Stoke. What can you say about Stoke? Seriously. Apart from Owd Grandad Piggott, May un Mar Lady and the 1842 Pottery Riots the place seems not to have an awful lot going for it. Oh sorry, I forgot there’s the football team. We need to mention the football team. Now. I am well aware of the protocol here. I know I’m expected to litter this piece with Tolkienesque allusions and rugby references, but I am going to try to break out of that particular clichéd straight jacket. I want to see if I can make it to the end without one mention of Orcs, seven points, Mordor, The Barad-dûr or Twickenham. You don’t think I can? Just watch me.
With players closely resembling the uglier members of The Dothraki tribe and a playing style closer to American rather than British Football Stoke City have won few friends in their most recent sojourn in the top flight of the English leagues. They have been in the premier division on occasions before, but each time their stay has descended into an attritional battle where survival becomes the supreme goal. To be fair they haven’t always stirred such feelings of animus, such hostile revulsion from their peers as that which they earned during the Pulis years. We can’t tell if the Hughes era will usher in a new playing style or whether the unkind comparisons to more heavily contact based sports will endure. You have to be honest and say that his record with such Wendigo filled cloggers as Blackburn doesn’t bode well. Off the pitch a handful of Stoke supporters have done little to reverse the awful reputation that the team have earned upon it. I know there are folk, long suffering Potters fans, who have had to put up with some pretty strong stuff, not least of all from us, but sadly for them, as long as a section of their support thinks it right and proper to boo Aaron Ramsey then I fear they may as well accustom themselves to their pariah status. That reaction to the events of the twenty seventh of February twenty ten surely ranks among the most reprehensible of any group of modern football fans.
Today however I don’t really want to waste too much breath on the opposition. Today I want to focus on us. I don’t want to write a piece about Morlocks and their attempt to import Murderball tactics into the Prem, it’s all a bit tired now and we are in such a fine run of results right at this moment that it seems silly not to look at our own side and let the visitors worry about themselves. One of the positives about our recent mini run since the opening day setback is that we’ve put it together with a severely depleted squad. I think most people now accept that the bunkum bandied about us being weak, lacking strength in depth or having insufficient back up to first team players has been categorically disproved and was in all honesty little more than a Sky Sports editorial flogging horse which Murdoch’s minions had been ordered to repeat until the brainwashed hordes assumed it to be based on some sort of empirical evidence. We have sauntered on, apparently uninhibited by shedding players of the calibre of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxelaide Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky and the best midfielder in the league Mikel Arteta. That we haven’t broken stride despite this luminous list joining AD2 in the infirmary having the old embrocation rubbed in by beefy men in roll necked sweaters of course speaks volumes for our squad depth. Less tangible however is this creeping feeling that we are a considerably more to be reckoned with force than we have been in recent seasons. I can’t speak for you obviously but I know that I have been a little taken aback by how fast our injured players are returning to us. This could of course be no more than the effects of the passage of time. An old man like me will naturally watch the few remaining grains in the top half of the hour glass appear to drop ever more quickly the less of them there are, that is merely human nature. In this instance, however, I think something else is at work.
Normally when important players are missing you, well, you miss them. You study Arsène’s elastic forecasts of their projected return dates with mounting anxiety and you know that we desperately need them patched up and wheeled out in as little time as possible. It has sometimes been a fretful misery watching our second string hanging on in there as we wonder how many more months our wounded stars must be injected with the old horse tranquillisers and fed the cod liver oil. Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not but Thomas Vermaelen’s name slipped back into the match day programme recently. And now I’m hearing that Mikel Arteta our other captain is back to full training and may even feature in today’s line up. So soon. They haven’t recovered particularly quickly. That isn’t it at all. Nature has run it’s course as it always has and ever will. No, I maintain that what’s happening here is because our squad is so strong, so resilient even in times of crisis that we haven’t really been worrying about the wounded in the way we once would. The spotlight is on the guys who are winning for us on the pitch and not for once on the ones we desperately need back to careen a stricken ship. Even a year ago we’d have really struggled without Arteta in the team. Now I begin to wonder who could we drop to make way for him. Aaron? Don’t make me laugh. Jack? Just when his burgeoning understanding with Mesut Özil is growing minute by minute before our eyes into a thing of rare beauty? I don’t think so. The new boy himself? Seems a little unlikely. Seems to me he needs games under his belt; as many and as soon as possible to help him settle and learn the ways of the Wengerball. Can’t see MA rampaging down either wing nor displacing Olivier Goal A Game Giroud and so maybe, just maybe I have a point.
I know we have a lot of games and people need to rest and injuries will happen. I get all that, but it isn’t really what I’m driving at here. I’m more interested in the way things feel calmer, even in a so called crisis, the way the club seems to sit a little deeper in the water and not heel over so badly in a sudden squall. I can’t put my finger on it but there’s a settled, purposeful strength to our progress right now and I like it a lot. None of this should hoodwink you into thinking that I’m not a gibbering wreck in the ten minutes before kick off – the thing wouldn’t be any fun otherwise would it? But if you take recent events into account I can’t see why anyone would be anything other than serenely calm right now. I certainly couldn’t grasp why folk spat out their pacifiers (for my English readers that’s ‘dummies’) when we conceded against Paulo the Fascist’s north eastern division last weekend. There was a sense of inevitability about our matching and going at least two better than anything they could throw at us that day and that typifies the aura the club is wearing right now.
OK, enough of me and my hypothetical rambling, I know what you want. You want final score predictions and team lists don’t you? That is after all the only reason to read a blog. Unless it’s to be told what to think. So here goes. Bendtner will start in a four four three with Akpom playing off him in the channel holes, Giroud to start on the left drifting into the right half central wide position when defending. Peter Story will be at holding midsweeper and with Theo in goal we’ll defeat the ravening Mongol hordes of Batu Khan Hughes by six to two with one impaling and two yellow perils to one red army faction. There will be a white Christmas, it might as well rain until September and the lotto numbers for Wednesday will precisely correspond to the page numbers in which Mr Gradgrind is mentioned in the first half of Hard Times by Charles Dickens.