That was massive – and didn’t the players know it. At the final whistle they could hardly contain themselves, with Weaver engulfed by players for the save of the night in injury time to ensure justice was done. Stoke, you leave with nothing. Unloved, unwanted, unashamedly dire. Hope it’s a long journey back. They didn’t even manage to lose with any dignity, spending the last five minutes ploughing through any of our players who had the audacity to keep the ball.
For a long time it looked as though we wouldn’t get the three points. I don’t know what the statistics say, but I doubt if a team in the Championship has attempted or completed more passes in a game this season. I suppose we had to as a pass seemed completely foreign to Stoke. Long ball down the channels, get a throw or corner, launch missile into the area. We all hoped this sort of thing died out a long time ago. I wonder if Stoke fans are really happy with this approach.
The line-up was largely predictable, with the defence and midfield unchanged, while Iwelumo got the nod to partner Gray. It doesn’t look like an ideal combination as yet, with Gray perhaps more likely to benefit from Varney’s runs. But there was an element of Iwelumo being needed for height at the back against Stoke and nobody could complain about that. The problem was that when we needed to turn to a goalscorer in the second half to win the game Dickson wasn’t on the bench, not could we bring on Iwelumo. Instead Big Chris gave way to Varney, which still left us short of a real poacher in the box. Still, we have time to work it out – and we still won. Gray showed us enough to be confident that he will be a very welcome addition. Intelligent and strong on the ball.
For long periods Stoke were content to sit behind the ball and watch us pass it around. They knew that they would get a chance or two, with one mishit shot in the first half but then Fuller showing what potential he once had with a shot that just went the right side of the far post. We created plenty of half-chances, which were either blocked or went begging for want of a decisive finish. But just when it looked as though we would have to settle for 0-0 we managed somehow to put the ball in the net. It looked to me as though Varney at the far post made a complete hash of putting the ball into the net, but instead of the ball going out it barely moved, allowing him to square it (or get a rebound off the keeper, depending on your view of events) for Sam to finish. Cue pandemonium.
All that remained was for Stoke to bring on another basketball player, for us to squander a breakaway to score the second that would have seen us move above Stoke in the league, for Stoke to lose their heads, and for Weaver to make that save. All that was missing was the Chris Powell leap out of the tunnel.
Nobody needs telling how important the victory was. The run of home games against teams competing for promotion will determine the season and we’re off to the best possible start. Scunthorpe on Saturday, then it’s the local affair. Up the football league we go indeed. But for once I can’t waffle on as the pub’s still open and there’s a bloody great big glass with my name on it.
Weaver: 10/10. What else could it be for saving the points. He dealt much better with the aerial threat than against Stoke early in the season and didn’t put a foot wrong.
Moutaouakil: 7/10. Not dynamic but capable in defence and still able to provide an effective outlet going forward.
Youga: 8/10. Vibrant and defensively very sound.
McCarthy: 9/10. He truly is a player reborn and provides the leadership in defence that we lacked for so long.
Bougherra: 8/10. Good game. Fuller escaped a couple of times, but that was all.
Sam: 8/10. Great first half, less visible in the second. But appeared at the right place at the right time.
Holland: 8/10. Another storming performance, full of heart. Against a team like Stoke it’s easy to be outmuscled in midfield and he ensured it didn’t happen.
Zhi: 8/10. Looks so much more comfortable now than earlier in the season. I think it’s down to playing alongside Holland.
Ambrose: 7/10. Good game. Not perfect, but involved and mobile.
Iwelumo: 7/10. Worked hard in attack and defence but didn’t run for him in front of goal.
Gray: 8/10. Encouraging performance, just needed a goal to round it off.
Subs: Varney (6/10), Thomas (7/10), Semedo (well, he was only on for a minute but did nothing wrong that I saw).