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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 14/01/06, 3.00pm
Stoke City
Ten months
By Ian Grant

The Dublin Hornets are here, warm and charming as ever. For Joe, it's been a fair while between matches, but it's not terribly hard to remember the last time that Pat was at Vicarage Road. It was a memorable occasion, after all.

Then, we lost two-nil - a very thorough two-nil as well - to a fairly functional Preston North End side, and the post-match atmosphere was more than slightly anguished. Heavens, read the bloody report if you really feel that you need to remember what a dark, hideous hole we'd fallen into...and that was written after a very extensive and increasingly intoxicated therapy session in the Estcourt. Unlike some, I've never believed that we weren't in deep, desperate trouble, nor that we could've spent the two-week break following that godforsaken match just hoping that it'd all sort itself out. It was the solution that I had very grave difficulties with. (And now...? Ah, some other time....)

So, nearly everything has changed since Pat and I drunkenly parted company that evening. Nearly everything: we still play at the same ground and we still play in the same colours (well, when we're at home...), but these things are fairly basic, fairly sparse. I was going to suggest that the people around the club haven't changed either, but that would be to ignore some significant absentees as we sit around in the pub and try to muster enthusiasm for the annual visit of Stoke.

Of course, the league position speaks for itself. And even if it didn't, this performance would've spoken up on its behalf: the kind of solid, relatively routine home win over ordinary opposition that very insistently puts the case for a finish in the playoff places. Much as I struggle to identify with a great deal of it, this season has seen a remarkable transformation; this is a club with genuine ambition, unquestionably, and it is increasingly a club with realistic ambition too. Faced with this match, we'd have lost or drawn last season. Before we get too carried away, it's worth pointing out that we've lost or drawn very similar fixtures this season too, and in distinctly unimpressive style. We don't have to win 'em all, though. Just enough.

Forget the daft cliché about winning when you're playing badly, then: the mark of truly successful sides is that they do enough, week after week. They do this. Forgettable almost as it was happening, our victory over Stoke will occupy approximately 4.3 seconds of the end-of-season highlights package, and yet the points gained will contribute significantly to whatever else might be on the end of that DVD. We deserved to win, we were the better side; it took one goal and none conceded to prove that point. It's not exactly quantum physics, but it does require concentration, discipline and considerable effort, some of which have been a little unreliable of late.

We didn't really look like a top six side, I guess. But the points, and any others that we can gain in a similar fashion, emphasise the fact that we are a top six side. Every win takes us closer. And every performance like this - much tighter, much more focused - brings every win closer. In truth, Stoke were pretty poor and notably less resilient than they have been in the past...but that makes them the rule rather than the exception at this level. They were no worse than others, not really; we were just better than we have been.

The first few minutes provided a perfect illustration. For much of them, Stoke were bright, business-like and rather more positive than might've been expected. As has become traditional, it took a while for us to find the right rhythm and contribute to the game; in the meantime, however, we broke with tradition by defending very effectively indeed, rendering these early passages entirely meaningless to the final result. We were sometimes nervous, Ben Foster failing to communicate with his defenders on a couple of occasions...but we didn't forget the basics, Jay Demerit and Lloyd Doyley walloping clear when they were uncertain of the keeper's intentions. It's not always a simple game, but it does often involve simple things.

We were sometimes caught out too, but we rescued ourselves with equal determination, before the drama became a crisis. A wobbly five minute spell around the half hour mark was kept in perspective by some particularly resolute defending: Gavin Mahon thundering in to block Chadwick's shot after Jay Demerit had swung and missed to allow Sidibe to break; Ben Foster hurtling from his area to welly clear when Jordan Stewart failed to pick up Chadwick's run; Demerit's clattering tackle on Chadwick after Stewart had failed to clear his lines. We made mistakes and we recovered from them as a team, and the result was that Stoke ended the opening thirty minutes with only a wayward drive from Junior and a tame header from Sidibe to show for their efforts.

The improvement was less marked elsewhere, but still evident. On a grotesque playing surface, we managed to produce more constructive, composed football than we have for some time, threatening to find the final ball that would expose the Stoke defence without quite managing to do so. You felt, however, that there was a goal for us somewhere, as long as we remained patient and kept things steady at the other end. Anthony McNamee curled a shot into Simonsen's chest after cutting in from the wing, and a couple of his more accurate crosses just lacked that finishing touch inside the penalty area. It was all right, and underneath the grey January murk, Vicarage Road seemed to settle into a contented stupor.

That stupor survived until half-time. Eventful enough to ward off sleep but never anywhere near exciting, the game rambled towards the break purposefully enough. Marlon King, whose control, pace and aggressive intent continue to mark him out as something special, briefly disturbed the equilibrium by steaming in from the wing with a defender hanging off him and belting a shot from twenty-five yards that Simonsen turned away with two hands. Brilliant, as so often. More of a reflection, however, was a later effort from Chris Eagles: a half-hearted "ooh!" from the Rookery as the drive rolled wide, succeeded by amused chuckles as it kept rolling and when out for a throw.

So far, so fine. From here, we just needed to win it. You already know how that went, although it wasn't perhaps as smooth as it might've been. In particular, we failed to meet the post-interval Stoke challenge with the same resolve as earlier, offering up a few half-chances to take a match-turning lead. They didn't take them...which is about par for the course, to be honest, but it was still an unnecessary risk. Within a minute, loose marking at a corner had let in Broomes, whose shot on the turn drifted narrowly over the bar; within another minute, the lively Gallagher had slid a pass through for Sidibe to chase, just crowded out by Jordan Stewart as he sought to avoid Malky Mackay and Ben Foster slid out to claim. More of a game than we probably wanted it to be.

Then again, you could argue that you have to open up the game sometimes and trust in your own ability. There's a balance to be struck somewhere, I guess...and we just about managed it, Gavin Mahon replying to those Stoke openings by driving a shot into Simonsen's chest from the right of the area. Almost immediately, we were letting them have a sniff of goal again, Harper turning on receipt of a long throw and scuffing an awkward shot across and wide when he might've done better. And then to the other end once more - not exactly breathless excitement, but there were definitely things happening - where Marlon King belted in a low cross, Darius Henderson's strength held off a defender and provided Matthew Spring with a tidy lay-off, and the resulting shot whistled a few yards wide.

You trust in your own ability. And, at this level, you trust in the inevitability of a mistake from your opponents. So, an innocuous cross and Hoefkins makes a terrible hash of his clearance, suddenly noticing Darius Henderson lurking behind him and scuffing it hurriedly across to Chris Eagles. Tidy and composed finish across the keeper, and that's the moment which adds another three points to our totaliser. Not a great goal and not a great match, but no complaints.

Well, nearly no complaints. Because our reaction to the goal - or our reaction to their reaction, whatever - wasn't terribly smart, and we spent a rather tense fifteen minutes watching a proto-revival take shape. The problem was illustrated by Gallagher's unopposed stroll through the midfield, permitting a very deliberate curled shot just wide on the hour. On this evidence, Gavin Mahon is back to his imperious, heavyweight best, but he needs much more active support, whether from Matthew Spring or elsewhere. That support was a little while in coming; before it arrived, Chadwick turned too easily in the area and found himself with clear sight of goal, shut off by Ben Foster's excellent save at his near post. Shortly afterwards, a rare lapse in concentration from Lloyd Doyley let Duberry sneak behind the defence to head across and Chadwick, whose scratchy, bad-tempered afternoon didn't suggest that he's any great loss, shinned a half-chance well over.

And then, that support arrived. Al Bangura for Anthony McNamee, game over. It's no coincidence that Stoke didn't have another goal attempt after that substitution, for it simply eliminated the possibility of any space to breathe in the midfield and effectively blocked up one of the flanks too. Some of Adrian Boothroyd's changes are, um, unconventional; that one was absolutely spot on.

If the rest wasn't exactly a formality, it was considerably easier. It might've been easier still if a stray hand in the path of a Lloyd Doyley cross had resulted in a penalty rather than a free kick; one of those that you replay in your mind's eye immediately...and my mind's eye suggested, perhaps not altogether accurately, that the Stoke player was standing a couple of yards inside the penalty area. Another minute, and Marlon King was racing majestically onto a loose ball, forced just wide enough that his swerving shot came from an impossible angle.

Suddenly, we were looking relaxed and confident, Stoke's resistance crumbling rapidly. Gavin Mahon nearly repeated Robbo's legendary feat of scoring with a tackle, the rebound from his block on Brammer's clearance whistling into the top of the side netting, and then drove a few yards wide from twenty yards. The last of that resistance went with the dismissal of one of the visitors' coaching staff from the bench for complaining too vociferously about a foul by Chris Eagles on Chadwick; hard to tell what happened at the time, but the words "Gerry Taggart" make it all fall into place. Bless 'is cotton socks, the delicate little flower.

Bruce Dyer arrived, to warm and generous applause. Hameur Bouazza arrived, to raising of eyebrows...and then reminded us that he's capable of being much more than a fast-forward anticlimax by absolutely roaring past an opponent and whipping in a fierce cross that fell for Eagles to scoop wastefully over. All over bar the formalities, one of which involved a routine save from Simonsen to Matthew Spring's low shot. We were thoroughly in control.

A few scrapes along the way, then...but, really, this was as tidy and neat as these games generally get. The pitch is terrible, the opponents were potentially awkward, our recent form is somewhat up-and-down...and we just knuckled down, did the job, and we move on to next week. There's still a very long way to go, of course, and you still wonder whether our squad will be crucially exposed at some point. But the routine nature of this win, its essential mundanity, has its own memorable message....

We can do this.