Shocks, stalkers and streakers

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“Jeff Stelling will be going mad,” my father-in-law Den said, after Michael Nelson majestically headed Hartlepool United into a 1-0 lead in the FA Cup Third Round against Stoke City.

Stelling’s response was uppermost in the minds of jubilant Pools fans as they streamed out of the Victoria Ground on a bitter, bright January afternoon. “He’ll be doing his nut,” said one, while another rang his missus: “We won 2-0. Put the telly on and see what Jeff Stelling’s doing.”

Stelling was, indeed, doing his nut in the studio, insisting Pools’ 2-0 dismissal of Stoke was the “shock of the day.”

It was a delightful shock for my father-in-law who, as we strolled down to the ground had noted: “The way Pools are playing we could get beaten by anybody.” The week before Pools had been whopped 4-1 at home by League One’s bottom side Crewe.

Jeff: He feels good etc 

Stoke boss Tony Pulis made seven changes in personnel but left the team’s game plan intact. Stoke’s play was brutal, direct and swift, a campaign of aerial bombardment which would have thrilled Charles ‘Route One’ Hughes, Norman Schwarzkopf and Bomber Harris.

The characteristic Stoke move of the afternoon was for someone – occasionally even goalkeeper Steve Simonsen – to hit a long diagonal aerial ball to the left touchline, hoping it would be deflected off an opponent into touch, so Rory Delap could throw it into the box. If that didn’t work, the Potters grudgingly settled for a corner.

The plan succeeded. For four minutes. They hit the post. After that, the first half was 50/50.

Pools upped the pace in the second half. In the 48th minute, Nelson soared above Stoke’s defence. 1-0. There was poetic justice in the fact that the Potters were beaten in the air. After that, although Delap shot wide of the post when he could have scored and Liam Lawrence schemed from the flank, Stoke never really convinced.

The second goal by young David Foley was sensational. The sun glared over the Stoke goal and the ball, struck from 25 yards, floated in a kind of haze. As it neared the goal, time seemed to slow and the ball looked as if it might swerve too far, but it nestled into the top corner as the PA played Tom Hark and the Pools fans danced.

In fairness, Stoke were woefully short of strikers but Pools lost full-back Antony Sweeney to injury early on, have missed their most creative attacker James Brown nearly all season and played Joel Porter upfront though he didn’t look fully fit.

The injury that deprived Pools of the ineffective Michael Mackay brought Foley into play and, late on, as Stoke attacked, Foley and winger Matty Robson were a constant threat on the break.

With Sam Collins magnificent at the heart of Pools defence, Stoke’s aerial bombardment became increasingly ineffective but, even though the Potters caused more trouble around Pools’ goal with the ball on the ground, they never convincingly changed tack.

In one curious move, the Premier League side strung together 12 or 13 passes on the ground until, possibly in sheer bewilderment, a Stoke player hoofed it straight to an opponent.

Pulis’ success in steering Stoke to the top flight is impressive and so is the team’s work ethic and organisational discipline. But a less basic playing style might be required to build on that success.

The clue, really, lies in the name of the game: football is a game to be primarily played with feet and ball, not the hands of Rory Delap and the heads of his teammates.

The giant-killing got cursory treatment on ITV. In a highlights programme where adverts for furniture sales were occasionally interspersed with snippets of football action, Pools didn’t even get both their goals replayed. Maybe ITV willl make amends when the Hammers come to town in the fourth round.

Hartlepool heroes Nelson and Foley 

One final mystery at the Victoria Ground. One bloke walked in front of us scanning the rows of seats with a puzzled, anxious expression. I assumed he was looking for someone. Till he walked past again. And again.

Was he plain-clothes security I wondered? Or a stalker suffering from short-term memory loss? I have seen his ilk at many other grounds. Can anyone explain what these blokes are doing?

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt

“Ooooohhhhhh.” 1,900 Nuneaton Town (nee Boro) fans winced in unison as the young male streaker, making his escape at the Bedworth Oval, got tangled up in what looked, from our vantage point, like a holly bush. He reappeared briefly later but wasn’t quite so fleet of foot as he scarpered into town.

Bedworth United vs Nuneaton Town in the BGBG Football League Midlands Division on December 27 was more than a game. It was a derby with all the usual accoutrements: fan segregation, slightly OTT police presence, players who had crossed the line and could be branded “Judas!” and dire ditties about the opposition.

The twist this year was that Nuneaton Borough, after amassing absurd debts, have been reconstituted as Town, enabling frustrated Bedworth fans to chant “You’ve got no history.”

Outnumbered probably 5 to 1 by Boro/Town fans, Bedworth supporters spent much of the afternoon speculating, in song, exactly how much brown matter Nuneaton consisted of. Boro/Town hit back, when superiority on the pitch had been converted into a 2-0 lead, by taunting them about the score.

Justin Marsden put Nuneaton ahead, which was ironic as the fans next to me had been screaming at coach Kevin Wilkin to take him off. Marsden is one of those Nuneaton players – the great Trevor Peake was another – who infuriate some fans because they sometimes play the ball into spaces where their team-mates ought to be but aren’t.

The players seemed less affected by the hysteria than the supporters. As we strolled off, smug with our 2-1 win, the volume and venom of the insults hurled at us suggested it wasn’t just the streaker whose pride was stung that cold afternoon.

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