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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/10/02, 7.45pm
Stoke City
By Ian Grant

It's all gone a bit "Kilroy", hasn't it?

The First Division, never exactly the most close-knit family in the world, is now little more than a shouty squabble over whose tale is most woeful and heart-rending....

"We're losing so much money that we've had to sell our own home!" cry Watford, looking around the room for sympathy.

"That's nothing!" interrupt Leicester, leaning forward to emphasise the point. "We're thirty million pounds in debt! You've got it easy!"

"Yeah, but you've got a new ground!" cry Brighton, cutting Leicester off to raise the stakes once more. "We haven't even got a proper ground, just three temporary stands around a small athletics stadium! Imagine that, if you can!"

"And we've lost all of our supporters!" yell Wimblestein, ignored completely as everyone continues arguing.

It's all a bit tedious. Not that many of the cases aren't extremely pressing, and not that the survival of each club isn't vital (with one notable exception), merely that you suspect that most of those involved would probably be happy to see the others disappear into oblivion if it meant that they could survive....

The latest example of the general scrabbling around in the dust for gold is the news that all official club sites will require users to register and log on, a move of truly ground-breaking idiocy from Premium TV that'll guarantee an instant plummet in visitor numbers. The Stoke site already has such a scheme...and so, having sacrificed my privacy for this match preview, I can look forward to receiving weekly updates on events at the Britannia Stadium. Except that I unticked the "Do you want us to send you all manner of crap?" box at the bottom of the form. Do untick that box when the time comes, for heaven's sake.

As for Stoke...well, their particular heart-rending tale of woe is worth familiarising ourselves with, if only because it's especially complicated. The story so far: won the playoffs, sacked Gudjon Thodarson, appointed Steve Cotterill, lost Steve Cotterill to Sunderland, appointed reserve coach Dave Kevan as caretaker, negotiating a compensation deal with Sunderland, hovering nervously above the relegation zone, still to appoint a permanent manager, Bryan Robson linked with the job. All that, and the general financial catastrophes that are now as much a part of First Division life as dropped aitches in EastEnders.

One wonders what John Rudge makes of it all, really. Perhaps unique in the game as a "Director of Football" who'd actually be worth having, the esteemed Mr Rudge has been in the role at Stoke since his ludicrous dismissal after nineteen years as Port Vale manager...and you suspect that he might have an opinion on Cotterill's rather McGhee-esque career path. While it doesn't say a great deal for the state of stuff at Stoke that the new manager only hung around for a few months before jumping ship, it'd doesn't say a great deal for Cotterill either. Each passing week strengthens the impression that we did quite well with Ray Lewington.

The current state of play is that Kevan, after two matches in charge, has categorically stated that he's not after the job in the long-term. Meanwhile, Stoke continue to seek compensation from Cotterill's new employers, and have said that they'll be unable to appoint his successor until that compensation is forthcoming. A poll on "The Oatcake" has Peter Reid as the fans' choice...but, as with Ipswich, you wonder whether "big name" candidates will wait for a Premiership vacancy rather than walk into a struggling club with no money. We'll see.

According to the match report on "The Oatcake", Wednesday's defeat at Sheffield United offered some cause for encouragement. Ironically, bearing in mind Colin Wanker's reaction to our victory at Bramall Lane and the refereeing decisions therein, the report also suggests that Graham Poll had much to do with the fact that the points went United's way. One looks forward to CW calmly stating that "these things even out over the course of a season" in future press conferences....

In goal, Neil Cutler was brought in on a free transfer from Villa in the summer of 2001, initially as back-up. Since then, however, he's won a permanent place in the starting line-up, leaving Finnish international Jani Viander on the substitutes' bench.

The defence is built around Peter Handyside, familiar enough after spending the vast majority of his career at Grimsby Town. His partner has the explosion-in-a-cymbal-factory name of Siarhei Shtaniuk and is a Belarussian international. There's not a great deal of cover - Wayne Thomas, signed as a highly-rated youngster from Torquay a couple of years ago, can play in the centre but is currently occupied at right-back, while young Gareth Owen is on the long road to recovery from a broken leg. Irish youth product Clive Clarke plays at left-back, while the other left-sided defender, Chris Commons, has been ruled out for six months by a knee ligament problem.

The Icelandic contigent starts in midfield, with Brynjar Gunnarsson, whose distribution came in for criticism on Wednesday, controlling things in the centre. He was brought from Sweden for the not-inconsiderable fee of £600k, the kind of deal that's becoming very rare indeed nowadays. A number of more robust options are available alongside Gunnarsson, including hard-working Irishman James O'Connor, versatile Scot David Rowson (no relation, I assume) and youngster Karl Henry. Petur Marteinsson, another Icelandic international, has struggled to establish himself after a season that was heavily disrupted by a back injury.

The right side is generally taken by transfer-listed Bjarni Gudjonsson, who is perhaps not at his best thrust out wide in a 4-4-2 formation. On the left, Peter Hoekstra can claim Dutch international caps...which is less impressive when you find out that his last was against England at Wembley in 1996. Energetic Belgian Jurgen Vandeurzen is another left-sided possibility.

The attack is likely to be based around ex-Burnley striker Andy Cooke, whose finishing hasn't matched his work-rate recently. Watford fans, however, are likely to be more interested in his partner - the one, the only Tommy flippin' Mooney, on loan at Stoke for three months. It hasn't gone terribly well for him since Steve Bruce's appointment at St Andrews...and Mooney's attempts to start again went somewhat awry when he was dismissed on his Stoke debut, something that he has in common with Allan Smart. Back from a three-match ban, he was in the starting line-up at Bramall Lane.

Otherwise, Chris Greenacre, a summer signing from Mansfield, was immediately sidelined by an ankle injury in pre-season...but he returned to score his first goal from the bench on Wednesday. Marc Goodfellow is young and pacy, and has been at Stoke since he was nine years old. More injuries here, though...Chris Iwelumo, powerful in the air, needs a knee operation, while Ole Albrigtsen has returned to his native Norway for treatment.

Really, Stoke will be working on the basis that the entire First Division is going through a crisis, and that not all twenty-four clubs can be relegated. There probably are three teams worse than them, as the league table currently suggests. It'll be a very nervous season, though.

Anyone wishing to complain about our fall from fourth to sixth may wish to think it over.