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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 06/03/04, 3.00pm
Stoke City
The odd lapse
By Rob Sterry

Oh, the Britannia Stadium, such a pleasant-looking stadium from the outside. Another one of those new stadiums that looks the same as any of the others. This one, however, isnít even finished. I mean, you can't have it looking nice three-quarters of the way around and then have a big gap in one corner; it just looks ugly!

Okay, okay, I'm drawing attention away from our woeful defensive display but the match wasn't really worth talking about. I think the M6 Toll Road makes more of a pleasant topic. I couldn't believe how empty that road was. We made it to Stoke in just over two hours and that stretch of road bypassing Birmingham cost only £2, yet people refuse to pay it. Worth every penny, I think.

On arrival, we decided that we needed somewhere to watch the FA Cup game. As we came off the M6, the first place we saw was a Holiday Inn, so that was picked as the venue. Meeting up with Fincham et al, we settled into some lunch while watching the game and discussing our new signing Paul Mayo. This led onto the question of who is going to be dropped...will it be Dyche, Cox, Ifil or Smith? He won't drop Cox because he's the skipper, so it will be one of the other three. Smith will be unlucky if he's dropped as he's played out of position and played reasonably well there. Ifil and Dyche have both done well (until this game, of course). One would think that it maybe Dyche as we have to look to the future and Dyche isnít part of it but on the other hand, the remaining games are important and his experience may be better than the strength and pace of Ifil, who is prone to the odd defensive witnessed at Stoke.

Onto the game, Helguson back in the team playing Ray's favourite 4-3-3 formation with Cook on the left and Devlin in the centre so that we didn't pump the ball up to Heidar all the time. Fitzgerald was dropped and apart from that, the team kept the same. We started well enough passing the ball about well and Pidgeley not getting troubled but then again, we didn't really look like scoring with Cox and Devlin spurning chances. Stoke took the lead after seventeen minutes through Ade Akinbiyi, who seems to have got his confidence back since leaving Leicester. He seems to do a good job in the Nationwide League but when asked to perform at the top level with a big price tag slapped on his forehead, he can't. Against us, he certainly can! The goal came from poor defending from Ifil as Gifton turned him and put a low cross shot across the goal to be tapped in by Akinbiyi. A few minutes later, it was two and Gifton again involved but this time as the goalscorer. Peter Hoekstra beat Coxy down the left and put a cross in for Gifton to rise above the rest and give Pidgeley no chance with the header. In all fairness to Gifton, he seemed to feel a bit guilty about scoring the goal as he didn't celebrate it. 2-0 and not looking good.

Helguson brought us back into the game ten minutes before half time when Ardley did well down the right and put a brilliant cross in for Heidar to head into the bottom corner. The revival was short-lived, although I do confess to only seeing Stoke's third on TV as a half-time beer seemed more important. (You're fired, Sterry! - Ed) A Jerel Ifil misjudgment of a long ball led to Akinbiyi saying "thank you very much" and slotting it past Pidgeley.

After four goals in the first half, the second half was a little less lively - no goals but both Stoke keepers going off injured. It's just a shame that their substitute goalkeeper Cutler only went off with seconds remaining. Neil Cox and Jack Smith were both taken off injured and the challenge on Jack Smith that led to his injury was rather controversial. The ex-Norwich player Darel Russell made a two-footed lunge at Smith and took only the player and not the ball. With it looking likely that a red card was going to be shown, Mr Ilderton only produced the yellow. It's the sort of luck we've had over the past few weeks, that we didn't get today.

Vernazza, Fitzgerald and Doyley replaced Cox, Cook and Smith respectively but it didn't make a difference as we still managed to create nothing in the second half.

Four games unbeaten and three clean sheets for us prior to this game. Is the return of Heidar a jinx?!

Stoke beating us 3-1 both home and away. Akinbiyi scoring two in both games as Helguson nets one in each. Maybe the winning team should have been kept. Maybe playing without someone big and strong up front to rely on was what was going well for us? Bradford is now a bigger game than previously thought because of their win at the weekend and will see the debut of Paul Mayo as Smith and Cox look unlikely to be fit. Another defensive display like that witnessed at Stoke will not do, especially in front of a full house at Valley Parade.