Here’s What You Missed Dad: The 2016/2017 Season So Far

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these for you Dad, for a number of reasons. Part of it was that I lost faith that you would ever be able to read them, part of it was a natural slump after the peak of running the Potteries Marathon in your honour. Mostly I think it was because football was starting to bring me more sorrow than joy.

I failed to change my seat before the start of the new season which means I’m either sat next to your empty pew or a poorly mustachioed youth who turns up now and then and possesses zero chat. This combined with a terrible start to the season did not make for a very enjoyable experience. Stoke shipped four goals to Manchester City, Tottenham and most embarrassingly, Crystal Palace amid a smattering of classic Mark Hughes 1-1 draws. We seemed a wounded beast still bleeding from our poor form at the end of the previous season, trudging through the now characteristic treacle of a slow start to the new one.

Give me hope, Joe Allen

Then, an unexpected draw at Old Trafford changed everything.  Joe Allen, the one bright spark in an otherwise dull sky, scored for the second game in a row and kickstarted our resurrection. This game also announced the arrival of Lee Grant, a thirty-something fourth-string Championship goalkeeper signed as emergency backup who, for a run of half a dozen games at least, became one of the best shot-stoppers in the Premier League. After the blessings of Begovic and Butland we’d become accustomed to having a quality goalkeeper between the sticks and unfortunately it is obvious that Shay Given has seen better days.

You’d like both Allen and Grant. The former bounces around from box-to-box with seemingly endless energy, like a Dean Whitehead with shooting ability and tackling ability and dribbling ability and passing ability and good hair. The latter is one of those goalkeepers who brings out the best in Ryan Shawcross by shouting at him a lot. A combination of these two, a return to form for Xherdan Shaqiri and an (unfortunately false) revival of Wilfried Bony, on loan from Manchester City, we did the unthinkable and won three games in a row. Granted, it was only against Hull, Sunderland and Swansea but it rocketed us back up to our mid-table perch and suddenly football was brilliant again.

Back to normality

Around the same time you went into hospital because you kept being sick and they didn’t know why. My visits to see you were full of coughs and phlegm and pain. Stoke were doing better now, you were supposed to be doing better too. I tried to tell you about the free-kick the little Swiss midget scored, or the brilliant half-volley from Bojan to rescue a point at West Ham but it was falling on deaf ears. Maybe you were just waiting for normality to be restored. As Stoke have settled into their predictable unpredictability you’ve started getting better again.

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My faith in your recovery returned after we met with the Speech and Language Therapy Team, a combination of NHS and Care Home Doctors and Nurses who will be assessing your ability to communicate with us. We pushed for this because we believe there’s still a lot of you in there. We can see it in your reactions to people, to situations and by your responses to questions with firm movements of your foot. We’re now looking into technology we can use to help make these movements more readable, to bring a little more of you back.

No substitution for common sense

Unfortunately my faith in Mark Hughes continues to slip. I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a brilliant scout and probably a good coach, but a poor tactician. We’re halfway through the season and he still clearly doesn’t know his best team and is dreadful at making effective substitutions. The most obvious example was when we went 2-0 up against 10 man Leicester. They were entirely on the ropes and we had a bench bursting with attacking talent waiting to finish them off. We didn’t use any of it, instead we let Ranieri bring on a winger and a good header of the ball and Hughes only reacted when it was far too late and we’d managed to snatch a draw from the gaping jaws of victory.

The only discernible tactic I can see from Hughes is to ‘not change a winning team’, even if said winning team is clearly knackered. His most baffling decision has been a switch to a five-man defence despite us clearly not having the personnel for it. Diouf is doing his best impression of a wing-back and Pieters is alright as one, but neither of them are a natural fit. It’s a formation that leaves us with zero defensive backup on the bench and rampant confusion whenever a substitution is made. The only reason I can see for using this formation is the fact that it’s working for Chelsea. If that is the only reason it shows a remarkable lack of independent thought and a worrying lack of ideas.

Beyond this, we still have the baffling under-utilisation of Bojan. Apparently still considered too lightweight for the Premier League, the rumour on the grapevine is that we’ll be letting him go in January. I’ve not been this frustrated since Pulis refused to play Tuncay. He was supposed to be the player we could build a team around, instead he’s become the player too fanciful to fit in.

Back to the Brit-Bet

But enough of this complaining (as much as I know you’ll enjoy it), I’ll end on some positive news. Last night we watched a Stoke game together for the first time since your operation. Fittingly it was against Liverpool (the last fixture we saw together at the Brit, sorry, the Bet…) and I don’t know why I haven’t thought about doing it before now. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and probably-illegal-but-lets-not-think-about-that-too-much football streaming sites I was able to pair my phone to my laptop and sit with you whilst the game was on. Sean was there too and I have a feeling it was probably the closest you’ve come to normality since everything happened. You certainly watched the whole game, which would have been impressive under any circumstances considering the 4-1 trouncing we got.

Now that I know this works I’ll be coming to watch every away game with you and who knows, maybe taking you back to the Brit (sorry, the Bet) isn’t as far away as it felt at the start of the season. Until then, I’ll get back into the habit of writing these to keep you up to date. Even if you never get to read them, your story seems to help other people and that helps me to keep believing.

Go on Stoke.