There is something understated about this afternoon’s second FA Cup semi-final between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. This morning’s papers are full of last night’s Manchester derby and the match between Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, but there is more to it than merely this. Sky Sports and the Premier League have scheduled the Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool directly up against this match, as well – proof, as if it were needed, of Sky’s commitment to little more than itself – and there are empty seats at Wembley this afternoon. This in itself shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the combined average attendance of Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City is less than 50,000. This, however, seems unlikely to prevent some from using this as a stick with which to beat the two clubs playing this afternoon, but there are over 75,000 people at Wembley this afternoon. Not bad for a match that “doesn’t matter” in a competition that “nobody cares about” any more.
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others, though. Ironically, this match should matter, if anything, more to Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City than yesterday’s did to Manchester City or Manchester United. City may have bigger fish to fry over the next few weeks and United have hardly been starved of success in recent years. Supporters of the two clubs playing this afternoon, however, have to be very much of a certain age to be able to remember seeing their clubs return with major silverware. For Stoke City, a sole League Cup in 1972 remains the club’s only major trophy. Bolton Wanderers, on the other hand, had more success in previous years, but have to go back even further – to the 1958 FA Cup final – for their first major trophy. Add Manchester City into this mix, and someone is going to end a lengthy trophy drought at the end of this season. It’s the best thing that could possibly happen to the FA Cup.
Stoke-on-Trent seems to have emptied to be at Wembley today, and anybody that has ever visited either The Victoria Ground or The Britannia Stadium will already be more than aware of the fearsome noise of which Stoke’s support is capable. It is Bolton, however, that start the match the more brightly of the two teams, and they might have been awarded a penalty over a scrap in the penalty area which sees Kevin Davies manhandled by Robert Huth as Ryan Shawcross handles the ball. Within the space of six minutes, though, Stoke tear a hole in the Bolton defence and give themselves a buffer that allows them one foot in the door of a first ever FA Cup final. After eleven minutes, Bolton fail to clear and Matthew Etherington drives the ball into the bottom corner of the net to give Stoke the lead. Six minutes later, they double their lead when Bolton fail to clear a relatively harmless looking Rory Delap throw. The ball falls to Robert Huth, whose twenty yard shot seems to catch Juusi Jaaskelainen off-guard and sneaks into the corner of the net.
So it is that Bolton’s game-plan is torn to pieces. Owen Coyle stands on the touchline, looking somewhere between crestfallen and disbelieving. Stoke City, a better and more attractive team than most in the media ever seem likely to give them credit for being, now look the more purposeful and better-organised of the two teams. Bolton, rattled by the two goals, are starting to get sloppy, with wayward passes and niggly fouls starting to creep into their game. And then, after thirty minutes, the game is put beyond any reasonable doubt. There is another element of error to it. Martin Petrov has the ball nicked off his toe by Jermaine Pennant, who runs aggressively at the Bolton defence before feeding the ball through to Kenwyne Jones, who rolls the ball past Jaaskelainen to make the score a scarcely-credible 3-0. Bolton have no immediate answer to this and, although the match settles back down into a reasonably evenly-balanced rhythm, it remains Stoke that look the more assertive going forward, and half-time comes with their lead comfortably intact. That first ever FA Cup final is so near that they can taste it.
The Bolton players might have been forgiven for not wanting to re-emerge from the changing room at half-time, but they do, and they look considerably more purposeful than they did in the first half. The best chance of the first fifteen minutes of the half, however, falls to Stoke, with a header from Kenwyne Jones that forces Jaaskelainen to scramble across his goal and save. Six minutes later, they come closer still when Jonathan Walters gets through and has his shot blocked by Jaaskelainen, only for Jones to mis-cue the rebound. The goal, however, has been coming and mid-way through the half it arrives. Walters again gets space on the left-hand side, checks inside and curls the ball around Jaaskelainen and into the bottom left hand corner of the net. It’s a wonderful finish, and would be a perfect conclusion to a day that has surely exceeded the expectations of even the most wildly optimistic Stoke supporters, but Stoke aren’t finshed yet and, with nine minutes to play and the Bolton end of Wembley now starting to empty, a cross from the right from Jones reaches Walters, who makes the time to control the ball and shoot back across Jaaskelainen and in for 5-0.
Crumbs of comfort for Bolton? It’s difficult to think of many. If they had been awarded a penalty in the opening ten minutes, the match might have turned out differently. Over the entire ninety minutes, though it’s difficult to imagine that even this might have been no more than a temporary set-back for this Stoke team. Within minutes of the final whistle blowing, “Delilah” rings out loudly around Wembley Stadium. Stoke City, a club nine years older than the FA Cup itself, founder members of the Football League, a club with just one major trophy – the 1972 Football League Cup – for almost one hundred and fifty years of football, and no-one can say that they don’t throughly deserve it.
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