Seriousness versus frivolity. Aesthetics versus the dour practicality of not having the money to be able to spend on the very best players in the world. It has felt this season as if there is a new schism opening up in football. It now feels as if there is a type of football that is artistically, technically and, dare we say it, morally superior to all others. At the one end of the spectrum, the “tiki-taka” style played by Barcelona and Arsenal has come to be regarded by some as the artistic apex of football tactics. At the other end of it, for some people, are Stoke City.
Never mind the fact that Stoke City are almost one hundred and fifty years old and have never appeared in an FA Cup final – they haven’t even reached the semi-finals of it in almost forty years. Never mind that Stoke have one major trophy – the 1972 League Cup – to show for their century and a half not out. Never mind, even, that Stoke City battled their way into the Premier League against most odds and have stayed there against even greater ones. Stoke City have become an anti-idea, a counterpoint to the sophisticates, a stick with which to beat those on limited resources for ruining their view. Much of this is on account of Rory Delap’s ICBM-esque throws into opposition penalty areas, but there is a rough and ready aspect to their play that throws some people’s planets off their axes.
Ultimately, of course, it is down to teams that play against Stoke to be able deal, defensively, with Delap, just as it was down to teams in the late 1980s to learn to cope with Dave Beasant’s meteoric clearances for Wimbledon during the late 1980s. Within a couple of minutes, a hole at the heart of the West Ham defence as evident as Jermaine Pennant crosses from the right and Matthew Etherington brings a terrific save from Robert Green. This resistance, however, only lasts for nine more minutes. Delap picks the ball up for a throw on the left-hand side. Everybody knows what’s coming, apart, it seems, from the centre of the West Ham defence, who allow Robert Huth to tear into the six yard area at the last minute and bundle the ball over the line to give Stoke the lead.
West Ham aren’t coping well with Stoke’s early onslaught and the home side force another couple of half-chances, but they manage an equaliser eighteen minutes later. Thomas Hitzslperger’s pass is slightly too long for Frederic Piquionne, but Piquionne seems to bring the ball under control with the top of his arm before lifting it over Sorensen and bundling it over the line. It’s a tough one to call. Even three or four slow motion repeats from varying angles don’t prove or disprove whether Piquionne used his chest or his arm so, while the Stoke protests are understandable, perhaps it wasn’t quite as bad a non-decision as we may initially have thought. The rest of the half plays out in a similarly industrial fashion, though West Ham cope better with later Delap throws than with his first one, before the teams leave the pitch to a chorus of boos from the crowd, the majority of which are aimed at the referee.
Three minutes into the second half, though, Stoke have a penalty. It’s a soft one – Matthew Etherington falls to ground somewhere in the vicinity of Scott Parker – and it feels rather as if justice of a sort has been meted out this time when Robert Green dives low and saves the resulting kick. Stoke, though, seem revitalised by the half-time break and are pushing the West Ham defence further and further back and, after sixty-two minutes, they have the lead again. It’s a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, which Danny Higginbotham lines up. Higginbotham drives the ball straight at the wall, which parts in a manner which suggests that Moses may be one of the West Ham defenders, and the ball skids along the ground and in off the arm of Robert Green, who seems to have seen the ball late.
West Ham suddenly spring to life, and Stoke are indebted to Thomas Sorensen, who makes one quite brilliant save from Obina and another from Robbie Keane. They’re pushing further and further up the pitch, but Stoke’s defence is holding firm. With four minutes left to play comes their big chance, when a corner from the left is met with a ferocious header from Matthew Upson, but the ball crashes back out from the crossbar. With that, West Ham’s chance of making the FA Cup final fades and Stoke City are in the FA Cup semi-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since their tumultuous 1971/72 season.
With the semi-final draw comes the realisation of what West Ham United have missed out upon. Should they beat Reading this afternoon, Manchester City will play Manchester United in one of the matches while Stoke City will play Bolton Wanderers at Wembley. The possibilities to come from this for Stoke are massive. They have a date at Wembley booked, and they are unlikely to believe that a semi-final against Bolton is unwinnable. Should they get into the final, it is likely that they will be playing European football next season. The possibility – and it is precisely that, just a possibility – of winning the FA Cup for the first time and a major trophy for the second time in a century and a half remains tantalisingly on the horizon. Their style may not be to everybody’s taste, but for as long as they are managing to play at Wembley and looking comfortable-ish in the Premier League it seems unlikely that their supporters will care too much.
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