In a cross-channel tale of two managers, Tony Pulis sparked a dramatic turnaround in Stoke's fortunes when he arrived after half-time after the death of his mother, while Gérard Houllier watched helplessly in France via TV as Aston Villa succumbed to Robert Huth's stoppage-time goal.
Villa, again under the caretaker stewardship of Kevin MacDonald, looked set for a third win in four matches and third place in the Premier League when they entered the final 10 minutes still leading through Stewart Downing's first-half header. But Pulis's presence had contributed to an emotionally charged atmosphere in which Stoke's £8m record buy Kenwyne Jones brought them level. Huth, the German defender who had been at fault for Downing's goal, atoned in full with only seconds remaining.
David Kemp, Pulis's assistant, paid tribute to his dedication at a time of personal tragedy. "I knew Tony was going to get here at some time and he arrived during the first half," he said. "He'd travelled up from south Wales, got his overalls on and went to work. He did the half-time team talk and took the paint off the walls."
Kemp added: "His presence gave everyone a lift. That's why he has been a great manager for this club. After everything else that was going on, he still helped us get the result we needed. We've had disappointing results until now, but we showed character and made our own luck."
The other stand-in manager, MacDonald, expressed sympathy for Pulis, describing him as "a wonderful man", though he doubted whether his sudden appearance early in the second half "would have changed the way his team played". The evidence suggested otherwise, Villa failing to maintain their first-half ascendancy in the face of a stirring Stoke fightback.
Was Villa's late capitulation a reflection of a state of limbo as players and staff wait for Houllier to secure his release from the French FA? "You saw the players tonight," MacDonald said. "It was pretty good, I thought. We're very disappointed, obviously, especially because the winning goal started from what might not have been a free-kick to Stoke. But you know how difficult it's going to be when you come here."
A fourth consecutive defeat would have represented Stoke's worst start in 104 years, an outcome that would have been unjust given their bright start and rousing finish, in which Jones, finally starting a home fixture after an injury-blighted summer switch from Sunderland, was a thorn in Villa's flesh.
A fine early pass to Jones by Marc Wilson, the former Portsmouth defender, showed why Pulis had picked the latter in midfield, Friedel narrowing the angle before parrying the Trinidadian's shot. Jones then let fly from 25 yards and the keeper hurled himself to push the swerving ball aside.
Stoke's positive start counted for nothing when Villa stole ahead 10 minutes before half-time. Nigel Reo-Coker supplied Gabriel Agbonlahor, whose right-wing cross saw Downing exploit right-back Huth's inclination to drift into a centre-back's position by slipping away from him and angling a diving header past the ex-Villan Thomas Sorensen.
Before half-time Ashley Young glanced a free header wide from five yards after another Agbonlahor delivery, while Sorensen clawed out Downing's shot when Marc Albrighton again located him at the far post. When a low cross by Ashley Young flashed invitingly across the face of the goal, it was clear what the theme of Pulis's pep talk would be.
The Welshman jogged into the technical area soon after the interval, waving in recognition of a warm ovation from the home fans. The decibel level went up a notch, there was greater conviction about Stoke's attacks and Jones promptly forced Friedel to palm away a towering header.
After Pulis sent on Ricardo Fuller and Jermaine Pennant, Villa tried to dig in for a third clean sheet in four matches. Jones, heading in Fuller's cross after a clever move involving Etherington and Delap, put paid to that prospect. With the siege into a third minute of time added on, and Villa claiming Pennant had dived to earn a free-kick moments earlier, Huth turned in Etherington's shot to allow Pulis to end a day of personal sadness on a note of professional satisfaction.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen; Huth, Shawcross, Faye, D Collins; Delap (Whelan, 87), Whitehead, Wilson (Pennant, 65), Etherington; Walters (Fuller, 60), Jones. Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Higginbotham, Gudjohnsen, Wilkinson.
Booked D Collins.
Aston Villa (4-4-1-1): Friedel; L Young, Dunne, J Collins, Warnock; Albrighton, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Downing; A Young; Agbonlahor (Heskey, 86). Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Ireland, Beye, Cuellar, Clark, Hogg.
Booked Warnock, Petrov.
Man of the match Etherington.
Possession Stoke 50% Aston Villa 50%
Shots on target Stoke 12, Aston Villa 6.
Referee L Probert Attendance 25,899.
Match rating 7/10.