I can honestly say that the game against Stoke is not the one that I look for when the fixtures schedule is released in the middle of June each year. In fact I think that when Tony Pulis was in charge, it was probably the game that I least looked forward to. I have never been a fan of watching Pulis’ teams play, and West Brom have now assumed the Stoke mantle for me. Perhaps many West Brom fans feel the same judging by the empty seating in last week’s game at the Hawthorns? Those fans who have been watching for a few years will probably remember the Rory Delap long throw tactic. Stoke would do all they could to attain throw-ins in the opposition half, and then Delap would spend an age drying the ball before launching a long throw into the penalty area, with his team mates blocking off defenders as if it were a game of American Football. Somehow they got away with it, and often went unpunished by referees.
But Stoke under Mark Hughes are different, although they still retain some players who play the game in the same way they did under Pulis, especially Shawcross and Walters. In my opinion Shawcross has always been one of the most over-rated central defenders in the Premier League, and I could never understand the clamour in the media to get him called up into the England squad. That appears to have died down in recent times though. He is one of those defenders often referred to as uncompromising, although I could think of other adjectives to describe his methods.
Last December at Upton Park the game ended goalless, but of all the 0-0 games I have ever seen this one was one of the best. Both sides played entertaining stuff and were applauded off at the finish. There were 34 shots in the game, of which we had 22, and there was a grandstand finish where we almost nicked the points. One of the reasons we didn’t win was the superlative goalkeeping of Jack Butland. He got injured playing for England in a later game, and has been out for a long time. I think they, and England, miss him
When I look back over the past fifty years or more I don’t have great memories of watching us play Stoke. At the Britannia Stadium, in the final game of last season we took the lead and had control of the game. We conceded an equaliser against the run of play and then lost the game right at the death. We pulverised them in the first half but only had a solitary goal at the interval for our endeavours. It should have been three or four with the game wrapped up. We missed stacks of chances, and Stoke cleared about four off the line. One was only an inch or so from being a goal but it just wasn’t going to be our day. In some ways we missed Payet, but we created so many chances it shouldn’t have mattered. We had more than twenty shots on goal to Stoke’s half a dozen.
Going back almost fifty years, in 1967-68 we were 3-0 up at half-time in a league game at Upton Park and we let Stoke back into the game to win 4-3. Two seasons later, almost to the day we were once again 3-0 up at half time, and Stoke fought back to draw 3-3 and were just denied a late winner with a shot that came back off the post! In 1971-72 we met them in the League Cup semi-final that went to four games that had everything (they didn’t have penalty shoot-outs in those days). We won the first leg away 2-1, but Stoke won 1-0 in the second leg at Upton Park when Gordon Banks saved a late-in-the-game Geoff Hurst penalty and it went to a replay. The first replay was drawn and we then lost an incredible second replay 3-2. I can also remember visiting their old stadium, the Victoria Ground in 1973. All I can recall is that a smallish crowd made a lot of noise, and we lost the game 2-0.
In some ways, their start to this season has mirrored our own. They began with a draw at Middlesbrough, and then lost four games in a row, conceding four goals in each of three of those fixtures. They followed this with two more draws, before a recent run of three consecutive victories, albeit against Sunderland, Hull and Swansea, the three teams currently occupying the relegation places. As I knew we were playing them this weekend I watched some of their 3-1 win over Swansea on the Monday night football on Sky. They looked quite impressive, especially Bony who scored twice, and Allen, who has scored four goals from midfield this season. Arnautovic will be missing serving a one match ban, whilst Shaqiri is a doubt for the game.
We haven’t actually beaten Stoke at home since March 2011 when our three goalscorers were Demba Ba, Da Costa, and Hitzlesperger. Where are those three ex-players now? The last time we did record a victory over them was in March 2013 when Jack Collison scored the only goal in the game at the Britannia. But since then we have played them six times in total, drawing three and losing three. Since returning to the Premier League our home record against them has been three draws and one loss, so it is about time we put an end to this run.
They currently sit in twelfth place in the table (to our seventeenth), but are only two points ahead of us, so a victory would take us above them, and we could in theory be in the top half of the table by Saturday evening if other results went our way, although this is unlikely. But with our difficult run of fixtures after the international break, three points would be most welcome, and I predict that we will win a tight game by the odd goal, perhaps 1-0 or 2-1.