What we didn't need...
By Ash Peters
Given that we had to play a fixture on the Saturday after the cup heroics, I don't know who I'd have rather we faced. A weak, but attacking side, short on confidence, short on aerial ability, yet suicidally adventurous when in the lead. There's not many of them about. Those are not, er, typical characteristics of sides in this division; more to the point, they are completely the reverse of how Stoke play. And they have Gifton Noel-Williams, a former player and thus guaranteed to play well against us. So it was easy to be negative about this game, with the likelihood of a Lord Mayor's After Party very slim, and the home support mainly concerned with singing about future trips to Anfield or even farther away. It's rarely a chore, though, watching this Watford team, and it took a long time to rule out the possibility of another great result in this most gratifying of seasons to be supporting them.
So it was that early promise swelled my optimism once more. With Young and Darlington on the left, Chambers and Doyley on the right, this might not have been our strongest line up on the wings, but it was certainly our most wing-y, if you will, our least likely to find itself without wide outlets. There was decent interplay and understanding in the first exchanges, as we forced a succession of corners, free kicks and other good crossing positions. Inside the first ten minutes, Dyer had headed over from an excellent Doyley cross, Young had had a couple of chances to put the ball over, and Dyer again chased down a back pass from centre back Wayne Thomas to keep Simonsen on his toes.
Things looked promising, Chambers very lively and Mahon keen to swing the ball wide whenever possible. Whether enforced by restings and suspensions or designed for this particular opposition anyway, the emphasis on width seemed well suited to tackling the problems Stoke's generally defensive outlook posed. Chambers sliced wide from a Dyche free kick, then Young forced Simonsen to catch the ball on what must have been the very perimeter of his area. The left winger then broke in midfield, and sped the ball across to Doyley, keen to take on the left back. Simonsen saved his own defender's glancing header from the resultant cross. Stoke showed little more than glimpses of attacking interest in the first twenty minutes, Gifton pulled up for offside and Lee rushing to collect a lofted through ball from the feet of Akinbiyi.
Then, just when it appeared the greatest test might be of our hunger for the three points, came the pivotal spell in which Stoke secured the win. The stout figure of Dave Brammer began to exert influence on the midfield, and the front pairing cause their familiar problems to our defence. Helguson was called into action in his own penalty area, clearing for a corner which Noel-Williams headed against the post, although Lee had been fouled as the ball came across. Russell's right wing through ball again demanded action from the young keeper, to foil Akinbiyi. It's perfectly possible that weathering this storm might have taken the sting permanently out of Stoke's game, but we could not manage it. The failure to clear a Clarke corner gave both Duberry and Thomas the chance to swing the ball back over from alternate sides, and eventually Akinbiyi headed down for Noel-Williams to turn and coolly slide it past Lee.
For a spell, Stoke were merely emboldened by this advantage and came at the unsteady Watford defence even more. Akinbiyi stayed on his feet admirably when Dyche missed a tackle in the area that would surely have constituted a penalty otherwise; as it was, Lee could claim. Noel-Williams, excellent with his back to goal as ever and not giving away anything like the amount of free kicks he used to be called for, caused some degree of panic in the goal mouth. Meanwhile, our more sporadic attacks now ended with groan-worthy goal attempts or Young free kicks that just couldn't quite utilise the Ardley radar. It dawned that whilst the commitment to touchline-hugging running that Young brings to our left side is welcome, without Ardley we lack the dead ball excellence to take advantage of it.
The less welcome aspects of the typical Tony Pulis side made themselves obvious, both Icelandic internationals being quite viciously fouled in the last quarter hour of the half. Perhaps the Stoke veterans were just upset at seeing players from that country on the opposing team, not theirs...Chambers found Gunnarsson on the right hand edge of the box to set up Helguson for a far post header, but it was our last chance of the half and a pattern of frustrating our play, determined commitment and stern tackling had been set by the visitors as the whistle went.
Reflecting on things at half-time, any prediction you'd be likely to make would have been proved accurate enough. With only semi-fit or inexperienced options on the bench, and things going entirely to plan for the away side, could we break down a team totally committed to the maintaining of the scoreline, this being our fourth game of the previous fortnight? Maybe we've had enough pleasant surprises already this season.
Leaving his area, Lee headed out Duberry's long clearance a few minutes into the second half; he could then have settled down with the rest of us to watch increasingly frustrated as we singularly failed to break down the away side. Devlin was quickly introduced, surprisingly for Doyley who I felt had had another really good game; not perfect with his passing but sure in defence and surprisingly useful from crossing positions. Chambers moving to right back signalled our attacking intentions; if they genuinely thought he was a defender, maybe that's why West Brom let him go. Immediately involved, Devlin tried a one-two with Dyer who instead turned and shot; the Scotsman's familiar outburst at his team-mate stirred the crowd a little, although Helguson flicked the subsequent corner over the bar from an acute angle. The clock by the Rookery disabled enclosure failed to start, meaning both that the half seemed to go on forever and that I didn't get to put accurate timing on the rest of my notes.
Gavin Mahon, the best of a somewhat lethargic bunch by this stage, broke through only to appear to be tugged back; like Akinbiyi in the first half, he earnestly struggled on, only to shoot over. The referee gave Stoke a free kick in midfield, to massively ironic cheers from the away support. This puzzled me greatly; I would have thought his lenience in not booking members of their team despite frequent opportunities would have endeared him to them, but maybe I was just getting bitter as our league form took a turn for the worse.
Stoke quickly identified Devlin's threat and regularly crowded him out, our earlier wing dominance now reduced to the rare breakthrough that never quite made time for the key cross. Young lobbed a nice ball over to Dyer, who, looking very tired, couldn't keep it on. Wayne Thomas failed to endear himself to the Rookery with a tirade at the linesman for failing to give offside. Darlington took a pot shot of the kind the home fans have always shouted for; mental note: he is no Richard Johnson. Young, fresher than his team-mates after mostly substitute appearances recently, burst past Russell only to be scythed down; finally, the referee took a Stoke name down. From a Devlin corner, Jay Demerit made a great run across the box and headed narrowly over. (Any Americans reading this report for news of their compatriot might like to note that his movement had made him, as they say in your type of football, 'WIIIIDE OPEN'. And he had a pretty good game all round.)
Stoke were undoubtedly defensive, for the rest of the game; but I don't mean to criticise them by saying that, or brush over our deficiencies. We sprayed the ball form side to side, nearly always choosing the best option and rarely a particularly defensive one; but we lacked to movement to break down their dogged, committed team. It may be less than beautiful for the neutral spectator, but I know that when I see one of our strikers prepared to play as a virtual left back for several minutes, selflessly helping the team achieve an away win as Noel-Williams did, it's no less than heartening.
Fitzgerald came on for Dyer, his ceaseless running less suited to this type of game than a more open contest, and managed no better than a half chance from a Helguson knock-down. Brammer, now on a different script to his earlier probing attacking menace, chopped down Helguson in the centre circle to earn another yellow card. Simonsen, who has apparently taken De Goey's place in goal for Stoke by copying his haircut, began mild time-wasting procedure. Darlington drew a good save from him with a low shot across goal from the left side, but by this point those in the stands knew the writing was on the wall even as the team battled on. As it became evidently pointless to sign triumphant League Cup songs, we turned our attention to Thomas, in pantomime villain role, on a mission to get himself booked in which he staggeringly failed.
Gayle, on for Young, in left wing/emergency striker mode, had nice touches but not quite the required sense of urgency. Demerit soon joined the troops up front (it's kind of like a Powerplay in the NHL, boys), but still Stoke could cope with us, only a powerful right wing cross that Fitzgerald only deflected out of play causing them real trouble. Pulis brought on Greenacre for Asaba, and playing both of those two once promising strikers at right wing shows some sense of adventure, I suppose, and when Halls set up Russell to blast over from fifteen yards it probably stood as the best chance of the half.
This was an excellent, when not brutal, away performance by Stoke tailor-made to bring us down to earth and sap already tired muscles. The fact that we need home wins quite urgently now, as we slip from the fringes of the play off race to meet the lower half of the table just as the games start to pile up, does not stop me being optimistic about the team. We weren't unlucky here but we never gave up, we know we have the talent and the application, and an honest and committed team well worthy of our support. There are six more league games before Anfield...and right now they matter a lot more.