Arsène Wenger famously once likened Stoke City’s playing style to that of rugby, so how apt it was that on the same weekend that Wales won the triple crown against the old enemy in Twickenham (for the first time), that the Swans should face England’s other rugby team at the Britannia Stadium.
All jokes aside though, this was – in my opinion – always going to be one of our toughest away games. The fact of us winning the last 4 meetings between the sides counted for nothing, especially given Stoke’s home record and physical, direct style of play.
With the designated driver of the day – Financial Advisor Jack – hailing from deepest (darkest?) west Wales, we decided that a suitable meeting point would be Carmarthenshire’s answer to the chic boutique town of Narberth, i.e Llandeilo.
On what was a beautiful crisp and sunny February day we meandered our way through mid Wales to meet with our Stoke Tourist Guide for the day (affectionately known as STG from here on in) whom was located – for the sake of anonymity – in downtown Keele, which is near Stoke for those not too hot on Staffordshire geography.
Our journey took us via Shrewsbury – which duly invoked memories of numerous visits to Gay Meadow (purely for footballing reasons) – the scene of many lower league and Welsh Cup battles between the Shrews and the Swans.
After picking up STG at around 1pm we headed off to find some suitable off-street parking near to the Britannia stadium – which incidentally casts an impressive sight from the nearby A500. Thankfully, STG obviously knew his onions and we avoided parking in the vicinity of the stadium for fear of the post-match gridlock, preferring to park a 15 minute walk away.
Walking to the ground reminded me of my recent visit to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light – due to its prime bit of real estate location, i.e it had acres of space around it and little else!
Considering that the Britannia was a relatively new stadium (circa 1997), it was rather odd to see that 3 out of the 4 corners of the ground were open ended.
I enquired with STG if this was a deliberate ploy to allow extra wind and turbulence to enter the ground – in an blatant attempt to assist Stoke’s high ball tactics. He declined to confirm if this was the case but did chuckle through a wry smile.
One thing is for sure, anyone who does visit the Britannia Stadium is left with no doubt the esteem by which the legendary Sir Stanley Matthews is held with Stoke City fans. The Sir Stanley Matthews statue and giant mosaic on the side of the main stand emphasise this, not to mention the flags inside the ground bearing his picture and the words “Forever Grateful”.
Having done my usual pre-match ground walkabout, we headed into the away end in readiness for the game. In fairness to STG it can’t have been easy sitting amongst 1,900 odd Swansea fans, especially as a lifelong Potter – but what can a man do when he can’t get a ticket in the home end. Never has the song “You’re only here to watch the Swans” been more apt.
‘Potters‘ – the Stoke City programme had lots of content on Stokies with Swans connections, with articles on John Mahoney, Neil Cutler, the legendary Robbie James and one time Swans striker Mamady Sidibe. It was a good read and worthy of the standard £3 price tag.
Somewhat bizarrely there appears to be a strong Welsh connection with Stoke City – with Tony Pulis the gaffer being from Newport, first team coach Gerry Francis (yes the Gerry Francis that played for the Swans), Mickey ‘Bank Notes’ Thomas writing in the match day programme and the club anthem being ‘Delilah’ (God only knows why this is, as not even STG had a clue).
The stewarding was friendly and the view was good – albeit that the seats were a wee bit cramped. If you did miss some of the action, then you could watch it replayed (sometimes) on the big screen to the right of the away end (South Stand).
The away end is shared with the Stoke fans which sure adds to the atmosphere, especially as the Potters are officially proclaimed to be the loudest fans in England.
With Gerhard Tremmel warming up in front of us and no sign of Michel Vorm – we knew the omens weren’t good and that Alan Tate would be our substitute goalkeeper – cue memories of the QPR game at the Liberty in 2008.
- The opening minutes of the game left us under no illusions as to what to expect from Stoke – with several crunching tackles and hoofs upfield. Thankfully Howard Webb was quick to pick-up on the over zealous tackles (sometimes a little too much) – much to the irritation of the locals;
- A bright start from the Swans was rewarded with a clear cut chance for Scott Sinclair (or should I call him Seb Larsson?) whom in true Charlie Adams style blazed it high over the bar rather than slotting past Bergovic in the Stoke goal. This felt like Sunderland all over again;
- Both Nathan Dyer and Siggi were carving up Stoke down the right and we enjoyed plenty of possession without being able to find that killer pass. If anything we were guilty of overplaying it sometimes;
- When Upson gave Stoke the lead from a corner (surprise surprise) it was rather frustrating to see that there was nobody on the line defending. We appeared to be double banking in terms of challenging the header of the ball. Having coped with it so well at the Liberty back in October, this was bloody annoying;
- One thing I’ve noticed about the Swans this season is that even when we do go behind – the body language and attitude is spot on and it’s immediately back to business. This shows that mentally we are strong and don’t let our heads drop. Belief – an important asset to any team or individual;
- The goal did seem to stir the home crowd momentarily and whilst they weren’t as noisy as I’d anticipated, they were very loud when they did bother to sing. I can imagine the Britannia bouncing for the bigger games – just as it does down the Liberty;
- Shortly after us threatening an equaliser, we were 2 nil down. Once again our defending of the long throw wasn’t great with nobody on the line. I did think at the time whether or not the sun had played its role in the goal and whether or not Tremmel should have done better with the save. Watching it once again on MOTD – I do think he could/should have saved it;
- On the subject of Tremmel on the two occasions I have seen him, he looks a bag of nerves and sometimes this seems to affect the players in front of him. I suspect that only first team game time is going to improve this… but the question is at what cost?
- Despite the goals conceded, IMO the back 4 played very well, with Taylor and Rangel in particular having strong games both in defence and attack;
- Stoke’s play seemed to consist of one tactic – wherever they were on the field, they had to lump it up to Crouch for the knock-down from which Jonathan Walters could play off and shoot or whatever. Simple and boring yet oh so effective;
- As the game wore on we seemed to run out of ideas in the final third of the pitch and quite often would end up losing possession as a result. We could and probably should have had a shot at goal from such positions rather than trying to find that killer ball into the box. It reminded me of the Arsenal team of old who’d win most games one nil – usually by walking the ball into the net!!
- The double substitution of Sinclair and Dyer for McEachran and Moore – amidst the Stoke fans chanting “You don’t know what you’re doing” – somewhat ironically saw us create more clear cut chances. But after 80 minutes this really was leaving it a little late!
- With Taylor and Rangel coming forward even more and Luke Moore putting himself about, we created our best chance when a Caulker header was pushed onto the bar by Begovic. By now we know it really wasn’t to be our day;
- Moore definately seems to have “more, more, more” of an impact away from the Liberty and I wonder how much of this is to do with the fact that he feels less pressure? I’m sure he can hear his arrival on the pitch sadly being greeted by a crowd groan at the Liberty;
- In fairness the Swans played well – as the stats show – but it’s that final pass and killer instinct in front of goal which eludes us now and again which is causing us the problem. I’ve little doubt that we’ll be ok – but hope we end the losing streak at Wigan on Saturday;
- If I had to pick a man of the match it would be Nathan Dyer with a special mention to the Swans fans who sang and stuck with the team right till the final whistle;
Walking back to the car it was interesting to listen to what some of the Stoke fans thought of the game – which ranged from “If Swansea had scored first that would have been a different game” to “They’re boring to watch, all they do is pass the ball back and fore sideways”. I suspect the latter comment wouldn’t have been made had Stoke lost!
STG did say that it is infuriating to watch Stoke play as even when given the opportunity to pass and move (rather than pass and hoof) they rarely do they do so. Personally I really couldn’t sit and watch that week in week out – regardless of results. The Kenny Jackett era – although successful – nearly put paid to my Swans season ticket application.
Shortly afterwards we congratulated STG on his team’s win and bid him farewell before embarking on our 3 and a half hour journey home.
Other than stopping for a brief pee in field on the outskirts of Shrewsbury – in order to improve the drought problems in the area and to stop Financial Advisor Jack wetting his pants – the journey home was quite uneventful.
We did briefly listen to a new Radio 5 Live programme called “A Scouser’s Guide to Missing Penalties” but it wasn’t very good and decided to switch it off as it sounded as though it was written for losers.
Upon arriving in Llandeilo I was relieved to see that my car hadn’t been put on breeze blocks and I duly arrived home in time for the usual 8 minute inquest into the defeat on Match of the Day.
However disappointed I was at the final whistle today, a little dose of perspective on the return journey soon had me thinking of the bigger picture, that life is good as a Swansea City fan these days and despite the defeat at Stoke, it wasn’t a bad weekend on the whole.
We did after all see the wheels fall off that chariot 🙂