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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 04/12/04, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Bad news
By Jon Marks

I've had better weeks.

The last working week began with the news that's been a possibility for a while. Finally, confirmation that part of the business is to be sold off with the inevitable job losses to accompany it. Fine, I can cope with that as I anticipated it.

Then the realisation that I will probably be one of those that will end up being part of the cull along with a couple of really good friends hits home. Happy Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Birthday all rolled into one, then; the thought of having to find a new job, possibly within weeks, of leaving somewhere which is a great place to work and missing the friends that you have there is a hell of a scary one. "Get networking," people say, "tell everyone you know, get your CV up to date!", and this is all before I even have a date confirmed for when I will be leaving.

Uncertainty rules for the next few days as all those close to you want to know what's happening, worried about the timing and Christmas, and promises of who will help with what rain in. Which is great, but not exactly what I need or want to hear - all I want to know is whether I can keep the job I really like for as long as possible! And if I can't, then what the hell am I going to do?! It's not just having to get a new job that is worrying me, it is all that goes with it - what will the journey be like? Will the people be nice and friendly? Will the job be interesting? Will there be prospects? Will it pay me enough (like I am expensive!)? Will I find anything that I actually like as I don't actually know what I want to do?!

A close friend agrees a leaving date, again not totally unexpected but still a huge shock that she will actually be leaving. Reality really is beginning to set in now. She will go on to bigger and better things but it is still sad to know she will not be around. She is sad too but it probably gives me the kick up the backside I need to get myself together and start thinking straight and to start thinking about getting a new job rather than trying to bury my head in the sand and hope all this disappears like a bad dream.

I am now thinking a lot more positively a few days later, especially with my friend and I motivating each other, and you begin to see that the current place isn't going to be the place it once was and if there is a time to leave, then this is probably the best time as it won't be the same again. With the probability of a couple of months at least to find a new job, Mrs M is happier too and perhaps this is the chance to turn this into a real opportunity to do something new and exciting, maybe even with the added bonus of more money, more prospects, more fun, too? Hey, it isn't that bad is it, after all then? Worse things happen in life - like games against Stoke.

Before any Stoke fans think about ripping my head off, that is a compliment by the way! There are not many teams in Division Two that relish playing a Tony Pulis side and this current Stoke outfit is no different. The clubs may change but the characteristics don't and you don't get a job with Pulis unless you are up for a battle, prepared to get stuck in, and at least six feet tall.

However, credit where credit is due and the Potters came out of the traps well in this campaign and found themselves at the top of an early League table. However, they have fallen away in recent weeks, not least due to the dreaded mixture of small squad, injuries and suspensions, and Saturday's home defeat to Sunderland was the third 1-0 defeat in the last five games and they have won just twice in their last thirteen outings, having won five of their first eight. The high point of their season was an impressive 3-2 success over current leaders Ipswich in mid-September which put Stoke on top of the table for four days.

Stoke's away form shows a return of just one win, achieved at Cardiff early on, six draws and only three defeats which suggests a dogged approach to away games. They have scored just five goals on their travels so far this campaign and three of those draws have been goalless. In fact, they have only scored once in their last five outings home or away, although it was a popular one as it gave them three points at home to Crewe, thanks to a Gifton header, which was their first derby win over their Gresty Road rivals for thirteen years.

There is competition for a place in goal with Steve Simonsen retaining his place at the weekend following two impressive performances recently. He joined on a free transfer from Everton in the summer. Highly rated as a teenager at Tranmere, he moved across the Mersey but did not get the opportunities to establish himself above higher profile signings. He has been on the bench as cover for Ed De Goey until the veteran stopper picked up a leg injury at Reading last month.

Stoke don't concede many goals, but then tough, uncompromising defenders don't tend to want to give anything away, as we know with our current skipper, and Stoke have an embarrassment of riches in this department. At the heart of their back four last weekend were Michael Duberry, currently on a three month loan from Leeds and still trying to re-build his career after his life in Yorkshire turned sour thanks to Messrs Bowyer and Woodgate, and Wayne Thomas who has been almost ever present for the Potters back-line for the last four years. At the end of his first season, he was the only Stoke player to receive any of the Player of the Year awards other than a certain Brynjar Gunnarsson, who ran away with almost everything on offer. Other options would include king of uncompromising defenders, Gerry Taggart, who scored the Potters' first goal in the corresponding fixture last season but he is out until the New Year following an ankle operation. Former Arsenal youngster John Halls is likely to be at right-back having successfully returned from injury for the Sunderland game. Halls was somewhat unfortunate to see red here last December after reacting to a wild challenge from Heidar, although the suspension was successfully overturned on appeal. Clint Hill switched to left-back against Sunderland to compensate for Halls' return, although he was rushed back early following a back injury. Marcus Hall, another of England's potential left-side problem solvers in his Coventry days, is sidelined with a knee injury, although could be pressed into service if the injections keep working. Paul Williams, signed from Southampton after spells at Derby and Coventry has not featured this term.

In midfield, Stoke fielded former Mansfield hot-shot Chris Greenacre wide on the right and he was credited with their only shot of note last weekend. However, he was suffering from a virus and could only manage just over an hour. In the middle, ex-Crewe man Dave Brammer is likely to be partnered by Darel Russell, who effectively ended Jack Smith's season last March at the Britannia Stadium with a nasty challenge. Club captain and current longest serving player Clive Clarke will fill the final midfield berth on the left hand side. Young Canadian Jay Denny has made good progress and was on the bench last week. Other options include Lewis Neal, regarded as the best crosser at the club, ex-Coventry man John Eustace, who hopes to return to the bench this weekend following an absence of nearly ten months with a groin injury, and Karl Henry.

Up front, Ade Akinbiyi will return to the side following a one-game suspension last weekend which forced him to miss the Sunderland defeat. Much maligned in his Leicester days, he has regained his confidence and form under the stewardship of Pulis and continued his good scoring record against us with three in the two games last term. Gifton has been his regular strike partner this season and they have been an awkward partnership to deal with; however, our former favourite has lacked goals ever since that fateful coming together with Paul Butler. He currently has three this season although he did register against us last term. He has revealed how settled he feels at the Britannia in the lead up to this game and hopes to extend his stay with the Potters beyond the end of his current contract, which expires in the summer. An affectionate welcome back is guaranteed for GNW. Carl Asaba replaced Akinbiyi at the weekend but he has not been able to reproduce his sparkling Brentford days in the Potteries. Highly rated teenager Jermaine Palmer is likely to be on the bench.

May the Cup hangovers be long and enjoyable...but this is the first of two consecutive home games against sides below us in the table. Whether your cup is half full and we have lost just once in the last eleven League games, or is half-empty and we have won just once in the last thirteen, we really need to start winning league games at home. Six points in the next seven days will set us up nicely for the Christmas programme and give us real hope of reaching the magical fifty-plus points total with plenty to spare so that we can enjoy the Cup semi-final from the comfort of mid-table or above. This squad has responded magnificently so far this term, let's see if we can take it on again and render those pre-season relegation fears redundant.

Bring it on!