By Calvin Palmer
In what was arguably Stoke City’s second greatest game in their 148-year history, the first being the League Cup final victory in 1972, they made it to their first FA Cup final appearance after defeating Bolton Wanderers 5-0 in the semi-final at Wembley.
I doubt that any fan, even the most diehard, would have predicted such a victory. It was unbelievable. I am still pinching myself to make sure that it wasn’t a dream. It was the biggest semi-final win in 72 years.
With the new Wembley stadium echoing to the strains of Delilah, the anthem of Stoke City’s fans, Stoke found themselves with an amazing three-goal lead after just 30 minutes.
Matthew Etherington seized on a sloppy pass just outside the Bolton penalty area to rifle in a sweet shot to put Stoke 1-0 up after 11 minutes.
Six minutes later, a poor clearance by Bolton’s Cahill saw defender Robert Huth volley home from 20 yards to give the Potters a 2-0 lead.
Exactly on the stroke of half an hour, Jermaine Pennant robbed Bolton’s Martin Petrov and took the ball 70 yards up the field before laying off an inch-perfect pass to Kenwyne Jones who calmly sidefooted the ball past the despairing dive of Bolton goalkeeper Jaaskelainen.
Leading 3-0, it looked like game over for Bolton.
But I remember Stoke taking a 2-0 lead against Arsenal in the 1971 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough. Arsenal came back in the second-half and scored a last-minute equaliser to a secure a replay and eventual victory.
At half-time, I pondered whether such a fate was once again in store for Stoke.
Bolton’s manager Owen Coyle made changes to his side for the second half. He had to. The changes gave them a little bit of impetus but not enough to threaten Stoke’s dominance and any hope of a comeback was dashed in the 68th minute when Jonathan Walters, whose career began at Bolton, latched on to the ball and left Bolton defenders in his wake before cutting inside and firing a perfect shot into the corner of the Bolton goal.
Football fans throughout the UK pillory Stoke City’s style of play, saying that it lacks quality. As the TV commentator said of Walters’ goal, “It was quality with a capital Q.”
In fact, all of Stoke’s goals were quality efforts and I should imagine a great many football fans throughout the country will have to change their opinion on Stoke’s style of play.
I have been critical of manager Tony Pulis in the past but it seems that he is beginning to close the gulf between my philosophy on how football should be played and his more direct style.
The lead and Stoke’s ascendancy took on the stuff of dreams 13 minutes later when Walters pounced again after good work by Jones. His cross was deflected by Wilkinson into the path of Walters who chipped the ball beyond Jaaskelainen into the net for his second goal of the game and Stoke’s fifth.
It was not a victory but a history-making rout that will see Stoke meet Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 14.
Stoke will again go into that match as underdogs but, as the saying goes, every dog has its day, and it could well be that Stoke may cause another upset next month to lift the FA Cup trophy.
Here’s hoping that they do.
For manager Pulis, it will be the chance to lay the ghost that has haunted him since 1999 when Manchester City came back from being 2-0 down to his Gillingham side to win the Second Division play-off.