By Declan Taylor
In Arsenal’s season of quite remarkable highs and lows, defeat against Stoke in November certainly ranks somewhere near the bottom.
Three days earlier, Arsenal had thrown away a late two-goal lead to draw 4-4 with Tottenham at a drizzly Emirates Stadium. If they were after a response at the Britannia Stadium, the Potters had other ideas.
Led by Rory Delap and his coveted long-throws, Stoke City out-muscled the Gunners to earn a deserved 2-1 win. It was the first of three defeats in what proved to be a rather season-defining November for Arsène Wenger’s side. Stoke on the other hand went on to scoop a further eight points in the month - two more than Arsenal managed.
The pocket of Arsenal fans in the Britannia Stadium that day witnessed first hand just why City would easily avoid relegation in their first ever Premier League season. And Tony Pulis’s side know that victory at Emirates Stadium in Sunday’s final game could secure them a place in the top 10.
Ahead of the clash we caught up with Mike Baggaley of the Stoke Sentinel for an in-depth view of the Potters, the reason for their success story and the tears of a 14-stone Senegalese centre back.
THE STORY SO FAR
“People are still pinching themselves, myself included. I did actually think at the start of the season that Stoke would finish the highest of the three promoted sides but I did wonder whether that would still be third bottom. It was more hope than expectation at the start of the season but over the course of the campaign the team has definitely improved. But having said that, finishing 11th or 12th is a fantastic achievement.
“In a way, what happened to Derby last season did Stoke some favours because expectations were lowered. A lot of people were of course hoping Stoke would stay up but their main hope was that Stoke would show some fight even if they did go down. Beating Aston Villa in the first home game of the season gave a lot of people hope that Stoke would do it and then they got a 0-0 draw at Anfield which provided another great boost to the confidence.”
THE MAN IN CHARGE
“It has been an incredible season for Tony Pulis. I’m sure Sir Alex Ferguson will get the Manager of the Year award if Man United win the Champions League but it’s still not a foregone conclusion. We’ve looked this up and it doesn’t always go to the manager who wins the title. It is possible that Tony Pulis could win the LMA award and deservedly so.
“I think a lot of managers would like to know his secret. He has a certain, very effective, way of playing. It’s not to everybody’s taste and it has been described as “neanderthal” but it’s not as bad as it has been suggested. He has a squad of 100 per cent committed players who work extremely hard for the cause. He knows how he wants to play, gets his players extremely well-organised and they don’t concede many goals.”
“The January signings have certainly added a lot. James Beattie’s goals have been vital. He has scored seven in 13 games now with that extra bit of quality upfront. But it isn’t just the goals, it has been his workrate that has been outstanding. He didn’t come to Stoke like a 'Big-time Charlie' – he has really bought into the work ethic that Stoke have got in spades.
“The same can be said of Matthew Etherginton. He is a terrific worker, a real terrier on the left. But having said that Stoke’s style did change a little when he signed. Etherington isn’t the stereotypical Stoke player. He’s a small, skillful winger with plenty of pace and his arrival has brought the team on.”
“I think he will make a few signings. In the last two weeks he has been on three scouting trips abroad and they’ve identified some targets. I’m sure the idea will be to bring in three or four quality players who can improve the team and take them on as Beattie and Etherington did in January.
“There will be some money to spend, exactly how much I don’t know. Chairman Peter Coates has really backed the manager letting him spend something like £27 million on transfers, not including the wage budget which has gone up enormously.
“They didn’t accept they would be a ‘yo-yo’ club in the Premier League. They always said it has taken 23 years to get into the Premier League so they’ll give it the very best shot to stay there – which obviously they have done.”
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
“Abdoulaye Faye has been absolutely immense and of the eight awards given out at the start of the game last Saturday, Abdoulaye won all of them. I think he was a success at Bolton but things didn’t quite work out for him at Newcastle. But their loss was Stoke’s gain and to get him for £2.25 million was an absolute steal – one of the best signings in Stoke’s history. There are a lot of fans who didn’t witness the team of the 1970s so they would say that Faye is the best player they’ve ever seen in a Stoke shirt.
“He has barely put a foot wrong all season. He’s physically strong and he very rarely loses in the air. He’s excellent on the floor as well and he’s a genuine ball-playing centre half who thinks nothing of dribbling out of the defence, beating two or three players. His obvious quality and unquestionable attitude have made him a firm fans’ favourite – a real cult hero really. I hope no other clubs come in for him in the summer, he seems really happy at Stoke and was in tears when he was given the Players’ Player of the Year award. He’s really settled at the club and his family are all settled in the North-West. I think, and I desperately hope, he’ll be kicking off next season with Stoke.”
IMPRESSIONS OF ARSENAL
“I love watching Arsenal and I don’t think Stoke got them at their best at the Britannia Stadium earlier in the season. I know Arsène Wenger was particularly upset at suggestions that his team are a bit spineless and a bit of a soft touch at the Britannia – I don’t think that was the case. There certainly won’t be anyone getting carried away because of that result and going to the Emirates will be different entirely. Stoke are definitely the underdogs and they won’t be thinking anything else.”