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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 10/09/05, 3.00pm
Stoke City
versus
Watford
 
White-knuckle Yahtzee
By Matt Rowson

If television is chewing gum for the eyes, Yahtzee is chewing gum for the brain. I hadn't played since I was about ten, I don't think... when, I seem to recall, both parents and grandparents were particularly keen on it as a pursuit that would keep my sister and me quiet, biting lips in nervous calculation until we started arguing about interpretation of rules and so forth as the game drew to a close. For my parents it must have been quite an attractive holiday or Sunday afternoon option, being just about involving enough to avoid being bored senseless whilst retaining enough of an element of chance to dismiss the embarrassment of being beaten by their offspring.

Anyway, some twenty-plus years on Tsega and I were in Germany over the August Bank Holiday and, on the Sunday, waiting for the taxi to show up to take us to the airport (the bloody taxi didn't turn up, by the way, and the company denied all knowledge of our booking - how un-German is that?) we killed some time by playing Yahtzee.

Tsega had never played before, so I obviously passed on the years of experience I'd accumulated during my childhood. Which she willfully ignored. My approach is to roll the five dice, and to thoughtfully study the outcome, cross-reference the possibilities with the gaps I need filling on my scorecard, roughly suss the probabilities involved and only then carefully select a subset of the five to include in the second of my possible three rolls. Tsega, on the other hand, rolls the dice and, unless something jumps straight out, picks them all up and rolls again within a couple of seconds.

Such frivolous abandon was never going to be a recipe for success in a game so fundamentally based upon the laws of probability. My words of caution were clearly unwelcome, however, particularly after the second such recklessness yielded five fours (Yahtzee! - probability of this happening in one roll one in one thousand two hundred and ninety six) on the second roll, followed shortly after by four twos with the fifth showing a two on the final roll. Despite paying no heed to odds or strategy, Tsega took me to the cleaners.

It shouldn't work like that. There should be some reward for careful building, balancing out of risks and benefits, an educated decision. However Division Two is increasingly adopting Tsega's strategy, with several clubs - the Hornets not least - veering towards the more traditionally non-league, "dump one squad and bring in another" approach over the close season. Whilst Cardiff, strong proponents of the approach, have started reassuringly badly, both ourselves and Stoke look far better off than might have been anticipated at the start of the campaign.

In the Potters' case, much of the restrengthening was dragged through the transfer window just before it closed, predominantly with a view to adding to City's attacking options. Most eye-catching amongst these signings is Sambegou Bangoura, signed for an undisclosed club record fee (reportedly of the order of 750,000) from Liege. City's website announced that the powerful Guinean international was delayed with his national squad after the weekend internationals and thus won't join up with his new teammates for the first time until the end of this week; as such, he might be expected to start on the bench on Saturday. Incidentally, the panel that approved Bangoura's work permit included David Fairclough and Chris Waddle. Without wishing for a minute to question Bangoura's right to work in this country... you kinda got to worry about a system that's based on Chris Waddle's judgment. Ask a Burnley fan.

Another attacking signing was Hannes Sigurdsson, signed from Viking Stavanger on loan until January with a view to a permanent deal. His strike rate in Norway, three in nineteen games this season, seems quite modest, but we know too much about Icelandic strikers signed from Norwegian clubs to be quickly dismissive. Labelled as "one for the future", Sigurdsson's involvement at the weekend might at any rate by restricted by an ankle injury.

Another attacking signing, prior to the Bank Holiday fixtures, was Scotsman Paul Gallagher on a year's loan from Blackburn Rovers. Either he or Bangoura is likely to start alongside Malian international Mamady "Big Mama" Sidibe, meaning that three ex-Gillingham strikers are likely to take the field. Sidibe's performances against us always seemed to merit more adulation than the Gills fans ever afforded him, and his work rate has endeared him in his earliest starts for the Potters.

All of which means a peripheral role seems likely for Bruce Dyer, requiring no introduction, who joined Stoke on a year's deal from us in the summer and has so far yet to score from three starts and three sub appearances.

Further extensive rebuilding has taken place in midfield, where Dave Brammer, scorer of a bomb of a goal to beat Luton recently, is the only current fixture to have featured anything like regularly last season. Kevin Harper has returned to fitness and is likely to compete for wide positions with on-loan pair Luke Chadwick, inexplicably popular so far, and Czech Martin Kolar of Anderlecht, who's started slowly but impressed in the win over Norwich. Peter Sweeney, a summer signing from Millwall for whom a tribunal demanded a down payment of 150,000 this week, is out with a back injury. Another Anderlecht loanee Junior (not that one) has been partnering Brammer in the centre although he's a bit stop-start so far, whilst the ever-charming Darel Russell was back in training this week after a recurrence of a hamstring injury and John Eustace as been injured for ever. Versatile youngster Karl Henry could have a place on the bench.

New captain Michael Duberry should partner Belgian international Carl Hoefkens in the centre of defence. City were competing with us for the signing of Clarke Carlisle; with Clint Hill, last season's player-of-the-year, out until Christmas and Marlon Broomes covering a problem position at left back, veteran clogger Gerry Taggart is the first choice cover. Lewis Buxton started the last couple of games at right back; whether he retains his position depends in part on whether want-away fullback John Halls has sorted his situation out following his failure to get a move away by the end of August.

Steve Simonsen is backed up by veteran Ed de Goey in goal... messageboards suggested that former Potter Ben Foster was likely to get a decent reception on his first senior appearance at the Britannia Stadium.

The upcoming glut of fixtures will go some way to testing the robustness of both sides' start to the season. For the Potters in particular, Saturday is likely to be significant in being their first chance to reality-check the expectation heaped upon their new forward line. With Stoke's constipation of last season a thing of the past (only two clean sheets so far!) and our own "Goals For" column a lot more impressive than the "Goals Against", this could be a bit of a game. Given my recent track record in calling the odds however, perhaps we should expect a nil nil draw.

Still, it's bound to be better than the cricket...