Just one game
By Matt Rowson
For goodness' sake, it's only Stoke away.
I mean, it's not as if it's a glamorous tie, one that leaps out of the fixture list at the start of the season (for either set of supporters). Nor is there anything particularly wrong with Stoke City that a healthy dose of a decent laxative wouldn't sort out.
But really. Stoke. Not exciting. Not special. And just one game. Big deal.
I didn't expect it to be remotely relevant when we booked the holiday. Holidays during the football season are best avoided on principle, of course, particularly as the annual weekend break to celebrate our wedding anniversary traditionally wipes out the August Bank Holiday as it is. But I took a long, (reasonably) dispassionate look at the state of play in February, decided that we really weren't going to make the play-offs, however much I tempted fate by writing off the last away trip of the regular season. The game wasn't going to be relevant, and so the attraction of Cyprus in May, before excessive hotness and larger numbers of people take over, won out.
Ho hum. But still. Only Stoke. Only one game. And yet... much as I'm looking forward to Cyprus, a week with Tsega away from work and computers... drinking beer, sitting around on the beach reading and so forth...
You know what I'm saying. Come three o'clock on Saturday (UK time), I'm going to be restless. I won't say anything but Tsega will note a distracted air and know, and roll her eyes. For goodness' sake it's one bloody game...
What's my life come to if football is a habit, a compulsion, an itch to be scratched on a regular basis rather than merely (ha) entertainment. I've been to Stoke City four times - two defeats at the Victoria Ground, including the worst performance I saw Kevin Phillips turn in in a Watford shirt, and a win and a defeat at the new place. None of them have been life-changing experiences. Nor will Saturday. Would Saturday. I know this!
On the face of it, our hosts on Saturday are kind of ideal from our point of view... very comfortably mid-table with little to play for beyond a clarion final home performance of the season. They've got over the appalling constipation of earlier in the season which saw seventeen (seventeen!) consecutive Stoke League games feature no more than one goal between October and February... indeed, they've only kept two clean sheets in eight and have lost three of the last four at home.
Developments this week, however, have thrown the whole thing up in the air, and the consequences for Saturday are difficult to predict. At the beginning of the week Magnús Kristiansson, head of the Icelandic consortium that owns Stoke City, was quoted as saying that he wasn't going to put any more money into the club whilst Tony Pulis was in charge. More recent developments have seen club chairman Gunnar Þor Gislason explain that Kristiansson's chief concern is the general absence of Icelandic players in the City side - a previously regular feature since they recruited Boris in 1999. The rumours linking Stoke with a pre-deadline approach for H would appear to dovetail with that quite well... but the immediate upshot would appear to be that the Icelandic consortium have put their majority stakeholding up for sale. Whilst they have issued assurances that the manager will continue to be backed in the meantime, the push on the Premiership (not Premier, not a Ship) that many were hoping for next season looks unlikely. Perhaps symbolic that City will debut their new black away strip on Saturday.
Steve Simonsen will be in goal for City; now twenty-six, he's enjoying his first prolonged first-team run since before his six-year benchwarming exercise at Everton. Veteran Ed de Goey, perhaps the most Dutch looking man in the world, will be on the bench.
Problems at the back, where injuries to key players have dented City's previously exemplary defensive record. First-choice full backs John Halls and Clint Hill are both out for the remainder of the season with back and cruciate ligament injuries respectively. Former Pompey man Lewis Buxton has been a nervy looking stand-in at right back but he too now has an injury, leaving midfielder and England U21 international Karl Henry to step in with another sometime midfielder Clive Clarke at left back. With Wayne Thomas also out with knee ligament trouble, too wily old bastards in the middle of defence in Gerry Taggart and Michael Duberry, who somehow isn't thirty until October... left-sided youngster Carl Dickinson is likely to be the cover on the bench.
In midfield too the centre is strong, but injuries limit the options in a squad that isn't strong on width in any case. Dave Brammer and Darel Russell form an aggressive pairing in the centre with John Eustace out injured; Lewis Neal and Chris Greenacre are likely to play out wide. Greenacre has already revealed that his contract isn't being renewed, something which has been met with scant sympathy on the Potters' messageboards. Kevin Harper (ankle and hamstring) and Thordur Gudjonsson, son of former manager Gudjon Thordarsson and brother of both Plymouth's Bjarni and Leicester's Joey, has had a groin problem. Chris Clark, on loan from Pompey, has been on the bench.
Up front, Akinbiyi's departure has increased the focus upon Gifton, who has risen to the task with seven goals in his last ten games and some convincing performances, albeit perhaps motivated by uncertainty over his contract which expires in the summer. He should be partnered by another loanee, Southampton's Kenwyne Jones, who was famously much admired by Ray Lewington. Michael Ricketts' quite remarkable descent since his England cap against Holland in 2002 now finds him on the bench whilst on loan from Leeds. He hasn't scored a League goal since January 2004. Seventeen year old Carl Dickinson has also been on the bench recently, Carl Asaba missing presumed injured, not that anyone seems too fussed.
A critical game, potentially, although half an ear might be on Ipswich and Coventry where favourable results could confirm our survival irrespective of our result - Coventry and Crewe meet on the last day of the season.
By which time, I'll be back.