So here’s the thing. I was expecting to arrive in Stoke to find the attitude ‘with all due respect, we should be beating teams like Brighton’.
The reality was that they were bricking it. Not since their first season back at the top table 10 years ago have they ever found themselves in serious relegation bother. Stoke as a place has got a bad reputation and even the local rozzers advised me when I was looming for a recommended watering hole ‘you really don’t want to go into town mate’, and directed us towards the nearest designated away pub which was a Student Union bar which was advertising their Valentine’s night. If the best that Stoke can offer for a romantic night out is an evening with the Chuckle Brothers then thank God I live in Sussex.
A very nice pub was actually found which even boasted a deli counter – so not all bad. A bus to the ground was very simple.
Since our last visit the corners have been filled in and the attendance was in fact a record 29,876, which perhaps was a portent for how massive this game was to them. The team news saw one change for the Albion, with Solly March preferred to Anthony Knockaert. It’s clear that Chris Hughton thinks that Solly is more reliably defensively than AK.
Stoke had been starting with Peter Crouch of late but an injury to the lanky mirth maker meant his place was taken by Chuba Moting. Whoever advised him that the man bun actually looks good was clearly taking the piss. Albion started brightly and when Glenn Murray played in Jose Izquierdo, breath was held. However, despite applying a better finish than he did early doors at Southampton the South American Express’s shot was brilliantly saved by Jack Butland. The game was far from the war of attrition most of us were expecting and both teams were not there to play out a draw. Chances were coming for both teams but some trademark woeful finishing did for both teams.
There was nothing woeful about Albion’s goal though.
At the time I wondered why Gross played square to Jose but as El Pig drove into the box and played a series of 1-2s and then slotted past Butland I erm… forgave him. It was the best team goal we have scored this season and the speed of the interplay was a delight. Izquierdo has clearly found his mojo and is displaying the sort of form that made him our record signing.
The Stoke fans were definitely getting twitchy and when Pascal Gross wandered in to the box, their anxiety levels went up a notch. I’m still not quite sure what the German engineer of goals was thinking as he tried to find a banana clad team mate but the chance game to nothing.
Tension amongst the Stokies was high at half time but you knew that the Potters would come out fired up. Two corners in the first two minutes got the Abion faithful’s nerves a bit frayed but amazingly, Stoke are worse at corners than us…. taking them that is. Will we ever score from a corner this season?
The game continued to go from end to end but we created the better chances, most of which were falling to a much more advanced Davy Pröpper, but he couldn’t finish any of them. Stoke were pushing and, in Shakiri, they have player who can always find space …which he needs. He’s the size of a detached bungalow in the Cotswolds. And space he found as he advanced on the area and curled one into the bottom corner.
The Bet365 / Brittania is loud; very loud when it gets going and my God it got going. We continued to probe though and silence the crowd. Changes were made with Ulloa replacing Murray, and Kayal replacing Gross. Ulloa has come back to us a much better all-round player. His touch, movement and passing ability show that He has spent a lot of time with a higher quality of player.
So to the finish then. By now you will have all seen the replays. It wasn’t a pen. It wouldn’t have been given as a foul in the centre circle so it shouldn’t be a foul anywhere else. The fact that Jesè went down just proves that he is a big version of his name… He wanted to take the spot kick himself but after a bit of jostling, designated taker Charlie Adam lined up to take it.
I’ve seen worse penalties and it took a magnificent save from Mat Ryan and some last ditch defending from Lewis Dunk to retain parity. So it finished honours-even and on balance, probably a fair result but we had chances to put the game beyond them and to stay up. We should really be beating teams like Stoke…