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Nationwide Division One, 06/03/04, 3.00pm
Stoke City
By Matt Rowson

A very strange thing happened in the canteen at work today.

It's not a bad canteen, as canteens go. The spelling of whoever prints out the menu sheets is notoriously shocking, the soup does reputedly taste of soap rather too often and you do have to tolerate the strictly regimented communication of the serving ladies with the kitchens but generally it's an okay kind of place.

It's also thoroughly predictable. Kind of comforting in its own way, like a soap opera or a familiar armchair...there will always be battered fish with gooey tartare sauce on offer on Friday, a carvery on Thursday and some kind of indiscernible spicy meat curry on Tuesday. You know what to expect, basically, and even when they do try something new, it's in a predictably conventional kinda way.

All of which heightened my surprise at today's discovery. Pasta Bolognese Mornay was the dish, which is about as rock'n'roll as the menu gets, but I still wasn't braced for the surprise ingredient in the heart of the serving. Mushrooms would have been entirely expected. Eyebrows may have been raised at sweet peppers or something equally fancy, but this would have been generally acceptable. But a large strawberry? With its stalk intact? These things just don't happen...

If this incident was an example of drama where only the mundane was expected, Stoke City's season has proven to be quite the reverse. Following the last-ditch and slightly fortuitous escape from relegation last May, even the most optimistic of portents didn't have Tony Pulis' full-scale rebuild achieving any more than narrow survival. Instead, City are arguably the only side in the Division to have neither been threatened with relegation nor got anywhere near the play-offs throughout the campaign (despite the slightly fanciful "we're not out of the running yet" waffle from Ade Akinbiyi on the official site). Thoroughly mundane.

Which isn't intended as a criticism. We'd have taken some of that, frankly. And from having looked like a side destined for a quick return to Division Two, City are now in a position to build upwards. With eight and a half thousand season tickets apparently already committed to for next season in an early-bird initiative, things are looking better for the Potters than can possibly have been envisaged a year ago.

Ed de Goey should be in goal for Stoke, subject to him recovering from a training ground injury sustained prior to City's draw with Wigan a fortnight ago. De Goey has looked reasonably solid since his summer arrival from Stamford Bridge, although his kicking is notoriously dodgy... Scott Fitzgerald take note. Should de Goey fail to make it, the erratic Neil Cutler will get another run-out.

At the back, Wayne Thomas has become a more popular figure since his move from right-back to centre-back... he should partner warhorse Gerry Taggart, who returned to the Britannia Stadium on a short-term deal until the end of the season having been released by Leicester last week. Other central defensive options include former Coventry and Derby man Paul Williams, who has looked a little shaky since his summer arrival, and the brutal former Tranmere skipper Clint Hill, gradually returning from the latest in a succession of niggling injuries.

Another option in the centre is former Arsenal youngster John Halls, more frequently fielded at right-back and particularly impressive since his bargain 70,000 signing. Halls was, however, dismissed at Vicarage Road earlier in the season. On the left, skipper Clive Clarke will play if he overcomes an injury - he was due a fitness test prior to Tuesday night's game with Ipswich. Should he fail to make it, or be pushed up into midfield, another former Coventry man Marcus Hall should come in.

Main man in the centre of the park is yet another recruit from Highfield Road, John Eustace. A dynamic and thoroughly convincing influence since his arrival - despite currently being the most booked player in the division - Eustace will be a big loss if he succumbs to the back injury that looked like ruling him out on Tuesday evening. Eustace's regular partner is the energetic and abrasive utility man Darel Russell, formerly of Norwich, but City do not have a wealth of options in the centre of midfield (a problem made more acute by Johnno's departure for QPR). A possible stand-in for Eustace would be the rapidly developing Lewis Neal, although he too was doubtful for Tuesday night with an ankle problem, whilst on-loan Arsenal man Sebastian Svard is another option.

The hugely talented but consistently inconsistent Peter Hoekstra can play on either flank, with young prodigy Kris Commons or the more defensive Clarke also being options dependent on formation.

Pulis played three strikers at home to Wigan two weeks ago, which saw Carl Asaba, Ade Akinbiyi and Gifton Noel-Williams all start. Asaba is most likely to be on the bench if only two strikers are chosen, as he has been for much of the season despite being City's leading scorer; his application has reportedly dropped off noticeably since the turn of the year. Akinbiyi seems to have become a bit of a cult hero, his hardworking performances dismissing the unwanted mantle he'd borne at Leicester and Palace. And Gifton seems to have just about won the Potters fans over with some typically robust and intelligent performances... he too, however, was doubtful for Tuesday having limped out of the Wigan game with an ankle knock. The lanky, ineffective Chris Iwelumo is a further backup, as is Chris Greenacre, who has not been a success since his arrival from Mansfield and has been linked with a variety of moves away in recent weeks.

Dependent on how Tuesday night's games go, a win at the Britannia Stadium (where we have a hundred percent record...) could pull us up close to or even take us above this season's mid-table markers, a significant feat indeed given our league position and form a month ago. City showed us up in December and have only lost three times at home in the league, but are not infallible as an F.A. Cup defeat against (admittedly mid-clearout) Franchise demonstrated.

That strawberry was supposed to be garnish, by the way. That was the explanation offered, anyway, although my understanding was always that garnish belonged alongside or at least on top of the main dish, rather than slap in the middle of it. Whatever surprises our first Saturday away to Stoke in over ten years holds can only pale into insignificance in comparison... we'll find out at the weekend.