It all started on 1 November 2008. Arsenal travelled up to Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium anticipating what Arsene Wenger liked to call a “typical English match” and they were not disappointed. On a dreary, soaking wet afternoon, Arsenal conceded two goals from Rory Delap’s infamous long throws, lost three players – Bacary Sagna, Theo Walcott, and Emmanuel Adebayor – to injury and had Robin van Persie sent off five minutes after he came on. Gael Clichy’s late goal, his first and last for the club, was scant consolation. The game left Wenger incensed, as he accused Stoke’s players of seeking to injure his players and labelled them cowards. Stoke, in response, claimed Arsenal were soft and not brave enough. Thus, the league’s most unlikely feud begun.
The English media were quick to spin the narrative against Arsenal and Wenger. This was, on the surface, a typical tale of the Beauty vs the Beast. Beneath that, it was an all-too-perfect example of Arsenal “not liking it up them”. They were a team that couldn’t handle physical play. They were too soft to handle the tough but fair physicality from teams who couldn’t compete on a technical level. Stoke, the plucky underdogs overachieving in their first season in the big time, had ruffled the refined Arsenal feathers. They emerged as virtuous winners while Arsenal were the bitter losers.
From a Stoke perspective, it’s understandable that Arsenal would come across as ungraceful losers. Accusations of foul play are never endearing and would have only served to make the victory all the more glorious. From an Arsenal perspective, however, this was yet more evidence pointing to the emerging trend of teams taking the field to beat Arsenal up. This was a team that had lost Eduardo da Silva, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky in the same season to physical challenges from the opposition. Now Theo Walcott would miss months of action due to a dislocated shoulder, and Emmanuel Adebayor suffered an injury after being tackled off the pitch. A line had been crossed.
The events of this game did all the marketing for Arsenal’s next visit. Would Arsenal be able to cope this time, or will Stoke kick them off the pitch again? Arsenal had a lot to prove when they visited Stoke again in FA Cup fourth round in 2010. Barely a minute into the game, a long throw from Delap found the head of Ricardo Fuller and Stoke were a goal up. Arsenal struggled all game with Stoke’s set-pieces and physicality and went down 3-1. The déjà vu was powerful.
What could have just been a one-off accident was turning into a full-blown problem. Stoke had seemingly taken the place of Bolton Wanderers as Arsenal’s number one bogey team away from home. Bolton, at least, didn’t injure many of Arsenal’s players, nor was there any bad blood between the two teams. The rivalry between Arsenal and Stoke, though, took an unfortunate turn.
The Aaron Ramsey leg break is one event no Arsenal fan wants to recall. At 19 years of age, the Welshman was having his first major run of games in the Arsenal team and looking an exciting player. He and Ryan Shawcross went after a loose ball. Ramsey was quicker and poked the ball away just as Shawcross’ trailing leg swung through and caught Ramsey’s planted right leg. Ramsey suffered a horrific fracture that would set his career back by a year. What should have been an unfortunate accident became a much bigger story as things were said in the immediate aftermath of the game. Wenger described the tackle as “unacceptable”, and thought it was ridiculous that Shawcross would only receive a standard three-match suspension. Tony Pulis came out defending his player, claiming: “he’s got no bad blood in him, and there’s no way he’d set out to hurt a fellow professional”. To Arsenal, who had heard much the same after Eduardo’s leg break, the sentiment was entirely empty.
Regrettably, the incident has spawned a distasteful routine from Arsenal and Stoke supporters. Ryan Shawcross is the subject of abuse whenever he visits the Emirates Stadium. Likewise, Aaron Ramsey is subject to abuse when Arsenal visit Stoke. Reportedly, Ramsey refused Shawcross’ apology. This failure to bury the hatchet has seemingly drained away any sympathy the Stoke supporters may have had for him. There is a perception that Ramsey and everyone associated with Arsenal has
milked the incident for far longer than they should have. Ramsey and Shawcross are constantly exchanging roles of martyr and victim.
During all that, Arsenal’s 3-1 victory that night flew under the radar. It was, and remains, Arsenal’s only win at Stoke since their promotion to the Premier League in 2008. It’s an alarmingly poor record against a team that has yet to make a significant impact on the top half of the Premier League table. Even after Tony Pulis left and Stoke transitioned into a more technical, ball-playing team under Mark Hughes, the results haven’t improved. Even though the vast majority of the squad that suffered those horrendous games between 2008 and 2010 are no longer at the club (Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott are the only surviving members), Arsenal still can’t beat Stoke in Stoke.
One reason for that could be that Stoke seem to treat Arsenal at home as one of their biggest games of the season. To this day, they can’t get enough of beating Arsenal. Goals are greeted with chants of “1-0 to the rugby club”. Wenger’s frustrated gestures on the touchline and mimicked by the supporters with chants “let’s all do the Wenger”. With this level of fervour around the ground, the Stoke players raise their game. Arsenal, meanwhile, don’t place the same level of importance on it are often caught cold.
Whatever the cause, it’s painfully apparent that Stoke away represents a psychological hurdle that Arsenal just can’t jump over. However, this is a season that has seen Arsenal get a rare victory over Chelsea in the league, get a long overdue league victory over Jose Mourinho and win at St. Mary’s for the first time in four years. Maybe the Stoke hoodoo will finally be beaten as well.