Simonsen bears burden of Stoke's 30-year hitch

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The Independent Football

Like Newcastle United No 9s, Stoke City goalkeepers have a historical standard to maintain that can easily become a cross to bear. Steve Simonsen, who will stand between the posts against Arsenal at Highbury this afternoon, chooses to regard following in the bootsteps of two modern greats, Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, as a source of inspiration.

For Tony Pulis, the manager who took him to the Potteries as understudy to Ed de Goey last summer, the past has, however, become a burden: "The problem here is expectations," he explains. "You give them a little and they expect even more. It hasn't happened here for 30 years, and we've got to get away from that mentality."

Thirty years ago, the season that Shilton joined from Leicester City, like Banks before him, Stoke were serious championship challengers until the last three matches, eventually finishing fifth. For two years running shortly before that they had been denied an FA Cup final place in heartbreaking fashion by today's opponents. Banks - now president of the club - still rages about the push on him which led to a last-minute equaliser in the 1971 semi-final, and John Radford's goal from an offside position that earned Arsenal another semi-final replay 12 months later.

So one League Cup win at Wembley was the only tangible reward from a hugely entertaining era in the Six Towns under Tony Waddington's management, with George Eastham and then Alan Hudson pulling the strings, while Banks and then Shilton behind them pulled out the stops.

There has been no hint of anything like it there since, though the latter pair can only admire the work of their present-day successors in goal. De Goey, who injured a thigh just before Christmas, and Simonsen have been beaten only 20 times in 28 games this season, a record bettered by no other team in the Championship. The problem, as everyone acknowledges, is at the other end of the pitch, where a total of 18 goals scored is comfortably the division's worst. That has hampered the push for a play-off place, and three successive 1-0 defeats have left supporters divided; some respect the job Pulis has done in achieving a mid-table position on virtually no money, others now pepper the message boards with comments like "negative garbage". The manager has a meeting planned next week in Iceland - the country, not the supermarket - with his chairman, Gunnar Thor Gislason, to discuss "what we're doing and where we're going".

Where they are going today is to play the champions of England, with players, staff and 5,000 supporters alike all determined to enjoy the sort of limelight rarely accorded these days to clubs outside the Premiership. According to Simonsen, who will hold on to the goalkeeper's jersey for now despite De Goey's return to fitness: "It's nice to get the attention and be on the big stage playing against teams like Arsenal, getting away from the nitty-gritty of the League and having somewhere like Highbury to look forward to. We'll have to work hard to frustrate them, but hopefully we can do ourselves justice. There's been a real buzz about the place ever since the draw was made, even though we're going as massive underdogs, because it's every footballer's dream to go there and play."

A dream that Simonsen has already achieved, in fact. In May 2002, the only personally rewarding season of six frustrating years at Everton ended with a 4-3 defeat in north London on the day that Arsène Wenger's side picked up the Premiership trophy. He played 25 of the 38 Premiership games in that campaign, to go with a dispiriting total of five other appearances in five seasons. All that after arriving as a £3.3m teenager signed from Tranmere Rovers and regarded as one of the best young keepers in the country.

"My career started off brilliantly as an 18-year-old playing a full season at Tranmere and getting into the England Under-21s, then moving to Everton. I suppose it stalled a little bit there, but I gained a lot of experience in those six years and worked hard, picking up a lot of things. Hopefully it's made me a better goalkeeper now and I can come of age, so to speak."

At 25, there is plenty of time to do so, though as David Moyes continued to sign new keepers - Richard Wright, then Nigel Martyn - there seemed little point staying at Goodison. "I got into the side under Walter Smith and things were going well, then Walter got the sack. David Moyes came in but I think he had his mind set on bringing his own goalkeeper in. I didn't quite understand it when he offered me an extension to my contract, and I thought it was time to move on. People were saying, 'What's happened to the young lad, where's he gone?' But I've always been confident in my ability. I knew all about Ed when I came here but hoped I might get a chance and had to grab it with both hands."

Pulis agrees that he has done, even though there is now an unhappy 38-year-old De Goey to contend with: "I spoke to a lot of people, who gave Steve very good recommendations. He hadn't fulfilled his potential but sometimes these things can happen. He got picked for England at a very young age and most probably had everything too soon. It took Steve a while to get in the side here, and since then he's been fantastic. Now Ed's fed up, but I wish I had that competition all over the place."

Arsenal, of course, have sufficient quality in depth to give Thierry Henry among others a deserved rest today. Even though the mercurial Frenchman put two of the four goals past him on his last visit, Simonsen claims to have mixed feelings about his absence: "You're pleased and disappointed at the same time."

A few saves to feed the 5,000, another 1-0 defeat perhaps, and the keeper of the Potters' flame might just be feeling that same way by teatime today.