With three losses from their opening three matches, Stoke City have a problem. Their third season back in the Premier League has begun with three losses and it is only the dismal form of West Ham United that is keeping them off the bottom of the Premier League table, although there is an element of falseness about their position, since two of their three defeats have come at the hands of Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – both matches that it might have been unreasonable to expect them to win. Still, however, there is cause for concern at The Britannia Stadium this evening that they may be set to hit the buffers. This is exactly the sort of match that they have excelled at grabbing by the scruff of the neck over the last couple of seasons, and they need to get back into that habit this evening.
It is a different type of loss that is occupying the minds of many at The Britannia Stadium this evening, though. Manager Tony Pulis’ mother died earlier today, and Pulis is absent as a result. He’s not the only manager that is missing tonight. Gerard Houllier is back in English football as the Aston Villa manager, but he’s not here this evening either – a failure to reach agreement with the FFF over his departure from his role with them as a technical director means that he is now unlikely to arrive at the club before the end of the month. Because of this, Kevin MacDonald is still in charge of the team for the time being. Such is the nature of this slightly peculiar start to the season, however, that Villa can leapfrog to third place in the Premier League table with a win tonight.
Stoke City start with plenty of honest, down to earth graft but their biggest problem is immediately apparent. Rory Delap’s long throws don’t hold the strangely hypnotising effect that they once did, and the Villa defence clear them all with relative comfort. Otherwise, they are lacking in attacking invention. When they do manage to string together a move of fluidity, a ball threaded through the middle of the Villa defence finds Kenwyne Jones strolling through the middle languidly but this extends to his finish and his shot is comfortably blocked by Brad Friedel in the Aston Villa goal.
Villa seem happy enough to sit back and soak Stoke’s endeavours up, on the whole. On the rare occasions that they do find the time to push forward, though, they look considerably more likely to score, and with eleven minutes to play of the half this is exactly what happens when Gabriel Agbonlahor swings over a deep cross from the right hand side and, on the left hand side of the penalty area, Stewart Downing stoops to conquer, sending a magnificent header back cross Thomas Sorenson and into the opposite corner of the net. For the remainder of the half, Stoke have a look of chaos about them and they are lucky not to concede again before half-time. Ashley Young heads wide when he should have scored and Sorenson makes smart saves from Danny Collins and Stewart Downing. Stoke end the half in absolute pieces.
Cometh the hour, though, cometh the man. Tony Pulis, the obsessive’s obsessive, couldn’t keep away. This evening isn’t the time to discuss the moral rights and wrongs of his decision to travel back to The Britannia Stadium in any great detail – suffice to say that some people may choose, upon such sad news as he has received, to immerse themselves in their work. His arrival at the ground leads to a tumultuous round of applause – until that point, certainly the biggest of the evening. Whether it’s Pulis’ influence or not, the effect on the Stoke team is immediate. They start the second half more focussed and more coherently than they had managed at all in the first half and the introduction of Ricardo Fuller and Jermaine Pennant give them greater attacking options and shape. No-one, though could have been expecting the final flourish that this match has to offer.
With just over ten minutes to play, Stoke finally craft the equaliser that their second half industry has merited. Matthew Etherington collects the ball on the left hand side and crosses. It’s not a perfect cross – it’s sitting a couple of inches behind Kenwyne Jones at the far post – but Jones reacts brilliantly and heads the ball past the startled Friedel and in. Villa, now, are wobbling as Stoke push forward for a winning goal and, two minutes and fifty seconds into the three minutes of stoppage time at the end of the match, they snatch one when Etherington drives the ball across the face of goal and Robert Huth, as much to his own surprise, it seems, as everybody else’s, sticks out a foot and diverts the ball into the goal. It’s an extraordinary finish to a match that has grown more and more engrossing as it has worn on.
At full-time, Tony Pulis makes straight for the tunnel. This may have been the most emotionally draining day of his entire career, but his arrival at the ground this evening shook his team into shape and the effect of these three points and the way in which they were won may well mean that he is owed a debt of gratitude from all Stoke City supporters come the end of this season. There’s a long way to go yet, but the psychological effect of winning a match in this style at this point of the season after the start that they have had cannot be understated. Aston Villa, meanwhile, remain a work in progress and Gerard Houllier will undoubtedly already be considering what he can do to prevent this season slipping away from his new club before it has even really got going.