ALL supporters love big games and in the 1992/93 season matches didn’t really come any bigger than our trip to The Hawthorns to take on promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion.
Lou Macari’s Potters were in irresistible form, winning seemingly week after week and had gone 20 league games without a defeat, while West Brom were doing all they could to hang onto our coat-tails. It had all the hallmarks of a classic promotion encounter.
If the simple fact that first was taking on second in the 2nd Division wasn’t enough to whet the appetite, the match was also hyped-up by the media as some kind of tussle between two different contrasting styles of football. West Brom and their manager Ossie Ardiles were being widely lauded for their supposed ‘passing game’ and diamond formation, while big bad Stoke City were effectively being portrayed as a bunch of rough and ready hoofers who were kicking their way to promotion.
It was nonsense of course. Stoke had more skill in their side than anyone else in the division that season but the local TV stations and the Baggies fans seemed to believe it. Lou Macari though refused to get involved in the pointless debate and simply said that he’d let his side’s football do the talking out on he pitch.
The stage was set then for a thrilling game and West Brom knew how vital this match was to them. They started the day seven points behind Stoke and hoped to close the gap to four. Defeat would place them ten points behind Stoke. Revenge was also a priority. The Baggies had been NINE points clear of Stoke early in the season before coming to the Victoria Ground and losing a classic game 4-3, a result which had kick-started Stoke’s entire season.
If the game captured the imagination of the media then it certainly had the same effect on supporters of both clubs. It was not all-ticket and a crowd of 29,341 turned up, resulting in some West Brom fans being shut out at the gates and more than 7,500 Stokies packing out the away end. With the exception of the Autoglass Trophy Final at Wembley, this was the biggest crowd we played in front of during our three years stay in this division.
Stoke were simply on top of their game and so our start was no great surprise. We won the toss, elected to play into the face of a torrid wind blowing in over the Smethwick Road End, began confidently and purposefully and silenced the noisy home crowd with only ten minutes on the clock.
From the first corner of the game Vince Overson won the race to meet the ball and as he knocked the ball into the six-yard box Nigel Gleghorn was there to head past the flapping West Brom keeper.
It was a dream start for Stoke but West Brom roared back and debutant David Speedie did his best to con a penalty out of the referee with a theatrical dive that wouldn’t have fooled anyone. However, in the 22nd minute the Stoke defence were caught out by the wind as a ball sailed through and Bob Taylor latched onto it to smash home the equaliser.
It was a tense time for Stoke as they toiled to get the ball upfield in the gale but they held on in the face of some determined pressure. Our cause was made easier by the fact though that the West Brom side seemed happy at times to knock the ball around in pretty – though pointless patterns, instead of throwing the kitchen sink at us. We did get lucky with another penalty appeal though as referee AIf Buksh viewed Vinnie Overson’s tackle in the box more favourably than most people in the ground did.
West Brom’s failure to capitalise on the conditions in the first half would cost them dear after the break. It was now they who struggled to get the ball forward and in the face of Stoke’s relentless closing down play they began to get themselves into trouble.
In the 70th minute Stoke won a corner and when Naylor only punched the cross to the edge of the area it was fired back in by Kevin Russell and deflected into the net by Mark Stein’s chest. The Stoke players celebrated in a manner that showed their totally professional approach – they knew the job wasn’t finished yet. However, the same cannot be said for the massive Stoke City following on the away end. The 7,500+ Stokies went absolutely berserk and it was truly one of the great ‘mentals’ of the 1990s.
West Brom tried to kick it up a gear but they had nothing left to give against Stoke’s stonewall defence of Cranson, Overson, Sandford and Butler. The more they tried to pump in long, hopeful balls the more our defence relished the challenge of clearing up the danger.
We held on quite comfortably in the final twenty minutes before Alf Buksh blew the final whistle and Stoke fans celebrated a key result in the season. West Brom dropped to third place and Stoke moved a whopping ten points clear of them and second placed Leyton Orient.
The result was a delight for jubilant Stokies but more importantly it was a vindication of Lou Macari. He had let his team’s football do the talking and from that point on the media kept their mouths shut, leaving only deluded West Brom and Port Vale fans to kid themselves that they were somehow better ‘footballing’ sides. Ha!
From Issue 435