manchester United, the inevitable media circus which follows him around shows no signs of abating.
Let the media focus on these teams. And while there are still a few barbs being aimed at the manager by some pernicious buggers in the media, hoping to stir up a little hostility and unrest, I honestly see a calmness from Antonio Conte and a steely desire to keep in contention. There have been few managers in my time as a Chelsea supporter that I have liked more. I desperately want Roman Abramovich to keep a steady head and to give the manager as much time as he needs.
The match this season would be my tenth consecutive Stoke City vs. We have generally fared well, winning five, drawing two and losing two. Our third away game of the league season, our second successive one in the Midlands, and the Chuckle Bus was on the road once more. Roadworks on the M5 forced us onto the M42 and then on the M6, over Spaghetti Junction and past Villa Park, and it meant that we only turned off the motorway and onto the A into my former college town at around midday. Ah, the Stoke-on-Trent duck. This was truly music to my ears.
It was one of the charming idiosyncrasies of the local dialect and I developed a strong liking for it in the three years I lived in the city. It had no barrier. I drove up to Penkhull which, like the football stadium, sits on a high ridge of land overlooking the sprawl of The Potteries. Not for the first time, we visited The Greyhound pub, which sits opposite the church spire of St. The pub is just right; cosy, a friendly landlord, good beers, and the building dates back to , and so has just the right amount of character. During the week, an old college friend Huw passed on some sad news that a mutual friend, Chris, had passed away the previous Saturday at just fifty-three.
I was a fresher and they were in their third and final year of their chemistry degrees. They took me under their wing. Without the internet, and with me in The Midlands, it was lucky that I had read about the game, which took place on a Friday night. It so easily could have passed me by.
Going Down The Match :Stoke City FC:
It was my first Chelsea weekend away of my life and I was certainly excited then as I am these days when I bugger off to Beijing, or Rome, or Baku. I met up with Chris at his university and we soon went on an increasingly wobbly pub crawl around Glasgow. In , Scotland was the only place in the UK with all-day opening. It was to be my downfall. The alcohol was taking over. I knew that I was reaching saturation level. Chris was not a huge football fan like me — he was from Grimsby, and loosely followed them — but he loved a beer. He was clearly leading me astray on this cold night in Glasgow.
They were able to squeeze us into a transit van and we hurtled off towards Ibrox. The beer intake was continuing. Chris, Jim and I watched the Rangers vs. Chelsea game on that night in — it was on St. Over in the Broomloan Stand were around three or four hundred Chelsea fans — including my mate Alan, who, I was to later learn, had been in The Stadium bar too — and it was a surreal feeling to be watching my team in such famous, and yet alien, surroundings. Chelsea lost that night, and — of course — my memories are rather blurred from all of the alcohol coursing through my veins.
I remember us playing in that pristine white Le Coq Sportif kit. I remember a floodlight failure for a good ten minutes. I remember Pat Nevin, the Catholic, getting a bit of a rough ride from the nearby fans, which I was far from happy about. With about ten minutes to go, maybe to beat the crowds, maybe fearing for my safety, Jim decided it was best to head home. It had been a bloody fantastic day and night in Glasgow — one of the very best — and I had Chris to thank for all of it. In , I again stayed with Chris over a weekend which saw me attend the Rangers vs. Hamilton Academical game, but we were a lot soberer on that occasion, and I was to meet his future wife Eleanor on a night out after the game.
Chris was a good mate. He loved his music, he loved a beer. He was, I soon realised, the first friend of my age group to pass away. It was, naturally, all rather shocking. He will be, always, cocooned in my mind as a young lad, with his whole life ahead of him. We stayed in The Greyhound until just before 2pm and the Duckle Brothers were suitably refreshed. There was a little chat with a couple of the local Stokies, who were concerned that their defence was hit with injuries, and they wished us well.
The drive from Penkhull over to the bet Stadium at Sideway only took around ten minutes. After parking up, I veered off to take some — more — photographs of the beguiling statue of the dribbling Sir Stanley Matthews which sits on a plinth outside the home Boothen End. We had seats low down, row five, just to the right of the goal. The exposed corner to our right is now filled-in, bringing the capacity up to just over 30, Annoyingly, the new TV screen in the opposite corner has blocked out the spire of the church steeple in Penkhull.
So, club captain Gary Cahill lost out. And the manager was clearly saving Eden Hazard further for the toughest of games, away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Manchester City. Stoke had an early attack, but we broke fast, with Bakayoko moving quickly out of defence. The ball was played out to Dave, who played a perfect early cross over the Stoke defence, and right in to the path of Alvaro Morata in the inside-left channel. The game was bubbling along, but did not ignite further. But throughout the first-half, even though our defence was tested, I never felt troubled.
A few shots were aimed at Thibaut, but bodies were sacrificed as we blocked and blocked again. As with the Tottenham away game, we always looked at ease. I was so impressed with the back three of Rudiger, Christensen and Azpilicueta. After a few below-par performances, Victor Moses was back to his best. Willian looked busy, twisting and turning, and brought others into the game.
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The two teams each had a couple of half-chances as the first-half came to its conclusion, with Diouf managing a bicycle kick which flashed wide. There was a feisty start to the second-half, and Marcos Alonso drew the ire of the home fans along the side who were, probably not without reason, annoyed at a challenge which resulted in a yellow card. It was the noisiest that they were to get the entire game.
A second foul by Alonso riled them further, and Antonio Conte saw the potential for self-harm, and replaced him with Gary Cahill. Stoke continued to try to claw their way back into the game, but with the play down the far end, I found it difficult to watch the movement of players.
Peter Crouch, the former Chelsea season-ticket holder, came on and immediately created a chance for Diouf, who went as close as anyone. Stoke were definitely back in the game, and I kept saying to Gary that I was glad that we were winning and not The manager replaced Pedro with Cesc Fabregas.
Four minutes later, Eden Hazard replaced Willian, whose form had dipped as the second-half continued. The two additions breathed new life into our team. A couple of chances were exchanged. A cross from Dave just evaded the far post lunge from Moses. Then, on seventy-seven minutes, Glen Johnson gave away the ball, and Alvaro Morata pounced. He pushed the ball forward, and accelerated away, with the entire half in front of him.
He raced on, steadied himself as Butland approached, then clipped a low shot into the waiting goal. Morata raced behind the goal, in front of the away contingent, and our arms and fists were pumping. We live for moments like this. It was a stunning goal. Whisper it, but it immediately reminded me of his compatriot Fernando Torres in his pomp at Anfield, running free and scoring with ease. It will always be a major disappointment that we did not see Torres repeat such scoring at Chelsea.
Eden Hazard, so good to have him on the pitch, was full of tricks and a shot was cleared off the line. In the last few minutes, Morata could easily have made it , but that would have been beyond cruel. Stoke, despite our goals, had enjoyed much of the ball. Then, shamefully, a horrid Crouch tackle on Cesc blew away any sympathetic feelings I had for the home team. On another day, Crouch would have seen red. There is no Madrid trip for me, but I wish safe travels to all those going to the Atletico game on Wednesday. It should be a belter. Last season was particularly painful, with two losses in just eleven days.
With an international break after the Stoke game, it was vitally important that we kept our momentum going, to maintain our gap at the top and to — well — just keep winning. Although I try to keep a reasonable balance in these match reports, I am aware that there are a few times when I tend to get rather self-indulgent. Rather than reporting on the club, the team and its supporters, sometimes I delve into my own personal story; I have heard some supporters say that they enjoy all of this background stuff, but I am sure that there must be others who wonder what on Earth I am blathering on about.
On all of the previous visits to the city covered by these tales, I have touched on various memories from my college life mixed in with my love for football in particular, and Chelsea — of course — at the centre of it all. But worry ye not, there will be a couple more during this one. Although it is a good two miles away from the stadium, it is — crucially — the nearest pub to the Stoke-on-Trent train station. The pub was packed with Chelsea fans, and only Chelsea fans, and the ranks were swelled every twenty minutes or so as another train pulled in.
I was able to park my car right outside the boozer. I was able to chat to a couple of local Chelsea fans. It was in or , and I was walking in to Stoke from my house near the old Victoria Ground. I was wearing a T-shirt, purchased from the old Chelsea shop by the main gates at Stamford Bridge, which celebrated our new-found use of celery at games. Thankfully, one of the local Stokies that I knew validated that I was Chelsea and a potential nasty situation was averted. The West Brom vs. Arsenal game was on the TV, and the pub erupted as Arsenal conceded one and then two.
We left The Terrace at just before 2pm, allowing me plenty of time to get to my anointed parking place on a grass verge outside the stadium. Cars were parked everywhere; on bridges over the D Road, on pavements, on verges. It was quite feral. Up the path past the canal and the familiar sight of the stadium, high on the hill. I remembered my very first visit to the city, during the summer of I recollected the interview that I had with a grizzled old lecturer at the poly, a local Stokie, sporting a Zapata moustache and an NUM badge, and who we later learned was a Port Vale supporter.
During the interview, I mentioned that Stoke City used to have a chairman called Percy Axon — no relation, but I thought it was worthwhile mentioning, as I would — and I think that the bloke was amazed that I had heard of him. In his role as a local councilor, the lecturer had known Percy Axon. My surname is relatively rare and I am always amazed when I encounter it anywhere. His opening line went down in our college folklore. In the away end, slowly filling with the loyal three-thousand, we heard that Eden Hazard had fallen victim to an injury. Pedro was to play with Willian and Diego Costa.
We also heard that Arsenal had capitulated further at The Hawthorns, losing What a joke club. Every year the same old story.
STOKE NEWS & VIEWS
Stoke is one of the coldest grounds going, but this was bearable. I had known worse. We were down low, row seven, right behind the goal. I spotted the spire of St. Thomas at Penkhull just to the left of the Boothen End. For once, a stadium with some sort of view. It made a change not to be completely encased. I noted that the scoreboard to our right was no more; maybe the club is infilling that corner now. The place was virtually a sell-out; just a few empty seats in the home areas. I wondered if my pal Chad, newly-arrived from Minneapolis in the morning, had made it in.
He had posted a picture on Facebook of him inside a cab, on his way to the stadium, with time running out. Over on the touchline were Mark Hughes and Antonio Conte.
The teams were living and breathing embodiment of the two managers. Stoke City, intimidating and physical. Shorn of Shaqiri and Bojan, they were more like the Tony Pulis model. Chelsea, now fully Conte-esque, stylish and cool, yet passionate too. The two contrasts could not have been greater. We looked at ease in the first few moments, and the away crowd were in good voice.
We were stretching the home side down both flanks. It was a fine start. Marcos Alonso was hacked twice by Arnautovic, and referee Anthony Taylor blew up for a foul, out wide on the edge of the box. This was Willian territory alright. Willian reeled away and was mobbed. We were ahead after only thirteen minutes. What a dream start. Stoke had already put their formidable footprint on the game, with intimidation mixed in with some late and dangerous challenges. Diego Costa drew the considerable ire of the home crowd and was booed every time he touched the ball.
He was then booked for a foul on Martins Indi, which produced an odd response from the Stokies. We kept applying good pressure. Defensively, we looked at ease. David Luiz was in control. Completely against the run of play, Stoke caused a scare. A deep corner from their right was headed back in to the box and Martins Indi headed the ball past Thibaut. We waited, and the body language of the two officials looked good. The referee flagged for a free-kick to us.
Though none of us knew what had actually transpired. Sadly, not long after, the referee swayed in the favour of the home side as an innocuous challenge by Gary Cahill was deemed worthy of a penalty. Walters smashed the ball in, and celebrated wildly, possibly gaining some sort of retribution from his darkest hour against us in The game became scrappier, and it genuinely seemed that it was all down to the Stoke players.
Costa was continually fouled, but still the home fans howled. One challenge on Diego made Antonio Conte jump into the air and stamp both his feet into the ground. Pedro fired over just before the break.
A Blue World In Black And White
Chelsea began the second-half well. We did indeed keep calm, no more so than Diego Costa who simply did not give in to more hard line tactics. He did not yield. He was strong in possession and kept others in the game. I lost count of the times we played the ball intelligently in and out of — and around, and in between — the scurrying Stoke players. Kante was everywhere again. Pedro cut in after a defensive error on the Stoke flank but Grant saved.
Still the Stoke players hacked away. A free-kick was awarded to us after Pedro was fouled. Luiz waited, but it was Alonso who crashed the ball against the bar with a sweet left-footed strike. Conte replaced with Moses with Cesc Fabregas. In the excitement of the closing quarter of the game, I hardly noticed the change in formation. But this was an odd game. Despite our continued dominance, Stoke occasionally threatened.
Although deep down, I fully expected a winner, there was still a chance that Stoke could nab an unwarranted winner of their own. Inside, I knew I would be happy and sad at the same time if it stayed at He was soon involved. He unknowingly played a one-two with himself, a la Kante at West Ham, and forced a corner. Cesc thumped a high ball in.
Luiz, a little off-balance, was only able to prod it goal wards but with no real menace. Thankfully, a poor clearance by Pieters set up Gary Cahill. The entire away end was on tip-toes. Gary thrashed it high past Grant and the hexagons of the white netting were stretched and contorted as the ball flew in. What mayhem high on the hill. The players raced over to my left. We pushed and shoved. A forest of arms and fists punched the air. Some fans ended up in Newcastle-under-Lyme. As a fitting ending, Bardsley was sent-off for a second yellow a foul on Diego, what a shocker. Not yet, Chris, not yet.
It was one of those games where you just shake hands and embrace everyone and anyone around you, just to magnify the moment and to cherish it too. We watched as the players celebrated and I snapped away as Antonio Conte, the mad man, walked towards the Chelsea crowd, his fists pumping, completely losing himself in the moment, his face a picture of ecstasy.
Outside in the North Staffordshire night, I joined in, weakening…I could not resist. On the last day of , Chelsea Football Club were going for our thirteenth consecutive league win. A run that began way back on the first day of October at Hull City has surprised, entertained and thrilled us along the way, and now the red-and-white striped shirts of Stoke City were our next opponents.
In over forty years of going to games at Chelsea, this would only be my fourth such game. All of these have been at Stamford Bridge. The last one was a dreadful defeat at the hands of Aston Villa in It was a miserable end to that particular year. The pre-match routine for the Stoke City game mirrored that of the Boxing Day match with Bournemouth.
Parky, Glenn, PD and myself. Laughs along the way with pals from both sides of the Atlantic. It was as if it was made to order for the visiting Americans. As for the team, we knew that Pedro would be out, and that Kante and Costa would undoubtedly return. We pondered about Fabregas. Antonio Conte decided to retain him. The tried and tested This seems to have been with us forever such is how natural it all seems. Unsurprisingly, Stoke City brought only 1, down from The Potteries.
There was a rare start for Crouch. With him alongside the diminutive Xherdan Shaqiri, it brought back memories of a game decades ago when Micky Droy stood alongside Ian Britton for photographic effect. Shaqiri — so small that his arse rubs out his footprints — looks out of place on the pitch. But he is a lovely footballer. And Stoke certainly had more of the game in the first-half, at least to my eyes. Their biggest threat came via corners and free-kicks, and we had to be at our best to keep them at bay.
With Eden Hazard relatively quiet, our play lacked a little sparkle. We had a few pot-shots at goal, but nothing of note. The stadium needed wakening. It was pretty quiet. I loved the way that David Luiz, charging out of defence to cut out a lofted ball, was able to replicate a John Terry trademark chest pass. The ball landed right at the feet of a team mate. Stoke still caused us problems, with Shaqiri and Adam going close. Our play was a little slower than usual. Where there had been players taking a couple of touches, now the same players were taking extra touches.
It slowed our play down. Victor Moses was often alone out on the right wing in acres of space. Our play tended to develop down our left. Just after half-an-hour, Cesc Fabregas thumped a corner into the box and Gary Cahill was able to jump high and head in. It was, ironically, a goal more synonymous with that of our visitors. Mark Stein was introduced to the crowd at the break, and he was warmly applauded by both sets of fans, having played for both teams in his career.
Never had 28, — our then capacity — made so much noise at The Bridge. Another Second Division attendance too. The second-half began, and in the most dramatic of ways. A ball was pumped into our box, that man Crouch headed down, and Martins Indi somehow managed to react the quickest of all, stabbing home despite being surrounded by three or four Chelsea players. Now that was a typical Stoke City goal. At last the Chelsea crowd got involved, realising that the team needed a helping hand. Shots started to pepper the Stoke City goal.
Five minutes later, the stubborn visitors caused us problems in our box, and when the ball was played out to Diouf, I immediately sensed fear. Lo and behold, the ball was whipped into the box and Peter Crouch stabbed it home. This was breathless stuff now, and within a minute, Cesc Fabregas played in Willian with a beautiful ball, and our Brazilian livewire ruthlessly blasted high past Grant in the Stoke goal.
He again ran over to the far corner to celebrate with fans and team mates. Celebrations were equally manic in my little section of the stadium. Antonio Conte replaced Fabregas with Nemanja Matic, with a nod to tightening things, but the game still continued to entertain. A super break involving the twin threats of Willian and Hazard allowed Diego Costa a clear shot on goal, but he surprisingly blasted over. It had been another wonderful performance from Diego; chasing lost causes, hounding defenders, holding off challenges, touching the ball to team mates, leading the line.
Branislav Ivanovic replaced Victor Moses, who had been much more involved in the second-half. Nathaniel Chalobah took over from Willian. There was still time for one last hurrah. A seemingly innocuous throw-in was chased down by Diego Costa, who caused mayhem for Shawcross and Martins Indi. Showing fantastic strength, he held off a challenge, and slammed the ball into the net with a left-footed swipe. It was a goal of his own making. It was all his. Now it was his turn to fist pump, and for his eyes to explode with joy.
It was a lovely picture of solidarity and togetherness. There is then a ridiculous nine point gap to Everton, but then the other thirteen clubs are differentiated by just fifteen points. The numbers do not lie. The Chuckle Bus returned back to the shires of Wiltshire and Somerset. My evening was spent at Frome Town Football Club, where I saw my first-ever football match way back in the autumn of , a full four years before my first Chelsea game.
It was a great night and it ended a roller-coaster year for me, for us all. As begins, there are two eagerly-awaited away games to attend. They will be up for revenge after our last two games — remember them, ha? These were my words soon into the drive up to London for the visit of Stoke City. Without a doubt, the return leg of our Champions League tie with Paris St.
Germain was certainly looming large. It promises to be a tremendous occasion. But the game against Stoke City was in my sights now, and I was hopeful that this would be our main focus. We had our first snow of the winter overnight, but there was just a residual dusting left on the fields around my home as I set off to collect the two Chuckle Brothers en route to SW6. We had just enjoyed two of the most enjoyable away games for a while, in Hampshire and Norfolk, and we were now set for two games at Stamford Bridge in five days.
The games are coming along in bitesize chunks for me at the moment; two home, two away, three home, three away, three home, two away and now two at home. Elsewhere, three other games were occupying my thoughts. There was the lunchtime North London Derby. A draw was my preferred result for this one, though if there was to be a winner, my choice was going to be with Arsenal.
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For any game there are three points up for grabs and I always say that between rivals, a draw is always best, since one of the three points disappears into the ether. And of course, I am talking here as an advocate of Leicester City winning the league.
A draw between Arsenal and Spurs would be fine by me. A Spurs win would invigorate them again, and — for fuck sake — we do not want to even think about Tottenham winning the league after fifty-five years. So, a draw for me please. It would be the most sumptuous fairy story for decades and decades. My mind was also on my local non-league team Frome Town and their home game against Biggleswade Town.
A much-needed win would boost our chances of surviving in the seventh tier of English football. It was the usual busy build-up before the game, with meet ups with Chelsea fans from near and far. In and around the stadium, I chatted to friends from places as far flung as Atlanta, Edinburgh and Bangkok. It is always a treat to see the look of excitement on the faces of supporters who are not able to see the team quite as often as my usual cronies. I had never noticed this before, and it seemed out of place, almost rude.
It was especially galling when touts — with plenty of bloody tickets — were plying their trade a few yards away. I approached a callow youth, entrusted with a loudhailer, and vented:. He mumbled something about plain clothes policemen monitoring them, but I simply did not believe a word of it. You can be sure that the same leeches will be out in force on Wednesday night. In the pub, for once, the televised game was getting stacks of attention, although I only occasionally glimpsed at the score of the Tottenham vs.
The reactions of the Chelsea fans in the pub was interesting and a litmus test of loyalties. I entered the pub with Arsenal up. There was little doubt that we were all thinking the same things. I was inside Stamford Bridge in good time. Around one thousand Stokies had left their houses in North Staffordshire and were ensconced in the away section.
I popped over to see her, but she looked petrified. Guus Hiddink was forced to rest Diego Costa as he had a niggle. Instead, the so-far impressive Bertrand Traore was picked ahead of Loic Remy, who was on the substitute bench along with Alexandre Pato. Matic was picked to play alongside Mikel, but no Fabregas, who Hiddink was presumably resting for Wednesday.
It was rather a cold day in SW6, and I noticed that the stadium took ages to fill up, but even after a good few minutes of play there were occasional gaps. The Shed upper, certainly, had a fair few empty seats dotted around. My fears seemed to have been validated, as we lacked focus and really struggled to impose ourselves on the game. Arnautovic looks a handful though. We toiled away in the first half, occasionally finding our rhythm, but it was our black-clad visitors who had the best of the chances.
Thibaut Courtois saved well from Afellay. Then a fantastic ball from Diouf, with a perfect amount of fade, allowed Arnautovic to play in Diouf, who had supported the attack well, but his touch was heavy and the ball thankfully cleared the bar. For some unknown reason though, the Austrian is just useless with a dead ball, and this was another disappointing effort that trundled into the wall, as the match finally slipped away from us.
Exhausted, our players collapsed to the turf as the home fans showed their appreciation of the effort each and every one of them had put in.
For Pulis, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. The big story of the day should have been his victory on his return to the scene of his greatest triumphs. However, he was eclipsed by the red cards and the efforts of our remaining players. From a Stoke perspective, things started well; the warm, rapturous reception he received from the home support was richly deserved. The bizarre sight of Pulis and Bojan squaring up, meanwhile, felt like an iconic image, old Stoke vs new Stoke distilled into a single picture.
The fact we gave them such a game was borderline embarrassing, however the ever-blinkered Birmingham media might dress it up. Plenty of West Brom supporters were less than enamoured of the performance , and you just wonder if his stay in Smethwick might be a short one. It was about us. Even in defeat, we can be proud of our team. It could easily be argued that a stern talking to both players would have sufficed. The truth is though that Afellay should know better. His fate was foreshadowed about 10 minutes beforehand, when Dawson shoved him into the family stand and he reacted angrily.
He should know better. He was actually playing his best football since arriving before the sending off, linking well with Erik Pieters on the left and going past defenders. However, he has to accept that English football is physical and he will get roughed up. Sympathy for Charlie Adam is in short supply.
The frustrating thing is that before it happened, Adam had justified his surprise inclusion. He was playing well, making things happen and again underlining that only works with him as part of it. Then we saw the ugly side of him again and it just served as a reminder that this is a player, for all his talent and important goals, who simply cannot be relied on week in, week out.
The silver lining to the three match suspensions both players will serve is that it might just allow the manager, very much in the fashion of his predecessor, to stumble upon his best team. We, for all the strong work of the majority, can only curse our own indiscipline. Oliver is a man entirely shameless in his naked, ruthless ambition to climb the greasy totem pole of officialdom, and yet again he decided to make an example of unloved, expendable Stoke City to further his own ends.
There was most famously the Swansea thing , where decided he would be the one to finally penalise Ryan Shawcross for holding in the penalty area at corners. There were the penalties denied us at against Man Utd and Leicester. And there was that time when as Fulham manager Hughes got him demoted. Hence him making Afellay walk but letting Gardner off. When the red cards only amped the crowd up further, it served to make him all the more determined to give us absolutely nothing. Joleon Lescott was allowed to manhandle Diouf with impunity.
Shaqiri was hacked down numerous times and he waved play on. Myhill embarrassingly timewasted repeatedly against nine men without so much as a hint of rebuke. He famously denied Fulham a stonewall penalty against Man Utd. Let Joe Hart get away with practically headbutting him. Far from being the new Webb, he comes across merely as the new Rob Styles, an egotist with an agenda.
The idea that we lack fight the implication always being that we miss Tony, whose teams always fought to the death is pure nonsense of course. Every Stoke player on the pitch after the 31 st minute, subs included, was heroic. Roared on by a furious crowd, they turned in a committed team display, closing down space, being first to loose balls and getting in vital blocks when West Brom players got into crossing and shooting positions.
Fine though the team performance was, there were some standout individual displays as well. Too many foreign fancy dans? Tell that to Shaqiri and Arnautovic, who ran themselves into the ground in that central attacking role, despite being constantly swamped by defenders. Tell it to Diouf, who worked hard as usual.
Tell it to van Ginkel, who finally showed some box to box nous in his best performance in a Stoke shirt to date. Tell it to Geoff Cameron, who his role in the goal apart was excellent in two positions, repelling attacks at centre back and then driving forward from right back.
Tell it to Erik Pieters, who all but collapsed from exhaustion at the final whistle. It was interesting that in the early going he appeared to have been given license to drive forward more, with van Ginkel dropping in to fulfil the hlding brief while Whelan motored forward. Once we were reduced to nine men however, Whelan engaged warrior mode. He was precisely the cool head the situation required, plugging the gaps as per usual and coordinating things when we had the ball, making sure his team mates were aware of who was available and watching out for any lurking danger.
He remains the moral compass of this team. Stoke might not be as defensively assured as they once were, but there can be no questioning the commitment of the group.