For the second season running, Stoke City's gain is Steve Coppell's pain. A year ago the Potteries club won a play-off against a Brentford side managed by Coppell. At a noisy and nervous Britannia Stadium yesterday, Ade Akinbiyi's second-half goal would have guaranteed Stoke's survival in the First Division even if Coppell's Brighton had beaten Grimsby.
Much had been made of the Crystal Palace old boys conspiring to help the club's former manager. A week earlier, a Palace team under Steve Kember beat Stoke to drag the last relegation issue to the final day. Another of Coppell's old Eagle acolytes, Alan Pardew, promised no let-up after Reading secured a play-off place, though in the end the most pertinent Selhurst Park connection belonged to Akinbiyi.
The much-derided striker, on loan from Palace, met a fine cross from Lewis Neal with a sharp, glancing header which flashed past Marcus Hahnemann from inside Reading's six-yard area. Akinbiyi soon departed with a hamstring injury, probably never to return, yet Stoke played out the remaining 35 minutes with few alarms against opponents seemingly saving themselves for a play-off date with Wolves.
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, showed faith in Akinbiyi despite his having made only a marginally greater impact in south London than at Leicester. "Ade's had a tough time over the past few years," he said. "But I took him as a kid from Norwich when I was at Gillingham and I've got terrific respect for him. The opportunity to bring him here, even though he's only 50 per cent fit, was too good to turn down."
Akinbiyi is unlikely to be staying in the Six Towns, however. "His wages are in excess of what we can afford," said Pulis. But the 29-year-old will be fondly remembered for his part in Stoke's escape, as will Mark Crossley, who kept eight clean sheets in the final 12 fixtures after being borrowed from Middlesbrough.
Pulis deserves vast credit himself. Having arrived with the club in free-fall after Steve Cotterill's defection to Sunderland, he initially presided over a run of just three points from 11 matches. This victory meant they finished with 33 points from 21 games – practically promotion form.
Never relegated in more than 30 years in football, Pulis had suggested that Stoke would "take Reading by the throat". In reality, his tactics were to draw Reading on to them and play on the counter-attack. Stoke, with Sergei Shtaniuk faultless despite a seven-hour flight from Uzbekistan on Friday after Belarus duty, defended deep to prevent Nicky Forster breaking behind them and used Chris Greenacre, a forward, to shackle James Harper's creativity.
It worked a treat in a contest of few chances, though they were helped by a languid Reading display. "As much as we tried to talk it up and give the players an edge. it just wasn't there," Pardew said. "I don't think we'd have played like that if it had been a play-off game. While Steve Coppell and Brighton won't like to hear that, it's a fact. But well done to Stoke."
Goal: Akinbiyi (55) 1-0.
Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Crossley; Thomas, Handyside, Shtaniuk, Hall; Hoekstra, Gunnarsson, O'Connor, Neal (Clarke, 80); Greenacre; Akinbiyi (Cooke, 59). Substitutes not used: Williams, Iwelumo, Banks (gk).
Reading (4-4-1-1): Hahnemann; Murty, Viveash, Mackie, Shorey; Chadwick (Cureton, 70), Sidwell, Harper (Watson, 77), Salako (Henderson, 63); Little; Forster. Substitutes not used: Newman, Ashdown (gk).
Referee: C Webster (Durham).
Bookings: Stoke: Cooke, Gunnarsson.
Man of the match: Shtaniuk.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies