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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 10/09/05, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Same old, same old
By Matt Rowson

I'm not going away any more. It's rubbish... nothing ever happens, long trips on dull motorways for predictably stupefyingly humdrum matches. What's the point, eh? What's the point?

Ha ha ha. Only kidding.

One could have been forgiven for interpreting the omens as negative this time, however. Intermittent heavy rain on the way up, traffic on the M1, hold ups on the M6 and on the A50 scuppering whichever approach one chose to make. We had, as ever, permitted a wide margin for such eventualities; as such the big prang at Uttoxeter on the A50 was avoided by a long but inconsequential country detour during which nothing more permanent than a camper van obstructed our progress. Incidentally, The Driver's technique of sounding a cheerful parp-parp of the horn to acknowledge the van finally pulling over to clear the queue behind it accompanied by a torrent of verbal abuse directed at same miscreant but within the confines of the car is something I might have to master, combining as it does the exterior appearance of someone good-natured and reasonable with the necessary facility to let off steam.

Dad wasn't so lucky; his approach, invariably involving trying to time arrival for 2.55, is prone to such mishaps and his resolve to make the game rather than turning around and heading home wavered more than once. At 3.20ish, however, he had found his seat looking tired and stretched by the journey and evidently wondering why he'd bothered. But only briefly...

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Watford started the game with Jordan Stewart at left-back and Lloyd Doyley dropping to the bench; the fit-again Paul Devlin coming in for Al Bangura was the other personnel change from Derby, and we reverted to a more conventional 4-4-2, albeit with Ashley Young tending to sit slightly deeper than Marlon King.

Watford's away performances to date (eight goals in three games before today) combined with Stoke's form and recent Colinesque investment in their forward line (albeit that the main man, Sambegou Bangoura, is missing from the sixteen) suggested an open game with plenty of goalmouth incident. This suspicion is confirmed within the first two minutes; Paul Devlin gallops down the right and sends a deep cross to the far post that Simonsen palms away at a stretch. From this, Stoke break in numbers and charge downfield towards us like a marauding invading army. A tone is set.

For the fifteen minutes or so, we're very much having the best of it. Anthony McNamee dawdles on the right flank following a corner, retains possession until James Chambers bombs past on the overlap then slips him in; Chambers squares back to King whose shot is blocked. Still within the first ten minutes, Ashley Young whips in an in-swinging free kick from the left and Mamady Sidibe dives in ahead of Malky Mackay's outstretched toe to head wide and clear for another corner.

The confrontation between Sidibe and Mackay is a dominant feature of Stoke's early attempts to regain the initiative. When you're a lone striker and your team's under pressure you really need to be able to hold the ball up and dominate your marker(s)... unfortunately for big Mama, particularly during this early spell, Mackay is in an ungenerous mood and batters the Malian striker at every suggestion of possession. This is never more crucial than when a gap appears to open up for the still isolated Sidibe on the left of the area, only for Mackay's, um, presence to knock him off his stride and he scuffs weakly to the Watford keeper.

Dad arrives just as Martin Kolar, Stoke's Czech winger, attempts a dragback on the flank in an attempt to prize an opening but drags back into touch. Arriving late at a game is always a bit disorientating: like missing the first twenty minutes of a film, you spend a fair while just trying to work out what's going on, and never quite feel into it as you might do had you caught the whole thing. Fortunately for Dad, we score a goal and the whole game changes leaving him as much at sea as everyone else.

It starts from a throw in down the left, from which the ball is played down the flank to the foraging King, a much more mobile and menacing leader of the line than Sidibe down the other end. He holds off his man and lays back to McNamee, whose left foot has one of its magic dust moments; the cross is evil and perfect, deep and arcing and undefendable; Paul Devlin arrives at a gallop, gets past his marker and doesn't need to break stride as he thumps a header past Simonsen. A fabulous goal.

Stoke come straight back at us, and there's unusual clumsiness in the box as a ball remains inexplicably uncleared. Matthew Spring finally siezes on it, but scuffs a ball that needed to be clouted. It falls to Lewis Buxton on the edge of the box, and the right back crashes a shot back off the woodwork. Watford break upfield and James Chambers gallops forward on the overlap again before crashing a shot into the side netting.

The tide has turned, though. Stoke press forward and stretch the play the width of the pitch with Harper and Kolar hugging the touchlines, but we contribute to our own problems and suddenly seem sluggish. Betty is later to comment that we are able to sort out some tactical issues at half time, and certainly the home side are never to be on top after the break, but there's nothing tactical about allowing Sidibe the time to bring the ball down on the edge of the box. A better placed or more fiercely struck shot might have had Stoke back on level terms; as it is, Foster is able to get across to the low shot and hold it down to his right.

Chadwick's ball from the right finds its way across to Kolar in space on the opposite flank, but he drills the ball across the face and wide; he should have scored. After more ponderous defending Kolar has another glimpse of light from a more central position, but Chambers dives in for a saving block.

Stewart picks up a booking for curtailing a Stoke counter-attack after a now rare Watford foray; from the free kick Foster and Spring don't communicate and Brammer lays off for Junior to drive a shot in from an angle that Foster does well to push around the post. From the post-corner chaos the ball loops out by the far post with Luke Chadwick scavenging.

Watford gain a corner on the right, from which the ball is allowed to bounce in the box amidst nervous anger from the home stands, but Stoke break again, a move that sees Kolar again curl the ball around the post with Foster covering to his left. The half closes with Foster alert to a Stoke break and charging out of his area to cut off a foray. An impressive half for the former Stoke keeper, he's looked as assured as at any time this season, but we're lucky to still be ahead as the whistle goes.

I vaguely remember a Roy of the Rovers-y strip cartoon from when I was a kid... an alien football team think that they may have developed a magic potion that empowers the drinker with fantastic football skills with a view to winning the "Intergalactic Cup" (next season's title for the League Cup, perhaps?). They test this potion on an earth boy, the footballingly challenged Tommy Brown (or whoever), by dosing his chewing gum with it. At this point he becomes a world beater and propels his team to the local cup final, at which point the potion wears off and he starts air kicking and tripping himself up again, and so forth.

At the start of the second half, Watford attack down the right and retain possession through training-ground sharp, short passing and good movement. We gradually make our way to the right touchline, where Matthew Spring is faced with Marlon Broomes and Luke Chadwick. He jockeys, shimmies, rolls the ball under his foot... and then, as if his chewing gum just ran out, falls over backwards and slices the ball into touch.

Stoke attack... Sidibe heads comfortably over from a left wing cross, then Kolar cuts between two defenders before drilling straight at Foster's head. However, City are never able to recreate their first half pressure and the Hornets sound a warning call eight minutes in. McNamee has the ball on the left and whips in another merciless cross... near post this time, and Simonsen is brave and accurate to get his glove to the ball before Young can jab it in.

A key factor in both our protecting our lead in the first half and wrestling back the impetus in the second is Dom Blizzard... a foot in here, an interception-and-lay-off there, breaking up City's play. He gets a chant for the first time that grows in volume as the half develops... "...he's better than Frank Lampard, he's harder than Steve Gerrard, oh Blizz-ah-ard Blizz-ard...". A little tongue-in-cheek, but certainly Dom's showing this afternoon outstrips the more illustrious namechecks' combined efforts in Belfast on Wednesday. He nearly crowns the performance, his best of the season, with a goal too... yet more foraging by King opens up Stoke down the right, he squares for Young who fools his marker and dummies to let Blizzard in. Dom sidesteps the first challenge and is through for a clean shot on goal, but Broomes swoops in with a fine block to ruin the moment.

Kolar shoots wide for the umpteenth time; perhaps we should stop marking him altogether. On the hour, Stoke bring on Paul Gallagher for Kevin Harper, and in so doing inject a bit of pace into their forward line that hasn't been evident up to this point; you fear that this move could sway things back their way. It doesn't have a chance to, everything's about to get a bit silly again...

Marlon King has a reasonable penalty shout turned down on the basis that his opponents' six was pretty much counterbalanced by his own half-dozen; Stoke attack down the right and slam in a quick but aimless ball across the box. There's nobody there but James Chambers, and we briefly fear a Djimi Traore moment as Chambers is a little ungainly in getting the ball under control.

He does, though, and we break quickly again; Ashley Young's flame has burned with increasing ferocity as the game has gone on, and Michael Duberry hacks him down on the edge of the box picking up a yellow in the process, not quite far enough behind Carl Hoefkens to be the last man. Young and McNamee line up the free kick, but we're treated to some wonderful theatrics as the thing is lined up. I've been accused in some quarters of not giving our new manager his dues, so let me just emphasise that if this was a training ground manouevre, it was pure genius...

City line up a two man wall on the left corner of the area as we attack with the free kick lined up beyond them. Clarke Carlisle decides that he wants to be involved, and provokes no small degree of irritation by trying to wedge himself between, alongside, or in the centre of this two man wall. The referee impatiently advises the three involved to stop arsing about, and Marlon King drags Carlisle aside, ostensibly telling him to calm it. At which point, with a sudden snap of focus, Carlisle sets off on a sprint along the edge of the area. As Ashley Young runs up to take the kick Carlisle is bombing into the far post. Everyone in the Watford stand behind the goal has one eye on Carlisle, still without a marker, and no doubt Simonsen has half an eye on him too but when the ball comes in it's not looking for Carlisle, but fooling the keeper into letting it bounce in front of him and into the net, just as the decoy arrives grinning at the far post. In the stand, there is bedlam.

Stoke charge upfield from the off, reinvigorated. Twice within the same melee they appeal for a penalty; it's impossible to judge the validity of these claims from our distance, coming as they do from congested argy-bargy rather than late tackles, but the unrewarded claims fuel an air of injustice that is to last beyond the end of the match and kinda glosses over Mr.Miller's pernickity favouring of the home side during their first half spell.

From the last of these appeals, Watford break again. Marlon King - who would trap a ball dead if you fired it at him out of a cannon from six yards - seizes the ball on the right flank and drags his marker off... before a perfectly timed ball feeds Ashley Young galloping down the centre. Now we know Young is quick. And we know he's absolutely bombing down the centre of the pitch towards us. And yet the few seconds this takes seems to last hours...

Young is past Simonsen, and the covering Broomes, and then (as time speeds up to normal again) is on the floor.

At the time, there was no doubt in my mind that there was contact. Simonsen has since strenuously denied it, and the TV replay would permit you to decide either way, in all honesty. I'm swayed towards supporting the ref's decision simply by virtue of the fact that, past the keeper and with the ball under control, all Young had to do was tap into an empty net - why risk the uncertainty of a penalty, even with a ten-man opposition?

Whatever. Simonsen saw red for a professional foul, and Ed de Goey - the most Dutch-looking man in the world - trotted on for Kolar to face the spot kick. Through all of this, Marlon had the ball on the spot and was staring into space, the memory of the missed kick in similar circumstances at Derby (our most recent game, though it seems months ago) in a few minds in the stand even if he'd blocked it out. After the furore had died down, with shoulders hunched forward over the ball, King drove the kick fiercely under the keeper's dive to his right, then reeled off to take his applause - just reward for another fine performance from the striker.

When you're three down at home and down to ten men, the last thing you really need is Hameur Bouazza charging around after lost causes, so a few grins were widened in the away end when the young Frenchman was introduced for Jordan Stewart - Doyley was already in for Devlin at right back, Chambers now on the left and Young wide in midfield. Bouazza had one of his more effective games here, twice digging out chances through pace and persistence, once for King to drive wide, another time for James Chambers to clout a shot inches past the top corner after the slenderest of deflections.

Otherwise, we played the man advantage perfectly, passing the ball around calmly and not giving Stoke a sniff. Bruce Dyer came on for an ovation from the away end - oh, that he'd been as highly regarded in a yellow shirt - for a bit of thankless charging around up front for Stoke. Marlon King, evidently thoroughly enjoying himself, milked adulation from the stand above him with a few comedy grins. Another ovation for Dom Blizzard, replaced by Al Bangura. And the game ended.

A fine win against a decent side, albeit one that needs a cutting edge. That makes three of the last four league games in which "contentious" decisions have gone in our favour. Without rehashing the ins and outs of any of them - already discussed - what this points towards is not us benefitting unduly from the vagaries of refereeing decisions, but all the old stuff about buying tickets, winning raffles and so forth. The fact is, we're playing counter-attacking football with pace all over the pitch. It's thrilling to watch, a bugger to play against, and is going to provoke situations such as these when defenders - and, perhaps, referees - have to make decisions under pressure. Refs are under pressure not because we're conning anybody, but because we're playing football that provokes such situations. It's no coincidence that we've deserved to win all three games.

In writing previews for BSaD I've come across enough messageboards which, in the light of a couple of wins, cite Champions' League (sic) football as a mere formality away. So here's the "but", the safety belt on the aftermath yet another exhilarating away trip... our football is suited to playing away from home, absolutely perfect for counter-attacking. We now have three home games in a week against strong-looking sides. It'll be harder to be restrained if we profit from those in similar fashion to our recent away trips.

Still. Bring 'em on.