MATCH REPORT – Stoke 1 City 1

The Championship – Tuesday 1st January 2008

“No silverware; we don’t care; we’ll follow Hull City; everywhere”.

So ran the appealing little ditty begun and enthusiastically taken up by City songsters at Stoke. It resonates with the innate sense of defiance that comes with supporting the Tigers.

We indeed have a history of underachievement relative to club size unrivalled in English football. Forget the pitiable squeals of Newcastle fans, for they have won the league and some cups. Ignore any club that’s been in the top division; any cup winners; any former Wembley visitors. We’ve been doing underachievement for a hundred years – every single City fan alive today has never known anything but scuffling about outside the top flight. Like those who went before, we may expect to die with this situation unremedied.

A little gloomy, existential for a mere match report? Perhaps. But supporting City has always been a bit like that. A chore undertaken religiously by thousands of people who, deep down, know that we’re that little bit different to everyone else – for success, proper success, is for others. We’ll accept and love our City just the way it is, always was, always will be. Hence the appeal of that song.

Well, what if the song and its sentiments are about to be turned on its head? What if the decades of watching the feast at the top table from the hungry sidelines are actually coming to an end? We’ll affect some superior disdain, of course. “Pah, this isn’t the City we know and love”, some may scoff. “I preferred it when we played Rochdale, and anyway, we’ll get beat every week.” Yeah, right. We’d love it. Absolutely fucking love it. And if not this season, it seems possible that within the next few years, Hull City are going to make their most sustained push for promotion to the top flight in over ninety years.

Crumbs.

Received wisdom, including from your ever-pessimistic correspondent, was that Stoke may prove a test too far after the terrific trio of matches that was Charlton, Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday. Changes, perhaps? Give some weary legs a rest. Not so. Phil Brown seems to like his present selection, so much so that the only alteration was forced upon him, the injured Campbell being replaced by Deano as City lined up: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee, Livermore, Hughes; Windass, Folan.

The match started in predictable fashion, Stoke prefer to use the lower mesosphere as the basis for their attacks, City rather innovatively preferring to try grass. The home side were big, ugly, direct, their unlovely approach typified by Tony Pulis, the baseball cap-wearing chavtastically-attired cretin who somehow continues to hold down employment in football. Ugh.

This vivid battle of styles meant for a chanceless opening to the game, the primary threat coming from a series of venomous long throws – not big looping hurls but wickedly low, flat projectiles. We struggled to deal with these savage deliveries, aimed repeatedly at the platoon of giants that lumbered into our box at every opportunity.

It was from one of these that we fell behind at a time when the game was improving – Hughes had had an inventive bicycle kick easily pouched by Simonsen, Ashbee had ambitiously chanced his arm from distance, Deano had flashed a free-kick comfortably wide – but as City looked the stronger side, we dismally fell behind. Another throw-in was aimed at our box and suddenly ended up in our goal. Some queried whether it’d gone directly in and should have been disallowed – from our vantage at the right of the away end, the touch from Leon Cort was clearly discernible. The stately ex-Tiger celebrated his second goal against City since leaving with much more restraint than last time, but we still trailed.

It nearly got worse, as Stoke enjoyed their best spell of the match. Jon Parkin, anonymous and quite frankly a disgrace to his profession, finally bothered to break into a run (well, shambling kind of stumbling trot) to latch onto the ball and smash a powerful shot at Myhill, who instinctively stuck out a strong right hand to rob the ball’s momentum and Ricketts cleared; a minute later he pulled off another terrific save when Lawrence cracked a shot from 25 yards to the top corner, only for Myhill’s outstretched left paw to deflect it wide. The point we were to win was in no small part thanks to these two outstanding saves.

Deano had another shot before the break, but we went in a goal behind to a sporting hand from the thousand or so City fans present, believing that all was not lost.

And so, via a splendid sing-song and disco on the concourse, to the second half, which opened with the embarrassingly corpulent Parkin aiming a shot from forty yards a similar distance over the bar. Back came City, looking much more composed than the shaky outfit that were hanging on the end of the opening 45. Deano had a header go over, but with half an hour left we finally levelled.

City harried their opponents off the ball – a hallmark of our festive endeavours – and Ashbee fed Deano, scampering into space on the left. His cross found Folan momentarily unattended by Cort, and the million pound man clinically directed his header downward into the goal to spark wild celebrations among the Tiger Nation.

City now poured forward, sensing Stoke’s worries, and a few minutes later Deano hit the top of the bar with a header after more excellent work by Hughes on the left. Agonising.

Deano went off rather sulkily for Barmby as City continued pressing, Stoke now wholly on the defensive. Ashbee was looking a Championship midfielder as he scurried from assignment to assignment in the centre, Livermore his quiet foil. Hughes was having perhaps his best game for City, the culmination of a real improvement in form, and he was repeatedly tormenting Stoke on their right. Parkin then lumbered off, roundly booed by the City fans and not exactly feted by his own supporters, and Stoke were now holding on.

Does it sound a little chance-less, though? It was, really. The cutting edge spoken of by Phil Brown does need a little working on. But let’s not quibble too much. The football was urgent, flowing, committed – passing and moving, fighting and working, positive and inventive. The City fans purred with delight.

City had but a single scare during this time, Pericard crashing to the ground in the area. Penalty? Impossible to discern from 130 yards, but if it didn’t look a penalty, it looked like something that could be given as one. Mr Swarbrick’s refusal was immediate and decisive.

Three minutes of injury time saw City pile forward again and win a brace of corners, one of them fearsomely attacking, one of them maddening squandered with keep-ball folly in the corner. Phil Brown visibly stamped his foot like a petulant child.

No matter; we drew, and we drew well. For the second time in a row City have visited a team nestled in the play-offs, that intoxicating source of our giddy midwinter daydreams, and come away beaming at a point and simultaneously bemoaning its solitary nature.

City now lie 9th, just two points away from sixth. The football is wonderful, the attitude is marvellous (rendering Preston and Southampton all the more inexplicable), and right now it’s a genuine pleasure to be a City fan. An FA Cup jolly to Plymouth awaits, then we host the leaders West Brom in what promises to be a fascinating indication of just how good we actually are. Okay, we’re not going to win any silverware this season either – but so long as the vibrant displays stay with us and we can continue daring to dream, we may not care. (AD)