If any football match illustrates how a manager’s reputation can swing, then it was this. At half time, Mark Hughes – Stoke City’s manager in his first home game – trudged towards the tunnel with the crowd hissing. The boos were deserved. Crystal Palace were worthy leaders.
Forty-five minutes later, Hughes was congratulating all of his players. He acknowledged every stand. Every stand acknowledged him. Stoke had won. Everything had changed.
This was a strange encounter. Initially, everything that could have gone wrong for Stoke did go wrong. In the first half, they created little and their defending was awful. Afterwards, Hughes’ relief was obvious. “We saw the game out comfortably in the end but it was a struggle,” he said. “It will take time to implement what we really want.”
There are clues that Stoke are changing. Players are featuring in their natural positions for a start. Centre-halves are no longer deployed at full-back while full-backs are no longer deployed in the middle of midfield, just to accommodate someone who can throw a ball very far. Footballers are no longer missing out. Charlie Adam, for example, was not expelled to the left side of midfield and began where he feels most comfortable. The trick worked.
Yet Hughes is no magician; he is not Rinus Michels. His best spell in club management was at Blackburn Rovers where he shaped a team that was the football equivalent of a Panzer Army: strong, brusque and often unforgiving.
The intent was there yesterday, to try to pass more. Most of it went through Adam, who, operating as a quarterback was reasonably impressive. The problem was, Adam was often so deep, it left a gap further forward and it meant that Peter Crouch looked isolated and forlorn.
From goalkicks, Stoke tried to play. In the opening minutes, goalkeeper Asmir Begovic passed it out to Robert Huth. Huth passed it short to Adam who then passed it back to Begovic. The process repeated itself a few times but no progression was made. By the time Steven Nzonzi got a touch, the crowd were nervous; the Frenchman gave it away and had Dwight Gayle’s cross been more confident, Palace would have taken the lead.
Perhaps Palace would not have eventually taken that lead had Ryan Shawcross not been seemingly thinking about the best way to keep possession. In seasons gone by, Shawcross would have thumped Dean Moxey’s long clearance high into the stand. Instead, he dwelt far too long, Marouane Chamakh lurked and then capitalised in the most ruthless way, cutting a shot underneath Begovic.
Stoke’s recovery was complete within four second-half minutes. The equaliser came when Adam calmly converted after Crouch had knocked a cross from the left into his path. The winner arrived soon after; Shawcross redeeming himself after Chamakh decided he did not want to enter a tackle despite being in a good position to do so. Chamakh was immediately substituted by Ian Holloway, the Palace manager.
Holloway insisted he did not remove the Moroccan striker because of a lack of effort – instead citing fatigue. “He could have sat there and picked his money up at Arsenal,” he said. “But he’s agreed to come and play for me. He’s very motivated.”
Holloway focused instead on his “disappointment” at his own supporters for singing “stupid songs” about Hughes’ job security when Palace were ahead.
“I want them to keep enjoying themselves but it should only be about us,” he said. “Nobody should sing about a manager getting sacked in the morning. I don’t find it particularly funny.”
Stoke (4-5-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Pieters; Walters, Nzonzi, Wilson, Adam (Whelan, 75), Etherington (Pennant, 70); Crouch (Jerome, 86).
Crystal Palace (4-5-1): Speroni; Ward, Gabbidon, Delaney, Moxey; Puncheon (Phillips, 76), Campana (Garvan, 63), Jedinak, Dikgacoi, Gayle; Chamakh (Williams, 63).
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Adam (Stoke)
Match rating: 6/10