It was supposed to have been the kind of FA Cup romance which recalled Nat Lofthouse, a striker they called "the Lion" 50 years ago. Instead, there was romance of a more modern stripe.
There will be some who find it hard to find any happy narrative at all in the story of Stoke City leaping to their first FA Cup final but it was there, in the contributions of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, gifted men afflicted by the temptations of the modern footballer who have found salvation by the Trent.
Etherington has seen Ashley Young and Matthew Jarvis advance way ahead of him in the England pecking order as he has waged his battle with gambling. But the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, saw something others did not and his chairman Peter Coates provided an £800,000 loan to square his debts. Pennant has drifted into many dark places since he became Britain's most expensive teenage footballer 12 years ago, including Woodhill prison, before Pulis offered him another shot at rehabilitation.
Pennant yesterday tore at Owen Coyle's team – and at left-back Paul Robinson in particular – in a way that, in those who remember Bolton's legendary 1953 FA Cup final with Blackpool, might have evoked flashes of Stanley Matthews, the man who only ever had Stoke City in his heart. And, on the opposite flank, Etherington dismantled Bolton's hopes in a way which was ultimately more embarrassing than heartbreaking.
The die was actual cast over a month ago, when the tackle by Manchester United's Jonny Evans which ended Stuart Holden's season, deprived Owen Coyle of his midfield's main source of energy. He tried Johan Elmander there rather than Mark Davies, who had been deemed unfit, and it did not work. But the malfunction was nothing compared with the afternoon Robinson experienced at left-back.
It was Robinson's loose play which began the sorry rout, his pass as Bolton attempted to break from defence hitting Kevin Davies' heel and allowing Etherington, the man of the match, to pounce, stride forward and wrap in a left-foot shot in the 11th minute. Stoke turned the screw in their quintessential way – Andy Wilkinson lumping a high ball into the area, Gary Cahill's header relaying it to the feet of Robert Huth, who thumped in a 30-yard effort.
Bolton were stunned. They were supposed to have done it for the late Nat Lofthouse yesterday but instead turned in a display miles removed from Lofthouse's performance for England against Austria in 1952, which earned him his nickname, the "Lion of Vienna".
Coyle, a supremely positive man, looked as if he did not know whether to laugh or cry after the biggest FA Cup semi-final defeat since Wolves beat Grimsby 5-0 at Old Trafford in 1939. Every Bolton player, save perhaps Kevin Davies and Jussi Jaaskalainen froze. Coyle's words for it included "hurtful" and "horrible" and he agreed it was his worst day in football.
"If you come to this arena and go toe-to-toe by playing your best, no problem," he said. "We didn't. Was that stage too much for one or two? It's not just a physical ability. There's a mental ability that goes with it.
"I was ashamed and embarrassed. It was a horrible experience. I just don't know what happened."
Coyle acknowledged Stoke's display, though, and that was especially appropriate for Pennant, who has been busy all season dismantling the notion that his side cannot play across the turf. His immaculately timed pass to send Kenwyne Jones through for Stoke's third inside the half-hour was only one showcase of his footwork, pace and vision.
Coyle attempted to add steel to the midfield by introducing Matt Taylor and Davies for Ivan Klasnic and Martin Petrov. But Jonathan Walters sealed Bolton's fate in emphatic style on 68 minutes when, after Elmander had dithered on the ball outside the Stoke box, the much-travelled 27-year-old journeyed to the other end of the field and eased inside Gary Cahill to thump home. Robinson's own personal nightmare was complete when Jones span sharply around him nine minutes from time and sent a cross which Etherington helped on to Walters, who clipped the fifth.
If the scoreline is not enough to send apprehension rippling through Manchester City, the memory of last season's FA Cup loss to Stoke – a side they have not beaten since January 2009 – should keep them on their toes.
On 14 May, Pennant will return to Wembley, where he lined up for England Under-16s in 1999, against an Argentina side that included Carlos Tevez. And for Pulis, there will be the chance to avenge a Wembley defeat in the same year, when his Gillingham side were denied promotion from the third tier by Joe Royle's City. He had never been back to Wembley since that play-off but last night spoke to outline the significance of possible FA Cup glory.
"Winning the Cup will mean a lot," Pulis said. "I've lost my mum and dad this year. We have improved as a team too. We are more expansive but we have become so gradually, slowly. We cannot afford to take the risk of spending millions and millions on players who don't do it for us."
Perhaps Stoke really can become synonymous with romance.
Substitutes: Bolton M Davies (Petrov, h-t), Taylor (Klasnic, h-t), Moreno (Muamba, 73). Stoke Whitehead (Pennant 78), Fuller (Jones 84) Pugh (Etherington, 87).
Booked: Bolton Robinson, Cahill. Stoke None. Man of the match Pennant. Match rating 7/10. Possession: Bolton 44% Stoke 56%.
Attempts on target: Bolton 5 Stoke 10.
Referee H Webb (S Yorkshire). Att 75,064.
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