May 142011
 

It is one thing to lose when your team has done its best but quite another when they fail to perform.

Stoke City were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City in this afternoon’s FA Cup Final at Wembley. If the scoreline had read 4-0 in favour of the Manchester side, Stoke would have had little reason to complain.

In the first half, Stoke’s attack and midfield failed to turn up at the office. It was only thanks to some splendid saves by goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, and some woeful shooting from Manchester City,  that Stoke went in at half-time still in the game with the score at 0-0.

Stoke were completely outplayed in the first half. Man City’s manager Roberto Mancini had done his homework, nullifying the threat of Stoke City’s wingers Matthew Etherington, who looked far from fit, and Jermaine Pennant, as well as target man Kenwyne Jones.

A hallmark of Stoke’s midfield play is that they chase and harry, putting the opposition players under pressure and forcing them into errors. Too often, Stoke simply sat back and let the likes of Silva, Tevez and Touré orchestrate the game.

In the second half, Stoke briefly pressed and made more of a game of it but without ever really threatening. Man City’ goalkeeper had only one save to make in the entire match, thwarting Kenwyne Jones when he managed to get past defender Lescott.

It was always a question of when Man City would score and the goal duly came in the 75th minute when inter-passing between Silva and Balotelli in Stoke’s penalty area eventually saw the ball run free to Yaya Touré who drove home from 10 yards out.

It was game over as far as Stoke were concerned. They were never going to get back into this match. Too many players failed to play to their full potential; too many passes went astray. At times Stoke looked clueless and out of their depth, with balls aimlessly punted into areas where no Stoke player was present.

Stoke City’s first corner of the game came in the second minute of injury time. That statistic says it all.

The corner saw the strange sight of goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen making an extra attacker in the Man City penalty area but it was to no avail.

The better team won. In football, there is simply no substitute for class and with players such as Tevez, Silva, Touré, Balotelli, and de Jong in the Man City side, class and talent triumphed.

After decades of living in the shadow of the illustrious neighbours Manchester United, Manchester City’s blue moon is rising.

For Stoke, unless quality players are brought into the side and manager Tony Pulis actually plays them, next season will see them once again fighting to retain their Premier League status, with little chance of challenging for major honours.

The best thing that can be said about Stoke City today was their fans. The Stoke team gave them little to sing about but their support never wavered. They completely outsang Manchester City’s supporters.

May 142011
 

The day has arrived. In a few hours, the outcome of the 130th FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Stoke City at Wembley will be known.

One of the teams will go down in the history books as the winner; the losing side will fade into obscurity.

As a Stoke City supporter for 51 years, you don’t need me to tell you who I want to win.

Stoke City 1972 League Cup Final shirt. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Manchester City are the obvious favourites with a team that cost in excess of £200 million, while Stoke’s was assembled for £26 million in transfer fees.

In their last Premier League games both teams faced north London opposition. Stoke City convincingly beat Arsenal 3-1 at the Britannia Stadium; Manchester City beat Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at Eastlands to clinch a place in next season’s Champions League.

But the saying in football goes – you are only as good as your next game. And that game is the FA Cup Final.

The last time Manchester City won the cup was in 1969 thanks to a Neil Young goal. Sadly, Young died earlier this year and City fans believe the FA Cup will be one by them in memory of Young.

Bolton Wanderers fans believed they were destined to win the FA Cup in memory of Nat Lofthouse who died this year. But when Bolton met Stoke City in the FA Cup semi-final, they were thrashed 5-0 by the Potters.

Dead men do not win football matches.

In this David versus Goliath clash this afternoon, the TV pundits are going with Goliath. On paper that seems a sound assessment but football matches are not played on paper.

It is what happens on the Wembley turf this afternoon that counts, where 11 men wearing the sky blue shirts of Manchester City take on 11 others wearing the red and white stripes of Stoke City.

May the best team win. I just hope it is Stoke.

In the League Cup Final of 1972, Stoke City were the underdogs against Chelsea but won the game 2-1. A similar scoreline in Stoke’s favour this afternoon would suit me fine.

May 132011
 

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.

A prized possession. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Apr 172011
 

In what was arguably Stoke City’s second greatest game in their 148-year history, the first being the League Cup final win in 1972, they made it to their first FA Cup final appearance after defeating Bolton Wanderers 5-0 in the semi-final at Wembley.

I doubt that any fan, even the most diehard, would have predicted such a victory. It was unbelievable. I am still pinching myself to make sure that it wasn’t a dream.

With the new Wembley stadium echoing to the strains of Delilah, the anthem of Stoke City’s fans, Stoke found themselves with an amazing three-goal lead after just 30 minutes.

Matthew Etherington seized on a sloppy pass just outside the Bolton penalty area to rifle in a sweet shot to put Stoke 1-0 up after 11 minutes.

Six minutes later, a poor clearance by the Bolton’s Cahill saw defender Robert Huth volley home from 20 yards to give the Potters a 2-0 lead.

Exactly on the stroke of half an hour, Jermaine Pennant robbed Bolton’s Martin Petrov and took the ball 70 yards up the field before laying off an inch-perfect pass to Kenwyne Jones who calmly sidefooted the ball past the despairing dive of Bolton goalkeeper Jaaskelainen.

Leading 3-0, it looked like game over.

But I remember Stoke taking a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. Arsenal came back in the second-half and scored a last-minute equaliser to a secure a replay and eventual victory.

At half-time, I pondered whether such a fate was once again in store for Stoke.

Bolton’s manager Owen Coyle made changes to his side for the second half. He had to. The changes gave them a little bit of impetus but not enough to threaten Stoke’s dominance and any hope of a comeback was dashed in the 68th minute when Jonathan Walters, whose career began at Bolton, latched on to the ball and left Bolton defenders in his wake before cutting inside and firing a perfect shot into the corner of the Bolton goal.

Football fans throughout the UK pillory Stoke City’s style of play, saying that it lacks quality. As the TV commentator said of Walters’ goal, “It was quality with a capital Q.”

In fact, all of Stoke’s goals were quality efforts and I should imagine a great many football fans throughout the country will have to change their opinion on Stoke’s style of play.

The lead and Stoke’s ascendancy took on the stuff of dreams 13 minutes later when Walters pounced again after good work by Jones. His cross was deflected by Wilkinson into the path of Walters who chipped the ball beyond Jaaskelainen into the net for his second goal of the game and Stoke’s fifth.

It was not a victory but a history-making rout that will see Stoke meet Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 14.

Stoke will again go into that match as underdogs but, as the saying goes, every dog has its day, and it could well be that Stoke may cause another upset next month to lift the FA Cup trophy.

Here’s hoping that they do.

Apr 172011
 

Today is an important day for the city of Stoke-on-Trent and its premier football club, Stoke City.

The team takes on Bolton Wanderers in the semi-final of the FA Cup and is just 90 minutes away from a first appearance in the FA Cup final. Stoke City was founded in 1863. The club has never won the First Division/Premier League championship and its appearance in an FA Cup final is long overdue.

The last time Stoke City reached the FA Cup semi-finals was 39 years ago, when they lost to Arsenal, 2-1 in a replay at Goodison Park, after a 1-1 draw at Villa Park. I attended both those games.

So I proudly display the coat of arms of the City of Stoke-on-Trent, with its motto Vis unita fortior — United Strength Is Stronger.

Stoke-on-Trent, England. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Stoke-on-Trent came into being when the six towns of the Potteries — Stoke-upon-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, Longton and Fenton — federated in 1910. Various elements of each town’s coat of arms were incorporated into the Stoke-on-Trent arms.

The boar’s head comes from the Stoke-upon-Trent coat of arms and that of the Copeland Family, while the Staffordshire Knot either side was part of Tunstall’s coat of arms.

The Portland vase is part of Burslem’s coat of arms; the camel comes from Hanley’s coat of arms.

Longton’s coat of arms provided the eagle and the scythe was taken from Burslem and Tunstall’s coat of arms.

The Fetty Cross is part of Fenton’s coat of arms.

The Egyptian potter at his wheel symbolizes the city’s once illustrious pottery industry.

Stoke-on-Trent was granted city status in 1925 after a direct appeal to King George V who thought the centre of the pottery industry should be a city. The elevation to city status was announced by the King during a visit to Stoke on 4 June 1925.

Stoke lost its county borough status in 1974 under the local government reorganisation but its status as a unitary authority was restored as Stoke-on-Trent City Council on 1 April 1997.

I will be rooted in front of my computer screen at 11:00 am EST and just hope that I can get a decent livestream of the match. What I would give to be at Wembley.

Borrowing the words of William Shakespeare:

And gentlemen in America now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That went to see Stoke play on FA Cup semi-final day.