This and that
By Matt Rowson
We're all familiar with the frustrations inherent in following a relatively small club. Neglected by the national media whose often pitiful awareness of your side tends to be based on a half-remembered trip to a cup tie in 1978 (a bit like saying "yeah, I went abroad once - it was rubbish!"). The frustration is more acute the lower down you sink...as anyone who happened to be abroad during our Division Two spell will testify. Relying naively on a World Service rookie messing up and accidentally letting slip a Division Two scoreline is not a relaxing way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
The situation is exacerbated by the suffocating level of attention foisted upon certain clubs, and the fawning, sycophantic tone routinely applied to their coverage. Manchester United, obviously, and Arsenal too. In particular, Stoke City. Bloody hell. It's hardly possible to open a sports section without hitting a double page spread discussing Tony Pulis' limited attacking options, or to leaf through a tabloid without finding some paperazzi shots of Sergei Shtaniuk with some mystery blonde, or Wayne Thomas at the drycleaners.
And the TV. My word. Channel hop through the Digital options any day of the week and you can't move for ex-Potters stars, recruited to give some popular credibility to a half-arsed plan for a quiz or chat show. "Ian Painter talks Politics", "Name that Grannie, with Vince Overson", "Toupé 2003, presented by George Berry". Sheesh.
Anyone would think that football in this country didn't exist outside of the Potteries, that Stoke are some kind of surrogate national side in the event of England's underperformance, that there's only one "City" (because of course "City" means Stoke, all others have to be referred to by their prefix. Except Birmingham, where grunting will do). It's all just Stoke this, Stoke that. Sick of it.*
And as you will no doubt be painfully aware, all is not well at the Britannia Stadium as the Potters, back in Division One after four years' absence, are floundering to avoid a quick return whence they came. They've hardly had a stable basis to build on throughout the season, as Gudjon Thordarson's summer departure was followed uncomfortably quickly by that of Steve Cotterill who quickly decamped to Sunderland (no sniggering at the back). Dave Kevan took over as caretaker for an uncomfortable period during which George Burley appeared to be about to take over, then changed his mind before Tony Pulis took the reins.
True to his reputation, Pulis' approach to keeping City up has been pragmatic in the extreme. Faced with an injury-hit and apparently impotent forward line, City have stuck to what they're altogether more comfortable with and fielded an ultra-obstructive 5-4-1 for Tuesday's draw at Molineux.
In goal for Stoke will be Mark Crossley, the chunky Welsh International who made three hundred appearances for Forest and is still somehow only thirty-three. He has taken over from Steve Banks, signed after a loan spell from Bolton, who always seems to play well against us but hasn't really settled anywhere since leaving Blackpool in 1999. Neil Cutler, who was in goal for our visit to Stoke in October, is now on loan at Swansea, currently bottom of the League.
City have an absolute glut of centre-backs, many of whom have been fielded elsewhere this season. Pulis has played around with formations a bit recently, but having achieved a relatively successful couple of draws away from home (City haven't won away from the Britannia since mid-September), expect to see five across the back again on Saturday.
Of these, Belorussian Sergei Shtaniuk appears to be the most dependable. He plays alongside club captain and former Grimsby stalwart Peter Handyside, whose star appears to be on the wane in the eyes of the City faithful. Completing the central trio is Mark Williams, no stranger to Vicarage Road, on loan from Wimblestein and just the sort of big lump you don't want to have to get around when the other lot are sitting back.
There are plenty of alternatives in the centre, but as mentioned many of these find employment elsewhere in the team. Wayne Thomas is one of these, currently a right wingback... he was a sixteen year old sub for Torquay in the legendary Devon White on ice Auto-windscreens game six years ago. Frazer Richardson would be a more obvious choice at right wingback, but he has returned to Leeds following his loan.
Another loan signing, Southampton's former Coventry fullback Marcus Hall, is on the left. Clive Clarke would be an alternative here, but he's currently filling in in midfield.
Of the other midfield options, Mark Wilson has arrived on loan from Middlesbrough with a bit of a reputation, being "the other one that Steve McClaren signed from Man United". Stoke don't seem to know what he's for yet. Brynjar Gunnarsson is, at £600,000, City's record signing and a bit of a mainstay, whilst Irishman James O'Connor will cover a monumental amount of ground to varying effect.
Peter Hoekstra has Dutch caps, but not since 1996 and inconsistent flashes of skill from the left hand side aren't really enough to convince... Bjarni Gudjonsson is a slightly more reliable source of crosses on the right, whilst Lewis Neal is seen as City's most creative midfielder. Like Gudjonsson, he seems to be underemployed at present.
Up front, City's already faltering attack (two goals in nine games) has been limited still further in the past week with Lee Mills involved in a serious car crash that will rule him out for the foreseeable future, and the 6ft4 Chris Iwelumo also picking up an injury. Iwelumo was still named on the bench on Tuesday, but is thought to be far from match fit. This leaves Andy Cooke, hardworking but blunt, on his own up front... his hat-trick against us at Turf Moor in 1997 was not a typical return, it seems. Chris Greenacre, prolific for Mansfield for the last year or two, has been starting on the bench, although Pulis seems to misemploy him by getting him to drop deep and hold the ball up for his partner.
City have scored two and conceded only one in their last six league games, the last three of which have ended goalless. We, as you will also be aware, have only scored once in the same period. The only hope worth holding out for Saturday's game is that it's such a painfully obvious nil-nil draw that it's just bound to get all silly. Here's hoping so, anyway... after enduring the purgatory of Preston, Grimsby and Gillingham recently we're in need of a bit of a lift. The media darlings of the Potteries would do nicely.
*To anybody unfortunate enough to have missed 606 on Saturday 12th August 2000 my apologies, this is preview likely to have made no sense whatsoever. Mark Bright would probably get it though....