Once upon a time a trip to Stoke with a depleted team would have been the cue for our lot to step back, usher in the opposition and direct them towards a three-point haul with minimal fuss. Now, however, it seems our heroes have steel, and backbone, and other clichéd, macho-sounding adjectives. They have evolved into footballing vertebrates, who stomp around the dressing-room pre kick-off making clenched fists and shouting “Grrr”. There was evidence aplenty of this trait last season, when we turned the away win into something of an art-form, but I had worried over the summer that that would prove an anomaly, for our soft underbelly had been nurtured over several years, and such old habits die hard.
How marvellous then to behold the return yesterday of squad depth and a determination not to roll over and die. Had we lost yesterday, or even conceded a late equaliser, there would have been plenty of fairly valid excuses, not least injuries and the rigours of our midweek European game. Yet despite these we instead dug in, and while we certainly rode our luck at times the win can nevertheless be considered ruddy well-earned. Forget about slick passing triangles, and glorious derby wins at the Lane – come the end of the season in order to push for fourth again we will need a great big sack of points from scrappy away days such as this, when a decimated squad faces an Alamo-style barrage.
4-5-1 and Jermaine Jenas
The backs-to-the-wall finale means that this probably deserves to be filed under the “Winning Ugly” column, but we did also churn out some eye-pleasing stuff in the first half, as exemplified by the build-up to both goals. With Crouch on his own in attack the success of our 4-5-1 depended on Lennon and Bale attacking the area, and Jenas making the occasional lollop forward in support. In the first half in particular this approach met with a degree of success, which leads me to doff my cap in the direction of J. Jenas Esquire, as tends to happen approximately once every sixth months.
With the platform of Hudd and Sergeant Wilson behind him he adopted an unusually proactive approach, eschewing the traditional urge to turn around pass backwards and instead venturing on the odd gallop towards the Stoke goal. Indeed his dash into the area just before half-time was vaguely Lampard-esque (and had he been more clinical it might have brought him a goal). I would still sell him off in the blink of an eye, but with five attacking types out injured, he served his purpose as a squad-player yesterday.
Hits And Misses From Gomes
Not entirely to which genre the performance of Heurelho Gomes belongs. The stretchy Brazilian got himself in a right pickle for the Stoke goal, made a similar mess of things from a second half corner (from which Tuncay really ought to have scored) and generally veered perilously close to becoming that butter-fingered doppelganger who flapped and spilt his way through his first few months in English football. However, aside from the set-piece mishaps he actually saved our bacon more than once, with a cracking tip-over-the-bar from a Tuncay lob, as well as a low reflex save from Fuller. A happy ending means it is all smiles, but a return to the wobbly days of yore would be unwelcome.
Bale’s Volley: Sometimes A Commentator Nails The Moment
And so to the boy Bale. His first may have been a tad unorthodox, but his second deserves to be turned into a big-budget Hollywood production. Multiple viewings have left me drooling at the technique – and actually wincing at quite how high he raises his left leg – but the first-time, real-time viewing of it stunned me for the audacity he showed in even attempting such nonsense. Hark thee back to Alan Partridge’s football commentary, from back in the day (just here, specifically around 0.50), and the rather apt exclamation on seeing one particularly eye-catching goal of: “Shit! Did you see that?” Quite the mot juste for anyone witnessing Bale’s latest. My goodness the boy still needs to work on his celebrations though.
For all the late controversy, broadly speaking it was a pleasingly determined defensive effort, while up the other end we can be grateful to have in our ranks forwards capable of producing the odd moment of match-winning quality. Glad to have ticked “Stoke, away” off the fixture-list. Onwards.