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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 14/01/06, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Get on with it
By Matt Rowson

Regular readers of BSaD will probably be aware that Eastenders is, on the whole, approved of round these parts. Not, perhaps, the most challenging of televisual options, but adequate distraction and just about interesting enough to avert boredom without being too taxing after another f***wit-dodging trip down the M1.

One tiring aspect of watching the show, however, is the interminable dragging out of storylines whose destiny has been painfully clear since their introduction. The soap-opera equivalent of padding... a thread bubbles along occupying a number of characters whilst immediate events transpire elsewhere on Albert Square, an awkward five minutes is filled with it here, a shortage of ideas papered over there. And, much as you don't want "Bic storylines" so beloved of many soaps, you're sitting rolling your eyes thinking "just sodding get on with it...".

There is a touch of this pervading the Britannia Stadium at the moment, which hasn't been the most stable of environments since Tony Pulis' summer dismissal. Former Dutch international Johan Boskamp was quickly appointed as his deputy and his side, as we witnessed earlier in the season, has become much easier on the eye... if remaining a little unconvincing in front of goal, and fallible at the back. Boskamp, in fact, comes across as the anti-Pulis, as ineffectively flamboyant as Pulis was pragmatically dull.

Increasingly, however, Boskamp comes across as a loose cannon. I'm reminded of the classic spoof news item from "The Day Today", whereby Broxbourne police had (apparently) adopted the Home Secretary's newly devised method for dealing with neighbourhood noise. "Noisy people have been a problem in Broxbourne for years, but now if the police receive more than five complaints against a single household, they just turn up and release a tiger through the front door. So far, they say the Home Secretary's new measures have been 100% successful".

Successful at shaking things up a bit, yes. Conducive to long-term stability, perhaps not. The "feud" between Boskamp and City's Director of Football John Rudge takes a bit of getting to the bottom of, spoken of as it is on City's messageboards amongst people who have been ensconsed in this nonsense for weeks and hence are already aware of the state of play. But it would appear that during Stoke's victory at Coventry (still the worst side I've seen this season, by the way, albeit they're one of only two to beat us on our travels) Rudge made the mistake of passing tactical advice to Boskamp through Boskamp's assistant, Jan de Koenig. Boskamp threw a hissy fit at this subversive behaviour, and appears to persist in his insistence that either both Rudge and de Koenig are sacked, or he walks.

Normally, one's inclination would be to side with any manager who has to operate under the gaze of a Director of Football, particularly one who didn't arrive as part of the same package. From our distance, however, Rudge has always seemed a fairly decent sort; given that both he and de Koenig, who was selected by Boskamp, have apologised for their behaviour, the Dutchman's ongoing tantrum smacks of a child who's been allowed to stay up for longer than was strictly advisable. Boskamp's contract, it has recently emerged, is up in the summer. It seems unlikely that he'll be there any longer than that if he makes it that long, and as we and many others have learned in recent years, a club led by a soon-to-depart manager is rarely one where too many guts are busted. That a poll on The Oatcake comes down in favour of the manager will, one suspects, be in part influenced by Rudge's Port Vale history some seven years after he moved across the Potteries.

Re-enforcing the picture of Boskamp as the anti-Pulis, Stoke's imbalanced squad is now dominated not by centrebacks but by wingers (of varying degrees of flakiness), whereas certain other areas of the squad, not least a bit of welly in the centre of midfield, are severely lacking. Luke Chadwick, who played in a role behind the main striker when we played at Stoke in September, is likely to line up on the right flank having recently made his move from West Ham permanent. Chadwick confirms on City's official site that West Ham had also accepted an offer from ourselves, but the winger chose to extend his stay in the Potteries rather than return to Vicarage Road where he was on the books as a youngster. A talented player, his relative shortage of pace has limited his effectiveness on the flank, whilst messageboards occasionally bemoan a lack of delivery.

Finn Peter Kopteff is likely to line up on the left; signed on a free from Norway last month, he's still short of match fitness and was bullied out of City's feeble cup performance against Tamworth, but has been talked up by his manager. Martin Kolar, who flitted around distractingly during our game at Stoke, is out of favour although definitively not on his way back to Anderlecht according to Boskamp on Stoke's Official Site. "He just needs to get his attitude right", he says encouragingly.

Former Millwall winger Peter Sweeney, who scored against us in our memorably awful 4-0 defeat at the New Den four years ago, is likely to be on the bench having missed much of the season with a back injury. The much travelled Kevin Harper, another to have been linked with us in the past, is a feistier, more direct wide option whilst strikers Hannes Sigurdsson and Paul Gallagher have also been employed wide on the left.

In the centre of midfield options appear to be more restricted. With John Eustace a long-term absentee, Dave Brammer and the charming Darel Russell are pretty much unchallenged, but Russell picked up a knee injury in training on Wednesday and is a doubt; if missing then Brazilian Junior (not that one) could get a start. Another loanee from Anderlecht, the locals seem no more convinced than they were earlier in the season. Karl Henry would be another option.

Options are also limited at fullback; City have been missing a left back since the summer depature of Clive Clarke and an(other) injury picked up by Clint Hill (who I'm sure used to be a centreback anyway), a veteran of our memorable Easter Saturday 1999 scrap with Tranmere. Marlon Broomes has been a largely unsuccessful shoe-in at left back, with the right-sided Lewis Buxton trying his hand more recently. Not that things are any tidier on the right, with wantaway John Halls out with a hamstring injury either Broomes or midfielder Henry are likely to hold the fort here. Things are clearer in the centre, where captain Mike Duberry should return from a one-match ban to partner Belgian Carl Hoefkens a "cultured" (i.e. batterable) centreback. Gerry Taggart is still around, but described as a "coach" on City's official site.

In goal Steve Simonsen, red carded at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season, holds sway over Dutch veteran Ed de Goey.

Up front (we haven't done that yet...) key man Sambegou Bangoura is likely to be absent, with Johan Boskamp having seemingly failed to persuade the Guinean FA to release him from African Cup of Nations training. Bangoura has eight in thirteen since his 750,000 arrival, also from Belgium; he hasn't actually found the net in over a month, but without him the City forward line looks far less threatening. The giant Mamady Sidibe is good in the air and holds the ball up well but isn't much of a goal threat, whilst on-loan Blackburn man Paul Gallagher has looked lightweight when used in a striking role. Bruce Dyer, seemingly on the way out of Stoke having spent the end of last year on loan at Millwall, could feature on the bench, whilst teenager Martin Paterson has been impressing in the reserves.

Stoke were missing Bangoura when we faced them earlier in the season, but have a decent record away from home. We'll be strengthened by the returns of Spring and Chambers from suspension but Young and Carlisle sit it out. Both sides disappointed last weekend and with both the Christmas frenzy and the F.A. Cup out of the way a tone could be set by whichever side seizes the initiative. It could go either way... unlike Stoke's precarious management situation, which they could probably do with getting sorted sooner rather than later.