Well it’s the last day of the season. Hard to believe we’re here already. So empty handed, after today’s final whistle, we face into another long summer… time to recharge the faith and bring it back louder and stronger next season. This week I’ve been talking to Richard from http://www.stokecity-mad.co.uk about surviving the drop, season highlights and today’s game.
PGL: So how does it feel knowing you’ll be back at English football’s top table again next season?
Richard: It is a great feeling. After waiting for so long to be back in the top flight it is good to do what most pundits thought would never happen and stay up. We have taken some stick along the way, including from many at Arsenal after our win earlier in the season, but that has just made us stronger as a unit. The season has been incredibly exciting and there has been lots of drama and controversy but every single Stoke fan has enjoyed every minute of this year, many thinking it could be our only chance for a while, and so to have the chance of repeating it all again next season is something we are already looking forward to.
PGL: When you saw the fixture list at the start of the campaign did you think you’d be coming to the Emirates on the last day needing points?
Richard: I think most Stoke fans thought it would come to that. Although you look at the fixtures and think that if we are still in it going to Arsenal then we are down, many people would have considered it an achievement to still be in with a chance at this stage. After seeing what happened to Derby many people were saying that if we were still in with a shout on the last day it would be a success, but then we would need something special to get out of trouble given the fixture list. I didn’t know whether to hope we still needed something from the last day or not!
PGL: Many teams come up do well then suffer ‘Second Season Syndrome’. What will Tony Pulis do to ensure Stoke don’t fall foul of this premiership virus?
Richard: One of the most annoying things about the media is that as soon as you are promoted they say “you’re down” and then when you stay up it is “second season syndrome”! It is a very important summer for us to avoid the fate most spectacularly demonstrated by Ipswich and Reading, but you only have to look at those who HAVE established themselves like Wigan, Portsmouth and Fulham to see that the development of the team has to carry on and not stagnate. Tony Pulis has done wonders so far and he is very level headed and has already stated what he needs for next year is better players with the same attitude. I think his quote was “more quality, same DNA”. As long as we stick to the principles of hard work and commitment that have got us here and then add a little bit more quality on the ball and top level experience then we can upset the odds again.
PGL: Was buying David Beattie Pulis’s best ever piece of business?
Richard: He is certainly one of the best signings he has made. At the time we were starting to look in grave danger of slipping to the foot of the league but brining in a proven goalscorer lifted the club at the right time and we picked up some momentum which eventually saw us to safety. Beattie’s arrival coincided with the arrival of Etherington, Lawrence returning from injury, Fuller sorting himself out after slapping Griffin at West Ham, and Whelan cementing a place in the team. All of these at the same time added quality and ability in the final third and so Beattie’s signing was part of a package of events. Pulis has pulled off other business to rival this though with the most obvious being our two centre halves Abdoulaye Faye from Newcastle and Ryan Shawcross from Man Ure, both of whom have been excellent this season. However for me Pulis’ best business was in his first spell as manager when we were in danger of slipping back out of the
Championship at the first time of asking. This would have been a disaster that may have seen us in administration and going backwards fast but the arrival of Mark Crossley in goal and Ade Akinbiyi (yes, I know!) proved to be the catalyst for our last day survival and the foundation of the platform we now sit on.
PGL: What’s been your highlight of the season?
Richard: To be honest it was beating Arsenal at the Britannia, and the post match fall out which heightened our profile and pulled the whole club together and helped us stay up. Most teams start the season saying any points against the big four is a bonus and we collected three to prove, as much to ourselves as to anyone else, that we should not be afraid of anyone. We were excellent that day and played our hearts out. The Arsenal players did not want to be in a hard fought battle and it showed. Your defence could not cope with Delap’s throw, but we played a lot of football too and tireless effort limited Arsenal to very few chances. The rant by Wenger after the match was funny but totally unjustified. None of our players “deliberately” set out to hurt the Arsenal players, sometimes a player falls awkwardly and injuries result. There were fouls, there are in football matches, but none of them were anywhere near the truly bad fouls that occasionally
happen, such as that to Eduardo at Birmingham, although some Arsenal fans were comparing them to that. The worst foul on the day was committed by Adebayor on Shawcross and the only violent conduct was that which earned Van Persie his red card, which Wenger as usual “did not see”. One of the reasons people enjoy beating Arsenal so much is this one-eyedness. Wouldn’t it be much better if sometimes Wenger said “yes it was a red card/penalty” and if some Arsenal fans (not all) said “yes we played the better football, but you deserved to win and good luck for the rest of the season”. It makes the victory in November all the sweeter because there are still Arsenal fans posting comments about our “style of football” not “belonging in the Premier League”. That is arrogance of the highest order.
PGL: Who has been your player of the season?
Richard: Without a doubt Abdoulaye Faye. He has been outstanding from first to last and is a firm supporter favourite. He was a snip at just over £2million and he has shown tremendous passion and commitment to the cause. He is a big strong mountain of a man, but also very calm and at ease on the ball, being one of the best ball players at the club. He was made captain after Griffin fell out of favour and has risen to the challenge. Also popular for his chest beating victory celebrations which scare just about everybody.
PGL: What have you made of the recent criticism of our manager by our own ‘fans’ and shareholders?
Richard: I can understand some of the reasons for it but it still seems very odd to me. It is always difficult for a club not in the top four to understand the mentality of criticising a manager just because you have won nothing. The Arsenal fans seem to want it all, the beautiful football and the winning team, whereas one does not always complement the other. You need the unglamourous and uncompromising side as well to win things, which Arsenal just do not have. The football you play is fantastic to watch but to maintain it throughout the year there needs to be a different side to the team to dig out results when necessary, and this is something that Arsene Wenger nor the fans seem prepared to do any more. Previously that side of the team was there in players such as Adams, Bould, Viera, etc, but now the emphasis seems to be on perfect football and nothing else which, as the great Dutch side of the 70’s will tell you, doesn’t win trophies.
PGL: As an outsider what do you think Arsenal need to do to close the gap to United?
Ri chard: Following on from above Arsenal n eed to add only one or two players to the great side they have, but they need to give the team something a little bit different, a little bit of steel and determination. For me a Viera like midfielder and a solid, uncompromising centre half would put Arsenal right up there with Manchester United. The skill and ability of the players you have is not in question (except Adebayor – not as good as he thinks he is) but sometimes you need to win when not playing well and if you can get two players who give you that ability then you will be there or thereabouts.
PGL: What kind of game are you expecting?
Richard: I am expecting an open and interesting game from two sides who both have points to prove. Arsenal will be playing their usual attractive football and will be urged on by the criticism they have had recently as well as that they took for bottling it at the Britannia. I think that will make it a difficult afternoon for us defensively and you may create lots of chances. For ourselves we will be direct, but we can also play football in the final third if we want to. We will pump plenty of balls into the box to test out the aerial prowess of your defence and we will be out to prove that, contrary to Arsene Wenger’s rant earlier in the season we are not a talentless and dirty side, we are competitive and play to our strengths. We will also be singing for 90 minutes regardless of the score.
PGL: Will we be seeing more of the Rory Delap Catapult? (BTW does the lad have some sort of fetish for red and white strips? Southampton, Sunderland, Stoke…)
Richard: Probably! It has not been as effective recently (only one goal since November) as teams are getting better at defending it, but I think one of Arsenal’s areas of weakness is in the air at the back so we may get some joy out of it. Teams have tried all sorts of things to stop the throw, Hull brought the advertising boards closer to the pitch, but it has been a good way of putting pressure on the opposition. The other thing the throw has done is take the limelight away from the other things that we do well. Whilst teams are figuring out how to defend Rory’s missiles they are forgetting about our two wingers and the tricky Ricardo Fuller, who has the ability to create a goal from nothing. (I think Carlisle and Derby were him trying to break the cycle of red and white addiction!).
PGL: Who in the Aresnal side will you stop you finishing the season on a high?
Richard: The player I am looking forward to seeing, although he could quite easily end our season on a downer, is Arshavin. He looks like he could be a very good player next season after a rest and a full pre-season, unless he suffers the same fate as other players from the far East of Europe who seem to slowly fall apart in England (Rebrov, Shevchenko, etc)
PGL: And finally, what’s your prediction for the game?
Richard: If you play football how you can do (and you defend like you can do!) then there will be goals at both ends, 2-2. But more likely 3-2 to Arsenal.
PGL: So that’s the view from Stoke. We owe them a beating and hopefully today’s the day. Delap will undoubtedly be launching bombs at us every time they get a throw in but this time we should be ready for it. I’d like another look at Song at centre half today and see how he deals with a big physical side. My prediction? 2-0 to Red Army. Lets finish on a high, sing your heart out for our greatest ever manager and enjoy a pressure free game.
‘Ask The Oppo’ will be back at next season, thanks for reading!