The disappointment of Chelsea must be put firmly behind us. Saturday’s game at Stoke assumes real importance if we are serious about being a top six sort of club. We didn’t get Fuller and they’re still jam-packed with former Sunderland players (and beginning to whinge about the off-on form of one Kenwyne Jones).
Mark Eltringham* – recommended to us as a “wry, bitter, and cynical” City fan whose thoughts sometimes grace the pages of the Stoke Sentinel – provided answers to surely every question you’d expect a Sunderland supporter to throw at Stoke fan and, having predicted a draw (see below), added after this week’s defeat at Liverpool: “I think after tonight, you’re a must win game for us. Not good and the natives are restless.” …
Annoying, dirty, negative are among the adjectives I have seen recently to describe Stoke City. Water off a duck’s back or really quite wounding?
Mark: (pictured above in the only Stoke related photo he possesses, from 1973): It’s just a bit dull. Some of the critics aren’t saying anything many of us haven’t said ourselves at some point, but it’s different when other people say it. I don’t think we’re particularly dirty. Even the infamous Shawcross tackle on Aaron Ramsey wasn’t malicious, just clumsy and daft. He’s a good English centre back and clumsy and daft is what they sometimes are. What I don’t like are the managers who try to make the reputation stick to influence officials. I can see why they do it though. Because it works.
I don’t think we’re negative either, just a bit one dimensional and that is changing. The style of play is often based around something the manager refers to as The Cage, which involves a very flat back four, two holding midfielders and a withdrawn target man. But we don’t always stick to it, it’s been changing and in any case the manager has been vindicated in his use of it by the fact we’ve stayed up for what looks like three years when we were expected to get murdered in our first season.
As for being annoying to other people, when it comes to Arsene Wenger that is a good thing. Not only does he appear to believe he gets to have a say in how other teams should play, he gets himself into witchhunts against other clubs and players ignoring the fact that his own players are no different, and in the case of Cesc Fabregas, worse. The more we annoy them lot, the better.
Your squad is packed full of former Sunderland players. It looked at one point as if we’d be taking one in return – Fuller – but what is your assessment of Delap, Higginbotham, Whitehead, Collins, Sorensen and of course Kenwyne?
To take them in turn.
Rory Delap I think Rory is one of our most consistent players although the manager is prone to play him on the right where he is less effective. People go on about the throws of course but they are not the source of goals they once were and now seem to be used mainly to pressurise the opposition. So I expect us to score two from them against you.
Danny Higginbotham Has never done a lot wrong, was one of our key players when he was with us in his first stint and, for my money, a better left back than Danny Collins.
Dean Whitehead Initially opinion was mixed about him. That has faded and in my view some of the comments made about him weren’t justified in the first place but he can still be inconsistent. I think in part that may be down to the way we set out our midfield. Too many water carriers.
Danny Collins Not a boo boy but he is held responsible by many fans for a number of the goals we have conceded this season. Doesn’t always look at home at left back and his distribution is not as good as it could be in many people’s eye. Still, the boss prefers him over Higginbotham at left back.
Thomas Sorensen A key player in the first two years, seems to lack a bit of confidence at the moment and that has coincided with the pressure put on him by the arrival of Asmir Begovic who has been first choice recently. He never really had a lot of competition for his place before.
Kenwyne Jones I think so far he’s pretty much lived up to what some Sunderland fans told us at the time we bought him, that he blows a bit hot and cold. Personally I think he should be doing better because we often play with two out and out wingers in Pennant and Etherington. Some fans think he’s ‘lazy’ in the way they sometimes do, but I don’t think so. I just feel his head drops sometimes.
Regarding Ric, he is a great player on his day, scares the hell out of defenders and can work wonders with the scraps our system can sometimes dish up. He’s beginning to wane a little but I can see exactly why you might (have) want(ed) to buy him.
I suppose because of the Darren Bent saga, maybe you were.
What has Stoke’s revival meant for you? Despite those insults mentioned earlier, you must be chuffed to bits with your progress.
It’s been astonishing. I was one of those who didn’t want Tony Pulis back as manager but I was wrong. Like most people I have my doubts about the Premier League and some of the new fans we’ve picked up. Bit of snobbery maybe but I earned the right to feel like this on cold nights at Southend and Barnsley. I suppose the concern is that we may have progressed as far as we can, but that’s a nice problem to have and as our manager says, he’s spent his life proving people wrong.
What have been your own high and low points as a supporter?
Many people would cite losing 8-0 at home to Liverpool or being relegated to the Third Division, but my own particular moment of absolute despair was watching us go 3-0 behind at home to Chester in the early 1990s and realising we weren’t bouncing straight back just because of who we thought we were.
As a high point, being there with my sons on the day we were promoted. Not only knowing that the day had arrived I’d waited over twenty years for, but knowing that they’d gone along with the whole supporting Stoke project from a young age and were now in a position to dish it back up to the Liverpool fans who’d given them daily grief at their school in Warrington. My eldest had a field day when we beat them recently.
And who are the best players you’ve seen in your red and white stripes – and who should have been allowed nowhere near them?
I hero worshipped Jimmy Greenhoff as a kid. By some distance the best player never to play for England. Since then my favourite has been Peter Hoekstra. He was injured for the majority of his career at Stoke but was world class on his day. He once scored a hat trick at home against Reading that was the single best individual performance I’ve seen from one of our players. I said to my son as we left the ground that if none of the other Stoke players had turned up except for him, we’d still have won. Worst is bound to be one of those players who turfed up for one game out of the reserves and is forgotten. Then there are has-beens like Paul Stewart who I swear only signed for us to make sure he would always be the answer in pub quizzes to that question about the only player to take part in derbys in the Potteries, North London, Liverpool, the North East and Manchester.
Stoke fans have a great reputation for loud, passionate support but have also had a less welcome reputation for the nastiness of some supporters. Is the noise at the Britannia really worth a goal start (give or take occasional games when you don’t score) and was the yob allegation always unfair?
Again, the atmosphere isn’t what it was because I think of changing expectations and the fact we seem like a secure Premier League side now. I’m sure if we were up against it, the intensity would be back. I just hope we don’t take things for granted.
There are still a few people in the crowd you would call a yob element but the club has done a lot to deal with the very real problem we had. Most of the stupidity now stems from a few young idiots who like to give it large at away fans after the game but it’s like watching a terrier yapping from the safety of its lead. They’d run a mile if confronted by some of the blokes I’ve seen there in the past. Nowadays I don’t think we’re any worse than most clubs. Football attracts all sorts.
Any thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the city, the fans, the region – or Newcastle?
I have family ties to the North East. My Granddad moved to Stoke from High Spen in the 1960s to work in the Staffordshire pits and Eltringham is a Geordie name. I’m old school when it comes to thinking about Sunderland because my feelings about clubs were forged in the 1970s and 80s. I associate you with Roker Park, Bob Stokoe and a Panini album from the time in which all four clubs whose name began with an S in Division Two played in red and white stripes. Middle aged geek in other words.
What will be this season’s top four in order and who will go down? If in neither list, where will our two clubs finish?
Manchester United, Arsenal, Man City Chelsea.
To go down – Wigan, West Ham, Birmingham.
If you don’t sort out your attack, I think we might be able to finish above you in about 8th or 9th but who knows this year and I think it’s unlikely? You’ve bought a couple of good players in January but I don’t know enough about it to have very strong opinions. Obviously if you carry on as you have been, I can see you finishing comfortably in 6th, which is beyond us at the moment.
Did England’s failure to get the 2018 World Cup trouble you or was South Africa 2010 so offputting that you couldn’t care less?
I always had mixed feelings about it. I didn’t like the inclusion of Milton Keynes in the bid. I didn’t understand why we thought David Cameron and Prince William would sway it. And what has since been confirmed about the bidding process makes me wonder why we bothered in the first place. I was also ambivalent about South Africa. I know that some people put failure down to players not trying hard enough but for me, it just confirmed we don’t have the players to compete.
It used to be our Eduardo question, now the Walcott question. Young Theo admitted recently that he’d dived in a vain attempt to win a penalty and that other players told him they routinely went down at the least contact. Has cheating become such a part of the modern game that we should abandon high-minded principles about fair play?
I think we already have. If the authorities really wanted to they could eradicate all the things they claim to be intolerable in football, and they could do it in a matter of weeks. Suspend anybody who they can confirm has dived or feigned injury. Anybody who tells an official to F off – as they routinely do – should get a straight red. It won’t happen so I can only conclude they’re either not really that bothered about it or don’t want the hassle of trying to deal with it. I think it is worth it because I watch kids’ football and you can see the way this behaviour filters down.
What single step should the FA, FIFA or Stoke City take to improve the lot of ordinary football supporters?
A well managed return of the terrace would get my vote. I know many people stand anyway but it would help the atmosphere and should get costs down for some supporters.
Will you be at our game and what will be the score?
I won’t but I expect a 1-1 draw.
* Mark Eltringham on Mark Eltringham:
I work as a journalist and freelance PR. I like to think this puts me above politicians, tax inspectors and estate agents in the public’s affections but I actually work in trade and business media, so none of it is my fault, honest. My first Stoke game was in 1974 (at home to Spurs, won 1-0, Sean Haslegrave). So like any decrepit middle aged fan, I’ve done the rounds and decided to inflict it on my two sons anyway. It appears to have paid off for the time being.
Interview: Colin Randall