Mad March – the month which is going to shape Stoke City’s future in so many ways – has started as well as it could have been hoped for.
Defeating a poor and sorry-looking Hull team 5-1 with something of a swagger, following a devastating opening 18 minutes was as much as any Stokie could have dreamed for.
But it can’t have been so often in our 150+ year history that such a comprehensive victory left us with so many questions to which we don’t really know the answers.
Hull were so bad and yet City got complacent at 4-0 and let them score a ridiculous goal. Zero marking at the far post, following the third occasion in which the Tigers got in behind Tommy Smith at right-back. We’ve had this right-back problem and long balls in behind with both Smith and Edwards over the past two seasons, why can’t we fix it?
Following a couple of really good performances Jack Butland is back to looking a little shaky. It didn’t cost us on this occasion, but we are by no means safe yet. His confidence needs building and building because when he’s on it he is a real asset. Can he do that for these last nine games?
If Tom Ince can play that well, positively and even track back against a poor team, why dos he seemingly hide and give up as soon as it gets a bit tougher?
What happens if Tyrese Campbell gets injured? Without him we have zero pace up front as evidenced tie and time again this season. That maybe one for the summer transfer window to resolve.
Can the team still not concentrate for 90 minutes, even against a side as dreadful as Hull?
And, of course, who is going to replace poor Joe Allen, who is going to miss around six months through his Achilles injury. It was terrible for Joe, who of course is now going to miss Wales’s Euros campaign this summer, and leaves a huge hole to be filled in that position terrorising opposition midfields to win the ball back and start Stoke’s attacks off.
We have no natural replacement and, with James McClean’s imminent return on the left wing, we may see Nick Powell moved back centrally, while Sam Clucas then drops back. That’s a real shame if it has to happen as Clucas is now clear as top scorer this season with 10 goals and is clearly loving playing that bit further forward.
Meanwhile, debutant 20-year-old Tashan Oakley-Boothe replaced Allen at half-time and looked lost until moved further forward into that same central position as Powell or Clucas would naturally inhabit when he looked a completely different player and popped up with a neat bit of skill to create the fifth goal. I’ll take an assist per half thank you. Well done, Tash.
While you can only beat what’s put in front of you, Stoke did do just that, scything through them like room temperature butter in a comprehensive opening 20 minutes which was a joy to behold.
Hull were listless, formless and toothless until manager Grant McCann introduced some substitutes who, you have to say, made the world of difference to them and must be wondering what on earth they had done wrong not to get into that starting eleven…
They were on the whole utterly awful. In short, they reminded me of Stoke City under Nathan Jones’s tenure, particularly the pass after pass which went out of play as players expected others to be in certain places and they just weren’t.
Stoke were primed by Michael O’Neill to take ruthless advantage and did so brilliantly.
Meanwhile their dwindling travelling supporters suffered through the dross just as we have done so often in recent years. My heart went out to those Tigers fans who did themselves and their club proud, unlike their players on the whole.
It made me appreciate what Michael O’Neill has been able to do with a similar lumpen rabble in just four short months all the more.
Don’t get me wrong, Saturday’s victory was a wonderful, joyful thing. But it was just three points and we have another 12 to play for this month that are against teams we are in direct competition with to stay out of that bottom three.
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That’s all this season is about at the moment. Thoughts of how our current form could translate into the play-offs next season will be irrelevant if we get ahead of ourselves too much.
Still, revel in the 5-1 triumph – they don’t come along too often! – until we kick off at Reading next weekend and have to get ourselves back into the reality of scrapping for more points. Another 8 to 10 will do it.