I hate playing Stoke. I’ve only seen us beat them once since 1992. There was another very memorable win in the league but given I didn’t go and missed Myhill’s brilliance that day, it doesn’t count. After a quiet end to the transfer window and a disappointing end to our unbeaten run last week, the visit of a bit of a bogey team and the absence of three centre halves made this one hell of a test.
City: Marshall, Kane, Kingsley, Lichaj, McKenzie, Henriksen, Stewart, Bowen (Milinkovic), Irvine, Grosicki (Pugh), Campbell (Martin).
The first half was drab. And that might be an over-statement. A real scrap between a team lacking the confidence to commit to attack given the makeshift defence and one looking confused by their change of manager and changes in personnel.
Stoke signed Sam Vokes for £7m on transfer deadline day and that put the fear of god into some City fans with our stand-in centre halves but Adkins countered it by pushing Lichaj and McKenzie up high – to half way at times – accepting that Vokes wouldn’t run them and he wouldn’t then be a target for long balls. It came undone once, when McLean ran off Kane early but otherwise, it worked beautifully although it contributed to the scrap in midfield with a lack of space and time.
As I found myself getting annoyed by the linesman’s inability to tell if the ball was in or out of play in front of the West Stand, I realised sod all was happening in the game. Lichaj and McKenzie were doing a great job of standing up to their threat and the midfield harried and blocked led by Kevin Stewart who has undergone the biggest transformation since Eric ate a banana. He’s physically stronger, he’s making quick decisions and he’s passing the ball like the player I saw running games for Liverpool’s U23s three years ago.
City improved as half time approached and Stoke were warned as Bowen met Grosicki’s brilliant deep corner and headed into the side netting. On 43, Kane was tripped by Martins Indi. The free kick was just outside the area, ten yards to the right of the D. It was just too wide to hit and the wall wasn’t far enough back. It needed something miraculous and it got it as Bowen stepped up and whipped it over the wall and inside the post. Magnificent. 1-0.
Typical City time as half the crowd rushed off to get the beers in and the rest stood basking in the glow of Bowen’s brilliance. Kingsley fouled Vokes innocuously and handed Stoke and immediate equaliser. Or he would have if David Marshall’s trailing foot hadn’t booted away Vokes soft penalty. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time a City keeper has saved a penalty against Stoke. Bound to be.
This was a depleted City team in defence facing a side who’ve just spent over £10m this week on Danny Batth and Vokes. If the quality they possess wasn’t obvious, their subs warming up at half time included £12m signing Afobe, £12m signing Berahino, £10m signing Ince, £6.5m signing Ryan Woods (a player I really like) and long-serving captain Ryan Shawcross.
For all that investment, they only threatened once in the second half. Lichaj was penalised for a good tackle. The free kick was chipped into the box, Henriksen went up with Batth and the ball looped off one of them, over Marshall and back into the keeper’s arms off the post. A deserved let off. At the other end Grosicki wasted a very good break and then led another charge lofting a cross up that Campbell volleyed into the side netting. The value of Grosicki and Bowen became obvious as the game stretched with their pace exploiting the space behind Stoke. Campbell was a nuisance for the whole game too. He ran himself into the ground, chased lost causes, battered defenders, upset the keeper and annoyed the ref. We’ve missed him.
Stoke put Tom Ince on for Bojan who’s key contribution had been his little signals before corners. I could only decipher that holding two arms aloft means “put it on Bowen’s head” and holding the ball in the air means “play a short one that Kingsley will intercept”. My favourite moment for the visitors though was when Etebo, who might be the worst player I’ve seen all season, sprinted to get the ball so they could take a throw in quickly only to pass the ball into the front row of the West Stand with his mate looking on aghast.
Ex-Tiger Ince had no impact on the game but got himself a great view of City doubling the lead. A nice move out from the back, left to right, eventually found Bowen, he put his foot down and burst at them, slid the ball in the channel for Campbell and he squared for Grosicki who just cantered into the box and knocked the ball in off the far post. 2-0.
Stoke made two more subs and needn’t have bothered. City made three to kill time. Ashley Williams got a booking for getting fed up of Campbell and slamming an arm in his face. Kane got the stadium MOTM award. It was Kevin Stewart for me closely followed by Lichaj and McKenzie. All three were tremendous.
This was the best result of the season in the circumstances and given the opposition. A tactical challenge won and a midfield battle conquered. It leaves City four points off the play-offs. It’s going to be extraordinarily hard to break into the top six. Not only do you have to overhaul the expensively assembled sides like WBA, Middlesbrough and Derby but there are other teams like ours, Bristol City and Blackburn, who are giving it a real go and are in tremendous form. Last week was a reality check. We just need to enjoy being closer to the top than the bottom, enjoy the improvement in our players and the trust placed in young players by our manager. Then what will be, will be.