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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 20/12/03, 3.00pm
Stoke City
By Matt Rowson


I have a sister. In fact, I have two sisters; we're talking about Hannah, the elder of the two and my junior by two years.

We argued quite a lot when we were kids. Not in any terribly significant way, or ever about anything particularly important, just bickering incessantly in a fashion that must have infuriated our parents even before my brother came along as an extra demand for attention.

It was always her fault, obviously. Whereas my arguments were invariably logical and reasoned, hers were juvenile, female and irrational. My parents didn't always see it that way for some reason.

I thought we'd got past that stage, frankly. Good job really, seeing as I'm now thirty and ought to at least pretend to be an adult... and I can't honestly remember when our last screaming match was, but it was certainly a healthy number of years ago.

So imagine my bafflement when she announced that her wedding (to Matt, a decent fella for a West Ham fan) was going to be the Saturday before Christmas. During the football season. Yes, really.

Pedants amongst you might care to point out that my own wedding was itself during the football season; the situation is of course entirely different. Firstly, that was the Vialli season. Secondly, not having been married before, I failed to appreciate the annual repercussions. Finally, making the decision yourself is quite different to having something foisted on you. We'll only be in Ware, but the ceremony is at 3pm, which quickly put paid to my brother and I casually considering the logistics of nipping down to Vicarage Road during a quiet moment. Purely vindictive on my sister's part. Grr.

Our visitors Stoke City have started the season quite slowly and have a near identical overall record to ourselves, level on points and goal difference their three extra goals scored puts them ahead of us at this the halfway stage. The detail, however, suggests that strides have been made at the Britannia Stadium since the Potters were, frankly, a little fortunate to escape relegation last season. With a weak squad and key players leaving it would have been a brave man who put money on City surviving again, but Pulis looks to have bought extremely well, a few gambles look like paying off and Stoke's most recent results - a 1-0 win at West Ham and a 3-0 trouncing of Reading - are extremely impressive.

Veteran Ed de Goey will be in goal for City; the Dutchman, who turns thirty-seven on Saturday, joined Stoke from Chelsea in the summer. His cover is the much travelled Neil Cutler, with the graceless (in every sense) Mark Crossley having heaved his bulk off somewhere else since our last encounter.

At the back the loan signing of Gerry Taggart from Leicester looks a masterstroke, his two games to date coinciding with the two impressive results mentioned. His arrival was precipitated by injuries to two experienced centre halves, the equally brutal former Tranmere man Clint Hill (ankle), and former Derby and Coventry defender Paul Williams (hamstring). Taggart will probably be partnered by Wayne Thomas, who will have fond memories (perhaps) of his first visit to the Vic, being snowballed as a substitute during that infamous Auto-Windscreens game against Torquay.

Fullbacks will be the versatile John Halls, a 50,000 capture from Arsenal's reserves, and either captain Clive Clarke, not the most popular player with the supporters, or Marcus Hall, not the most popular player with his manager by all accounts. Options at full back are restricted by the return to Leeds of loan signing Frazer Richardson, scorer of the winner at Upton Park, and of youngster Brian Wilson who's gone to Cheltenham on loan.

In midfield the form of John Eustace, one of several ex-Coventry men in the side, has lessened the impact of James O'Connor's summer departure to West Brom. He'll probably be partnered in the centre by Darel Russell, who I seem to remember getting gip on his last visit to the Vic with Norwich, although I can't remember what for. Guaranteed a far warmer welcome (thanks again, Sis...) is Richard Johnson. The jury at Stoke seems to be still out pending further evidence... they've either got the best midfielder in the division or, well, a half-fit engine-room ain't much good to anyone, sadly. Whatever, for three years or so at Watford he was the fulcrum of our team, and will doubtless be greeted as such.

In wide positions, the mercurial Peter Hoekstra is the most talented member of the side whenever he's actually fit... his hat-trick saw off Reading, his first goals since a remarkable brace here last season. He'll probably play on the left, his performance last week denying Pulis the option of bringing in a more defensive player as he has done recently. Lewis Neal will probably play on the right, although precocious youngster Kris Commons is another option... Commons has been linked with a transfer-window poaching, with long-time nickers of Stoke's decent players Cardiff one mooted destination.

Up front, Gifton seems to be attracting a few grumbles after his phenomenal start but is still City's joint top scorer with five and can still hold off a herd of stampeding rhino if required. He should also be afforded the official "goodbye" that his abrupt departure denied him (grr). He'll probably be partnered by Ade Akinbiyi, famously not as good as Peter Taylor thought he was but now demonstrating that he's not quite as bad as public opinion has since made out either. Expect lots of energy from a striker enjoying being loved again, who appears to have grown his hair in celebration.

On the bench is serial elbow-waver Carl Asaba, whilst Chris Greenacre remains a little bit of a disappointment having never really repeated his goalscoring feats with Mansfield Town.

An interesting and important fixture then, the first in a patch of calmer water after a difficult recent run of fixtures for the 'orns. And it is winnable, despite City's very recent form... the West Ham result came after eight consecutive away defeats.

Meanwhile, I'll be at a wedding. Which I'm happy about, really. No, I am.

See you at Gillingham...and have a good Christmas.