A tale of two cities with Stoke deserving credit
While most eyes on Sunday night were focused on Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates an outstanding performance went under the radar at Wembley on a weekend when the often maligned, truly triumphed.
Regularly, we hear about the history of the world’s most famous cup competition, the excitement, the upsets and the romance that it brings to football’s lesser clubs.
This round, be it only the round of four, didn’t disappoint either as a mockery was made of the ‘favourites’ tag applied to both Manchester United and Bolton pre-match, setting up an intriguing final between two teams perhaps best suited to cup final football.
The first match on Saturday was far from a classic with the tactical battle between Mancini and Ferguson holding the greatest significance and it was chance taken on playing a hard pressing game which won the day for the Italian, something we don’t often see and highlighted particularly with Yaya Toure’s winner.
But the real heroes of the weekend were Stoke who truly tore Bolton apart on what will go down as one of their greatest days in history, reaching their first ever FA cup final in 127 years.
It’s just another stepping stone in their development as an established Premier League club and though they aren’t mathematically safe just yet, fixtures against Wolves, Blackpool, Wigan and strong home form amongst others should ensure their survival.
Many will argue that they are already recognised as a mainstay in the top flight following their promotion in 2007/08, and the evidence on and off the field suggest that as a club they are well and truly on the up.
Yet there is still an unfair myth hanging over the club which has surrounded them since their debut Premier League season. A reliance on the long ball in general play, on set pieces, a long throw from Rory Delap and big bustling bodies to play a physical style of game.
Is creating a blueprint with what you have and playing to your strengths such a crime after all?
Sure it wasn’t something for the purists but it brought results, opposition managers absolutely hated it and at times it was un-defendable.
The times have changed at Stoke though. Not one of their goals was scored from anything we expect from Stoke City and in turn some of the goals that were seen on Sunday were as good as we have seen at the new Wembley. On top of that, free-flowing football and fast and effective counter-attacking represents a vast improvement with fans beginning to acknowledge that they are a pretty decent football side.
Kenwyne Jones shows incredible athleticism for and while he will never score you 15-20 goals a season, his work rate certainly brings others into the game.
Supplying and supporting him are two excellent wingers in Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington.
The former has been around the traps and largely inconsistent in the past but having settled at the club, his performances on the park have improved drastically. His little burst of pace and ability from the wider areas is beginning to show us glimpses of why he was so highly rated at Arsenal and Liverpool.
Another who has been reinvented is Etherington, who also looks fit, sharp and shares the desire that the rest of the club has. That wonderful strike to get the ball rolling on Sunday and last week’s goal against Spurs emphasises just exactly what he brings to the table.
Jon Walters, signed from Ipswich has shown that there is quality still in the second tier of English football capable of playing at a higher level, while Ricardo Fuller has flair, flamboyance and a bag of tricks.
This mixed with that tough and rugged approach instilled by the grafting gaffer Tony Pulis has set a terrific benchmark for the club in future years. Solidarity at the back is also crucial for teams trying to pave their way and in Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Thomas Sorensen they have both strength and experience.
Pulis himself will never be seen as glamorous as he maintains his common tracksuit look, but what he does bring is an infectious energy, determination and a driven desire to succeed. A desire also shown by a vociferous batch of fans often referred to as a “12th man” by Pulis and who could argue, even the big clubs don’t like going there!
Away form must improve in the league if they are to hit greater heights in the coming years but more performances away from home (albeit at a neutral venue on Sunday), offer plenty of confidence that, for now, their status amongst England’s elite will remain intact.
As for approaching Manchester City in the showpiece in May, Pulis will tell you he won’t worry about that until the club’s league safety is guaranteed but there’s no doubt an opportunity to win his first trophy in 19 years of management will be on his mind. As will his proud record of never being relegated, mind you.
If there’s anything we’ve learnt about the Potters though, it’s that they relish a challenge and this final is a great chance to prove the punters wrong and strengthen their reputation.