Stoke City's Tony Pulis And The Continuing WoodgateGate Saga

Woody's too wooden at right-back for this Stoke City fan in advance of their game with Manchester United...
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Woody's too wooden at right-back for this Stoke City fan in advance of their game with Manchester United...


Manchester United v Stoke City Preview: Tony Pulis And The Continuing Saga Of WoodgateGate

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This week on The Oatcake Message Board, Sir Pineapple 89 offered this wonderful but painfully accurate observation on your average Stoke fan’s topsy-turvy, love-hate relationship with the legend that is Sir Tony Pulis:

‘Tony Pulis is like being in a weird relationship with a girl.

Some weeks you love her massively. She's letting you in every hole (being a bit more adventurous) and you want to take her out to dinner and buy her flowers. Sometimes, though, no matter how well things appear from the outside (8th in the league, Valencia in a few weeks) she starts being an utter b*stard and gets a bit paranoid that you're cheating. She starts trying to prove a point (playing Woodgate and Shotton on the right) and tests your patience by doing things that are impossible to fathom (playing Delap because it's 'too windy' for Wilson Palacios). In the end you just snap at her and you wish you had actually cheated on her because she's clearly a bit mental anyway.

You feel a bit bad after that and then you step back a bit. There's the sex (Europe). That amazing, amazing sex. And then there's the way you've been through all the ups and downs together and come out of it still strong (always being unbearable to watch away from home but amazingly getting to the FA Cup final). And, then, it hits you. You're in the best relationship you've ever been in. You're perfect together and you're mad to want anything else yet there's always that nagging suspicion that she's going to go a bit mental again for no real reason. Again the doubt sets in and you think, somehow, that you can find somebody better and more attractive to watch.

Then, again, after a sh*t few weeks where you've been at the end of your tether, you'll beat Man United spectacularly and it's all flowers and gifts again for your wonderful, beautiful girlfriend.

Why can't it always be like this? Why can't it always be so perfect?

The reason it can’t always be this perfect is beautifully enshrined in what is rapidly becoming known in our house as Woodgategate. The question we all have about Woody, which has been increasingly vexing the regulars both on the messages boards and in the stands, really came to a head last week after a couple of p*ss poor home performances against teams that frankly, with all due respect to Wigan and West Brazil, we really should be beating. And that question is, quite simply, ‘Why?’

Now I imagine that amongst many of you heathens out there, that question has probably caused a sharp intake of breath and spluttering mutterings along the lines of ‘how dare those agricultural ruffians question the existence of one of the finest, most cultured centre backs this country’s produced in decades? Don’t they know how lucky they are to have their land of giants graced by someone who was once a giant amongst giants at that giant club Real Madrid?’

And that would be a fair question. But only if you hadn’t actually seen him play this season. If you had, I think you’d know why this question is occupying not just some of the finest minds on the Oatcake Message Board but also Rob Bagchi in his Guardian blog and Football Focus this weekend.

The problem is terribly simple: he hasn’t ‘done smashing’ at all. At least not at football

Indeed such are the exalted levels Woodgategate has reached, The Legend That Is Sir Tony Pulis was moved to defend his ‘full back’ to the press this week in a statement that seemed to conveniently forget a performance of such woeful ineptitude that we lost to West Brom for the first time since 1753. That they did so by directing some 65% of their attacks down our right hand side has been subjected to a revision of history worthy of Joe Stalin himself. "The right-back position has been a concern for some people but not for me, Woody's done smashing” said TLTISTP.

The problem is terribly simple: he hasn’t ‘done smashing’ at all. At least not at football. (I can’t speak for any other smashing he may have been doing.) Furthermore, it is apparent to everyone that the inclusion of Woody on the right massively unbalances the team, depriving us of the services of Pennant, arguably our most creative and threatening attacking player, as TLTISTP is forced to play Shotton on the right of midfield to try to compensate for some of Woody’s lack of pace, positioning and all other attributes generally considered handy for a full back.

As Rob Bagchi correctly notes ‘Although Woodgate's effort and commitment cannot be criticised, he does not have the mobility or mentality to cope with a winger attacking down the outside…..Without the pace and inclination to run beyond halfway with the ball, there is little, too, that he offers in attack.’

The latter observation also highlights the double cost to the team, depriving us as it does not only of Pennant’s creativity but also the attacking options and marauding runs of Wilkinson or Shotton from full back.

Far from being outraged at such an embarrassingly early removal from the fray, Woody’s admirable response as he came off was ‘good decision Gaffer’. The lad’s not daft, he knows he’s struggling.

So the cost to the team as a whole is apparent to everyone except TLTISTP and his coaching staff, despite them having substituted him at Wolves after only 20 minutes of being turned inside out by Jarvis and conceding a penalty which on any other day would have seen him sent off. Far from being outraged at such an embarrassingly early removal from the fray, Woody’s admirable response as he came off was ‘good decision Gaffer’. The lad’s not daft, he knows he’s struggling.

He’s even admitted to Football Focus that he’s studying tapes of Gary Neville to try to improve his positioning ffs. Really? Whilst playing for the first team in competitive fixtures? That must make Wilkinson feel about as good as Andersson must have done the other day when he watched a retired player come off the bench before him for Man U.

Which brings us back to our painful ongoing relationship with TLTISTP. On the one hand one has to admire his loyalty to players who are prepared to give him everything long past their point of usefulness – Richard Cresswell, Mama Sidibe, spring to mind – but it’s in the full back position that Sir Tone brings one closest to domestic violence. We had the ‘Danny Collins Experiment’ last season that saw him persist with another centre back at left back long after it was to plain to all that he was a liability and his confidence was shot. At the beginning of this season we had last season’s player of the year, Robert Huth, shunted out to right back to accommodate Woodgate at centre back, when it had been clearly established last season that whilst a fantastic centre back, Huthy was a disaster at right back.

So just why is TLTISTP so desperate to accommodate Woodgate he’ll unbalance the side and risk the disaffection of crucial players like Huth, Pennant & Wilkinson? Is he star-struck at having landed an ex-Real Madrid & England player like a small child suddenly confronted by Harry Potter in his school playground? Is he so indebted to him for helping land Crouchy that automatic selection in perpetuity is his reward? Does Woody’s pay-per-play deal actually state a specific number of games he has to play? Is TLTISTP on a cut of this deal?

Or is he just one stubborn and spectacularly curmudgeonly s-o-b who will continue to pick him for as long as people like Rob Bagchi, the Oatcake Message Board, James Whittaker at ESPN, and 28,000 people continue to groan outwardly every week as the team is read out?

Is he star-struck at having landed an ex-Real Madrid & England player like a small child suddenly confronted by Harry Potter in his school playground?

Personally, I think he’s the latter. He is so in thrall to The Legend That Is Sir Alex Ferguson I even suspect he looks in the mirror and asks himself ‘What would Sir Alex do?’. He sees Smalling and Jones doing a job at full back for United and thinks ‘I’ll ignore the fact that Woody is 20 years older than them, with the mobility and pace of an Austin Allegro driven by a pensioner, and play him at full back cos if it’s good enough for SAF it’s good enough for me’.

TP will doff his cap and bow in deference to The Greatest Manager Of All Time and instruct his lads to go out, have fun and enjoy the occasion

Which brings me to the supposed premise for this rambling rant: a preview of tonight’s game at Old Trafford. Said preview only really runs to one sentence, hence the need to find something else to fill the rest of the article. Here’s that – admittedly quite long – sentence: we’ll turn up, TP will doff his cap and bow in deference to The Greatest Manager Of All Time and instruct his lads to go out, have fun and enjoy the occasion but on no account compete as if harbouring any notions of actually winning, or pump crosses into the box to test their poor, fragile, semi-blind goalkeeper, because that would be very, very ill-mannered when they’ve been kind enough to allow little old Stoke City to grace the hallowed Old Trafford turf yet again.

Then tomorrow morning we’ll all wake up all cross and hurt and fed up at another dismally cautious and ultimately pointless away performance against a team on the back foot against whom a bit of adventure may well have been rewarded, and in the inestimable words of Sir Pineapple 89, we’ll ‘ just snap at her and wish we had actually cheated on her because she's clearly a bit mental anyway’.

And then we’ll start packing for Valencia, applying for tickets to the 5th round of the FA Cup, plotting exactly what we need to finish 6th this season and before we know it, we’re sending TLTITP flowers, chocolates and treating him to romantic weekends away in North Wales, telling him how we never thought we’d ever feel like this again, how we’d like to have his children, and thanking him profusely for giving us the best time of our lives when we’d all but given up hope of ever experiencing joy and love ever again. And he looks you in the eye, smiles kindly, lovingly even – and blatantly picks Woody at right back for Saturday.

And so the abusive cycle begins again…..


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