James Lawton: But for the referee, Spurs would have outshone Robots of the Potteries
Can anyone say watching Stoke City on a regular basis has much of an edge on root-canal work?
The Stoke City fashioned with ferocious application by their manager, Tony Pulis, have so many admirable qualities it is not an easy thing to say, but say it one must. Their victory over Tottenham, apart from being almost entirely the result of some of the most egregiously wretched match officiating we are ever likely to see, was a triumph for anti-football.
Indeed, in terms of natural justice, of that warm feeling which comes when you know that the right thing has happened, it wasn't very far from a street mugging.
It was, if we can put aside for a moment the appalling performance of referee Chris Foy, a superbly marshalled version of the dark force, no doubt. Certainly, it was enough to send a surge of pride through the Potteries region which once gave the world the unforgettable magic of the late Sir Stanley Matthews.
You might care to throw in some other commendations.
Certainly, you can praise Pulis's continued ability to present the aristocrats of English football with insuperable problems while operating on the treadmill of Thursday night Europa League football and a sharply inferior budget.
You have to respect a professional duty to make life as difficult as possible for your most formidable opponents. You have to warm to some degree to a team so utterly unfazed by the kind of shortfall in natural-born ability they experienced on Sunday against the likes of Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Emmanuel Adebayor.
You can even go some way with the splendid old pro Dion Dublin when he declares that one of the great virtues of Stoke is their refusal to "complicate things".
Yet can anyone truly say, once they have taken from the equation the old force of tribal loyalty, that watching Stoke City on a regular basis has much of an edge on a session of root-canal work?
Is the special towel sewn into the shirt of Ryan Shotton, the long-throw successor to the legendary ball-hurler Rory Delap, an article that speaks of the spontaneous glory of the world's favourite game or a robot's artefact?
This is not to insult a young player who, when he isn't throwing the ball vast distances at the head of Peter Crouch, displays some impressively well-rounded football gifts. It is more to worry about the point at which a single tactic is not an arrow in your quiver but pretty much the whole shooting match.
Yes, Stoke do have other assets and most conspicuously a relish for the battle which has established them in the Premier League. Also true is the fact that in the first half against Spurs they showed far more appetite and concentration for the job in hand. The trouble was that Tottenham in the end adjusted to the demands of the contest, produced football that was both wonderfully engaging and, by some distance, deserving of the spoils.
That they didn't receive their rewards was a direct result of official incompetence, an example of it which was so relentless it might have served as Exhibit A in the case for overall match supervision that can draw upon the instant TV evidence available to everyone but the referee – one who, in this case, utterly distorted the result of a game which might just affect the outcome of such important matters as the destiny of the League title or a place in the Champions League.
In the circumstances, Spurs' manager Harry Redknapp reacted with impressive restraint. In his half-time readjustments, Redknapp recognised the effectiveness of the Stoke tactics and produced a belated game plan which in normal circumstances would surely have been properly reward.
No doubt many will say that bad stuff happens in football, as elsewhere, and that the obligation is to get on with it. However, what happened at the Britannia Stadium was in some ways a classic test of top-flight English football's ability to render something other than a travesty of anything that passed for justice.
This isn't to whinge on behalf of football's resurrected glamour teams, an outfit Bill Shankly once christened, with a snarl, "the Drury Lane Boys". Some Stoke fans were no doubt inclined to agree with that description after Modric went down for a penalty somewhat theatrically. They booed the brilliant little man relentlessly, but the reality was that it was unquestionably a penalty. Another one was that Spurs had ultimately produced an impressive antidote to the problem of Stoke.
They did it with the football that lifts the heart. They did it with wit and pace and at times quite sumptuous skill. They reminded us why we bother with all the excesses of the game, all the self-promoting hype and the often dreary functionalism produced by players earning more than heart surgeons. It is because we seek out those moments when the game becomes beautiful in its fluent rhythm and explosive possibilities.
Less pleasing for the neutral eye, though Stoke fans could maybe not care less, is the trajectory of a throw rifled into a mass of largely anarchic bodies straining for the crucial flick-on. This, with the help of a palpable handling of the ball by Crouch, gave Stoke the vital momentum against a team who had come with a different set of priorities. It was, yes of course, a formidable pressure but long before the end it had been effectively countered.
This did not, however, cause too much of a dent in the belief that, if the circumstances were maybe a little outrageous, the result was still a triumph for a certain kind of courage. Maybe so but it will never replace the allure of real football.
Defeat may offer Khan a blessing in disguise
Without doubt, Amir Khan's removal, at least temporarily, from the path to a heavily orchestrated super-fight with Floyd Mayweather Jnr or Manny Pacquaio in Washington DC apparently caused a lot more surprise on this side of the Atlantic than in America. Over there, the prevailing opinion is that Khan's conqueror Lamont Peterson carried the fight to his man and effectively enough to warrant a narrow points decision.
Still, as they say, it's an ill wind. Nothing is more depressing in boxing than the machinations which are not so much about the test of a fighter's true calibre but the creation of one huge paynight, however spurious its competitive basis.
Khan certainly has had an honourable career, starting with the Olympic silver won, at the age of 17, in Athens under the shadow of the impressive Cuban champion Mario Kindelan. He has worked under the hugely respected tutelage of trainer Freddie Roach in America. But what he has not been able to do is provide convincing evidence, any more than his compatriot Ricky Hatton, that he could promise anything more than nominal, if lucrative opposition, to the likes of Mayweather and Pacquaio.
The officiating at the weekend was transparently bad. However, the consequences for Khan, in respect of his health and his reputation, if not his and his promoters' pockets, might well have been a curious kind of blessing.
Well done Donald – but there's still a major question mark
There has been a tendency, in this quarter at least, to be rather less than fulsome in praise of the extraordinary consistency of Luke Donald, who has just achieved the unique distinction of topping the money-winning lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
It means the very least that is required is an unqualified salute to an example of head-down, day-by-day, week-by-week, professionalism that has been quite stunning. Even in his moment of triumph, however, he was obligated to deal with the question that stalks all of his victories. When is he going to win a major?
He points out, with more than a hint of weariness, that it takes four days to win a major, a whole year to top the rankings list. Of course, he is right. Unfortunately, he would be wrong to believe that the question will ever fade away.
That can only happen if holding your nerve and talent over four days of a major becomes less than a widely perceived compression of the lifetimes of so many brilliant golfers. It is not likely.
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