It’s official. I have FA Cup fever.
I thought living 4,200 miles away would bring me immunity but I have succumbed. My thoughts these past few days have been preoccupied by Stoke City and Stoke-on-Trent. Browsing through my collection of football programmes yesterday left me in doubt that I was stricken.
One of my most prized possessions when it comes to Stoke City memorabilia is a programme from the Centenary Celebration Match. Stoke City took on the mighty Real Madrid at the Victoria Ground on Wednesday 24th April, 1963. The Spanish club side, the best in the world at that time, included legends such as di Stefano, Puskas, Amancio and Gento. Somehow the programme has survived to this day.
In the photograph above, I used Photoshop to remove my name written in the handwriting of a nine-year-old. The things we do as children. That embellishment probably means the value of the programme is probably a fraction of what an umblemished copy would fetch. Oh well.
The signature belongs to the then Stoke reserve goalkeeper Bobby Irvine. The team photograph on the back of the programme also carries several autographs, among them Tony Allen and Jackie Mudie; while inside I have the autograph of English footballing legend Stanley Matthews, later to become Sir Stanley Matthews and the first footballer ever to be knighted.
With the final less than 24 hours away, a degree of tension is creeping in. Cigarettes smoked out on the back deck are now accompanied by thoughts about whether Stoke City will beat Manchester City. My earlier optimism has given way to one or two nagging doubts.
The first concerns Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez. The Argentine international has been out for several weeks with a hamstring injury. He is back. He played for the last 10 minutes of Man City’s 1-0 victory against Tottenham Hostpsur on Tuesday.
I have enormous respect for Tevez, as I do most Argentine players. He is probably not quite in the same class as Lionel Messi but is pretty close. Tevez has the ability to destroy Stoke singlehandedly.
My second worry relates to Stoke manager Tony Pulis. If, with 20 minutes to go, Stoke City are leading 1-0, I can see him pulling off attacking players and bolstering the defence in attempt to cling on to the one-goal lead. But what if Man City equalize? Stoke will then lack the ability to get back in the game. Pulis has adopted this strategy before and lost the gamble.
In the Carling Cup against West Ham last October, Stoke took a 1-0 lead. Pulis decided to try and hold on to that lead and withdrew his strike force of Pennant, Jones and Tuncay. West Ham equalized and the game went into extra-time, with West Ham scoring two more goals to win 3-1.
That kind of mentality worries me. I subscribe to the philosophy that if the game is in your opponent’s half of the pitch, your own goal is not under threat — attack is the best form of defence.
The extent of Robert Huth’s knee injury also worries me. Huth has been a rock at the centre of Stoke’s defence and also contributed vital goals at the other end. He is the highest scoring defender in the Premier League. If Stoke go into the final without Huth, it will be a major blow.
Winger Matthew Etherington is also doubtful having a suffered a hamstring injury in the game against Wolves two weeks ago. But the way Stoke saw off Arsenal 3-1 on Sunday shows that they can be an effective attacking force with Etherington absent.
I believe the man of the hour could well turn out to be Jon Walters. Since his two goals in the FA Cup Third Round replay against Cardiff City in January, he has gone from strength to strength. The first of his two goals in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Bolton is worthy of goal of the season in my opinion.
If Walters has his shooting boots on in tomorrow’s game then life could be pretty uncomfortable for Man City.
The tension is beginning to rise again. It’s time for another cigarette out on the deck and more deliberations on how the game will turn out. Being a Stoke City fan has never been easy; suddenly it seems to have got a lot harder and a lot more nerve-wracking.