Think of Stoke City and what comes to mind? The pulsating final game of last season when Hugo Rodallega’s goal sent us into raptures – safety assured? Let’s go further back in time. Historians might point out that Stoke City are the second oldest professional football club in the world, founded in 1863, after Notts County who started a year earlier. Stanley Matthews – one of the greatest English players of all time – played 259 times for Stoke City, being 49 years old in his last season. The most fantastically skilful winger you could see in an era when full backs could play with ultimate thuggery and get away with it most of the time. He played 54 games for England, despite World War II taking away his “peak” years between 24 and 30 years of age. The superb goalkeepers – Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton – also played for Stoke for long periods. I warmly recall the era of Tony Waddington, a manager who believed in entertainment and the sheer artistry and elegance of Alan Hudson in his mid 1970s Stoke team, that made them a joy to watch.
Stoke City has a history of high quality football. They dwarf Wigan Athletic in their longevity, although their only notable success in all those years was in winning the League Cup in 1972. As befitting a club with such a long history they have a loyal and passionate support and stats tell us that the noise level of the crowd in their stadium is second to none in the Premier League.
So what do Wigan Athletic face at Stoke tomorrow? Sadly the days of good football at Stoke are no longer with us. They play a kind of football that would not be tolerated in other parts of the world. They are a blight upon the landscape of the Premier League. The pragmatist will say that Stoke are playing to their strengths – this is a valid argument – but is it unlikely that they could get away with it in other European countries. Frankly speaking, their football is ugly – they resemble the hideous Bolton teams under Sam Allardyce or even the “Crazy Gang” Wimbledon team of the 1980s.
Stoke are a big team, in the true sense of the word. So many of their players are physically large, and they can be very ruthless in their tacking. They get most of their goals from centres or set-pieces. So far this season 61% of their goals have come from the latter. Their pitch measures 100 meters by 64 meters, the lowest permissible by UEFA. There is certainly going to be a contrast in footballing styles between the teams. So far this season Stoke have played 721 long balls – the highest in the division – and Latics only 244, the lowest.
So Latics will be facing a truly physical team tomorrow at Britannia Stadium. Rory Delap has been out injured over recent weeks, but even if he does not make it they have Ryan Shotton available for their long throw-ins. Let’s not forget the skill they have on the wings with players like Mathew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant who can put dangerous centres across for strikers of the quality of Peter Crouch, Kenwynne Jones, Jonathan Walters and Cameron Jerome. However, Latics have shown that they can match Stoke physically in the past. In the six matches they have played together in the Premier League, four have ended up in draws, with one win for each side.
For once the Premier League hierarchy have given Latics a favourable decision in rescinding Conor Sammon’s ridiculous red card at Old Trafford. Although Sammon is available he may not start, facing competition from Franco Di Santo and a Hugo Rodallega eager to end his goalscoring drought. The remainder of the team is likely to remain unchanged, although Martinez might be tempted to shore up his defence by playing Patrick Van Aanholt at left wing back. My hope is that good football can triumph over route one. Wigan Athletic can bear up to the physical pressures and head tennis that Stoke may throw at them and come back with a good result.