This has been an FA Cup that has cut a swathe through the Premier League and it would not have taken much for Mark Hughes to imagine himself as the first victim. With 10 minutes remaining in the third-round tie at home to Wrexham, his Stoke side were losing and he was already preparing his concession speech.
Those thoughts would not have crossed the Stoke manager’s mind here last night. His team were through from the moment Victor Moses scored their third. The Rochdale manager, Keith Hill, had a player called Lazarus on the pitch but the tie was beyond even Biblical resurrection. Although Rhys Bennett did score a consolation a dozen minutes from time it was answered in stoppage time by a tap-in from Jon Walters. The scoreline may have been unfair but the result was not.
Far from being a victim of the FA Cup, Hughes and Stoke City, who were given an away fifth-round tie at Blackburn before kick-off, seem well placed to go a very long way in the competition and they were not about to join Hughes’s former clubs, Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton in the wreckage.
This might have been the night when the FA Cup’s long weekend party came to a cold end and it was probably just as well the celebrations had begun early at Spotland. The little executive boxes were crammed, the floodlights blazed above a town founded on Methodism, cotton and – as the signs on the approaches to the town centre proclaimed – Co-operation. The Tannoys were blaring out a selection of Manchester music from the days when Hughes was leading the Old Trafford attack, with “Anarchy in the UK” slipped in among them.
It had been anarchy in the FA Cup. Half the Premier League had already been eliminated, while three more clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool and Sunderland – have been forced to endure replays. The television cameras had come in search of further chaos. They were to be disappointed.
After three minutes had passed Stoke fans were a signing different song, not renditions of Manchester’s indie hits but a Tom Jones number from the years when Hughes was growing up in north Wales. Stoke were one up and their battle hymn, “Delilah”, was everywhere.
There has been plenty of talk of how Hughes has changed Stoke, made them less in your face and less reliant on the long ball, but Bojan Krkic’s opening goal was as route one as any motorway.
A long free-kick, taken by Stoke’s keeper, Jack Butland, travelled the length of the pitch, and when it was cleared the ball fell to Krkic, who met it with a volley. Suddenly a pink ball was striking blue netting.
When Hill was asked how this tie might go, the Rochdale manager remarked that because Stoke possessed a core of British players they would embrace playing on a lower-division ground in a way Manchester United had not at Cambridge.
In fact, most of the Brits Hill had in mind began the match on the bench. However, though Bojan was part of a Barcelona side that won six trophies in a single year, he looked more than ready to take Spotland in his stride.
However, with a little over half an hour gone, he was limping off with a knee injury sustained as he looked to run clear on goal. The crowd thought he had dived and, as he got up, cries of “cheat” rang around the ground.
The viciousness may have had something to do with an earlier flare-up between Bojan and Peter Vincenti, who had clattered into Moses, Glenn Whelan exacted some retribution on the Rochdale forward and suddenly Vincenti and Bojan were squaring up to each other.
The referee, Martin Atkinson, had a choice of cards in both colour and number. Wisely, he picked out a couple of yellows for Bojan and Vincenti. The match carried on, as Bojan left on crutches, but with an edge.
At one point, Hughes, standing menacingly on the touchline immaculately dressed in a black trenchcoat, was taunted from the terraces. “We thought you were a hard man,” was one cry. Hughes turned to meet his accusers and was greeted by V-signs.
The defiance did not quite extend to the pitch. Yes, Matt Done, whom Hill had taken with him in his unsuccessful stint as Barnsley’s manager and then brought back to Spotland, twice almost broke through the Stoke defence. But seven minutes after the interval, Stoke were two up as Moses sent in a low cross that Stephen Ireland timed his run perfectly to meet.
Chelsea had been two up to Bradford City and lost. Lighting might have struck again but the skies above Spotland were clear, and so was Stoke’s path to the fifth round.
Far from being a victim of the FA Cup, Stoke are well placed to go a long way in the tournament