The received wisdom following yesterday’s 1-1 Third Round FA Cup draw with Premiership side Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium was that a replay was the last thing that both teams wanted. I would prefer to accentuate the positive though and say that a run of four consecutive away losses (the last three with very poor performances) had been ended and that the improvement from the Leeds match had been maintained by a City team minus many of what Dave Jones would consider his best eleven.
Yes, of course the same thing could be said about Stoke and Tony Pulis, but, at least he was able to call on the services of the likes of Delap, Etherington and Jones from the bench whereas City’s did not feature a striker (Darcy Blake had to play there when he came on for the last minute or so!) – also, in all honesty, Martin John and Jon Meades were, almost certainly, never going to be used.
What was also missing amongst City’s subs was anyone with the height which could offer some relief from the aerial bombardment which Stoke puts us under for much of the second half. With Gyepes, Parkin, Bothroyd and Olofinjana all missing from the eighteen, City’s squad looked unable to cope with what, traditionally, has been Stoke’s strength during Pulis’ time in charge, but, whereas many Premiership teams have wilted under the onslaught over the past three seasons, City were, just about, able to cope despite a starting eleven which included only one player (Mark Hudson) who you would have thought had the height to compete with Stoke’s giants.
City, with the Cup Final central midfield pairing of Rae and McPhail starting, were at their best as an attacking force in the opening stages and, from the latter’s cross, Michael Chopra found the space to, first, head against an upright and then bury the rebound to give City another early lead (they’ve gone 1-0 up within the first quarter of an hour in three of their last four games now). At Watford, Peter Whittingham’s goal had been the prelude to an onslaught by the home side which saw City well and truly buried by a landslide of goals, but this time, admittedly aided by a bit of help from the woodwork. they held firm and, although it was hard to see where a second goal would come from, the general consensus was that they had earned their right to another chance to progress in nine days time.
Whether any of yesterday’s absentees or the hoped for new signings will feature in the replay is a matter for debate though – my guess is that Bothroyd and Bellamy, for example, will not, but you would like to think that, against Stoke of all teams, that we will have some height at the back. I can see the merits of Kevin McNaughton playing in central defence against a certain type of opposition, but, especially, given the overall lack of height in yesterday’s side, we really could do with another centre half – I know I am not coming up with anything original or earth shattering there, but, with Chris Riggott injured and Gabor Gyepes injured, dropped completely from the squad or on his way out of the club, that need is greater now than at any other time during the season.
Despite his physical disadvantages, it has to be said that McNaughton was generally considered to be one of City’s best players on the day and I acknowledge that it is dangerous to fall into the trap of believing that Stoke only provide a, one dimensional, physical challenge – they wouldn’t have survived in the Premiership this long if that was the case. Players such as Whelan, Pennant, Fuller and the chronically under used Tuncay all possess a degree of technical ability which is well suited to the top flight and the latter’s fine equaliser offered the clue that you do need more than just strength and physique to deal with Stoke.
Another player to do well was David Marshall. I did hear it said on the radio commentary that he should have done better with Stoke’s goal, but I don’t see it myself – he didn’t have a chance with it and it seems to me that he did his cause no harm at all yesterday. My guess is that Tom Heaton will still be the man in possession at Norwich next week, but, at a time when the lack of quality and depth in some areas is being exposed, goalkeeper looks to be a position where Dave Jones has a choice to make which many of his rival Championship managers would envy.
So, City at least go into the draw for the Fourth Round and, perhaps, that might serve as a reminder to some that the FA Cup still has something to offer despite the bad press it gets these days – I bet a tie with Manchester United or Liverpool on 29 January, if we overcome Stoke of course, would soon change the minds of those who were, unbelievably in my book, saying that they didn’t care if we lost yesterday.