By Callum McCarthy
For the die-hard English football fan, there are few things in life that are more enjoyable that exchanging insults with your club’s fortnightly guests of honour. It’s only once a season that the loudest away fans in the league travel to the loudest home fans in the league; and at a combined average decibel level of 199dB at their respective grounds last season, the Britannia Stadium was set to be at boiling point as Stoke City welcomed Tottenham to Staffordshire.
With an entertaining sideshow in the stands, two contrasting styles of football and Heurelho Gomes wearing orange, it would have taken something monumental to sour the mood of the two noisiest sets of fans in the English Premier League.
For Stoke City supporters, sour wouldn’t even begin to describe it.
“Yeah, er, Ryan? That’s a football and, I dunno, but we kinda need it. You do have other hats.”
In a fast paced game of exciting football, it would take a contentious disallowed goal in the final minute to send the men in red and white home with a bitter taste in their mouths, ruining what would have been a moment to remember at this, Stoke’s home opener.
Debutant Jon Walters thought he’d gained his new club a point after a stoppage time goalmouth melee resulted in the ball being headed over the line. But referee Chris Foy had other ideas — denying Stoke (and Walters) of what appeared to be a legitimate equaliser.
For this game to be remembered solely for its unfortunate ending would be a travesty, as over 27,000 people witnessed two teams going all out for the win in a wonderfully entertaining game packed with action.
After exchanging half chances in the early sparring, it would be Spurs to go ahead after 20 minutes. A wonderful 30 yard pass from Aaron Lennon scythed the Stoke defence apart and put Danny Collins through on goal. Sorensen made the save from Collins, but in the mass of bodies, Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross somehow managed to hoof the ball off the line and into Gareth Bale’s face. As the ball cannoned back off of Bale’s jaw and nestled itself in the Stoke net, goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen stood helpless as the world seemed to capitulate around him.
1-0 Spurs, and a well earned headache for the Welsh international.
Tottenham’s Gareth Bale does his best Quasimodo impression.
Stoke’s reply came just six minutes later, and this goal wasn’t particularly pretty either. Matthew Etherington’s fairly tame corner caused havoc in the Tottenham penalty area when Spurs goalie Heurelho Gomes decided to fall over for almost no reason, allowing Ricardo Fuller to slot one home from 6 yards, after the ball ricocheted off a defender and invitingly back into the mix.
Straight away, Stoke looked as though they had a foothold in the game, slowing the tempo down and keeping possession neatly in all areas of the pitch. The Britannia Stadium began cheering every consecutive pass, each sarcastic holler louder than the last from the “best fans in the league”. One could say that the Stoke fans were getting the cigars out, confident that the game was under their control.
Tempting fate is never a good idea in any walk of life, and at the sheer volume that the Stoke fans were tempting it, fate had no option but to respond. It did, quickly.
With the ball wired to his feet, explosive winger Aaron Lennon tore past Glenn Whelan, before floating a beautiful pass from the corner of the 18 yard box across the Stoke back line. On the end of it? That man again, Gareth Bale. The young Welshman called and raised Lennon’s brilliance, wiring a beautiful volley back across Thomas Sorensen that caned the top corner.
27,000 jaws dropped as the ball rippled the net — a quite stunning finish.
Without any context, this picture could be anything. He could be dancing to the Rocky theme tune. It could be a powerful yawn. He could even be singing a Westlife song. You just don’t know, ‘cos it’s ‘Arry.
The remaining fifteen minutes of the half were frantic, with both sides having golden opportunities to increase their tally. Ricardo Fuller was denied by Gomes at one end, while Stoke had to rely on the prone body of Thomas Sorensen to deny Tottenham a two goal cushion going into the half at the other.
It would be Stoke who got the better of the early going in the second half. Fired up, ready to strike back and throwing men forward, Tony Pulis’ men were determined to find a way back into the game. Spurs’ defensive pairing Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul were having trouble communicating, and with the introduction of enigmatic forward Tuncay on the hour, things only worsened for Spurs.
His first contribution to the game was almost a great one — a vicious shot from 30 yards out that deflected off Kaboul and dipped, forcing a fantastic save from Gomes. His second contribution, two minutes later, was more of a sabotage — heading wide of an open net from three yards out.
Regardless of his misgivings, his introduction injected energy into Stoke. Their fans rose out of their seats once more, roaring their team forward with every turn of possession.
And still, Stoke continued their assault, putting Tottenham on the ropes time and again.
These situations are common in football, where a perilous situation unfolds in the area, and every player within 10 yards freezes on the spot.
As the half wore on, neither side looked ready to give in. Ricardo Fuller forcing the best out of Gomes at one end, while Bale was denied a hat-trick by a leaping Sorensen, blocking his attempted chip after Peter Crouch had put him through on goal.
Time was running out.
With 3 minutes left in normal time, what looked like an innocuous injury to Mamady Sidibe late on saw the Stoke substitute stretchered off the field, giving both sides a chance for some last minute respite before Stoke’s inevitable aerial assault began. Sidibe was later found to have snapped his achilles clean in half — remarkable considering his ability to lambast Vedran Corluka for the challenge and co-operate with the physio, all at the same time.
With Stoke piling bodies forward and the game hanging in the balance, it would be referee Chris Foy who would steal all the headlines.
Sustained pressure from Stoke occasioned another Matthew Etherington corner. Like before, his delivery was timid at best, but when Ryan Shawcross headed it goalward, a melee ensued. Gomes tipped the header onto the bar and it bounced down into the six yard box, before falling kindly for Walters. He stooped to nod the ball back toward the Spurs goal, heading the ball against a helpless Peter Crouch on the line. The ball hit Crouch in the abdomen, which replays later showed to be behind the line.
The crowd launched its final stand — half incensed and half hopeful — erupting into a wall of noise. But Foy and his assistant merely shook their heads. Relief for Spurs, disbelief for Stoke. After expending so much energy into protesting immediately after the incident, Stoke’s big push had lost its vigour, and Tottenham held on for a nervous 2-1 victory.
If Jermaine Jenas could see Gareth Bale’s face, I don’t think he’d be so pleased.
Spurs now face a difficult return fixture in midweek against Young Boys of Bern, who were unlucky not to come away from their home fixture with more than a 3-2 aggregate lead. A low scoring, one goal margin will secure Spurs’ progress into the group stages on away goals, but after two disappointing outings in a row, manager Harry Redknapp will be looking for a good performance ahead of Saturday’s home game against Wigan — a side who have conceded ten goals in their first two Premier League fixtures this season.