You heard them before you saw them. Their song echoing out of the tunnels underneath Blackburn train station. “We’re a right bunch of bastards,” they chanted, “a right bunch of bastards, a right bunch of bastards when we lose!”
But they weren’t. Though there had been trouble in the lower corner of the away end before full-time, this group of Stoke City supporters were good natured. Between 20 and 30 of them meandered unthreateningly along Platform 4, a mixed group of mostly middle aged men and women. They’d had a drink, but after their team’s display, who could blame them?
From the other side of the tracks, the sparsely populated Platform 2, one lone Blackburn fan in his early 20s lifted a pint glass of lager above his head and began to loudly goad the new arrivals, brutally deconstructing the state of their team, their town and the legitimacy of their birth certificates. The Stoke supporters just roared with laughter.
They invited him to join them on Platform 4, but he pretended that he couldn’t hear them. With all the menace of a fat cat who can’t be bothered to get up and catch the mouse, they idly tossed insults over the tracks. His clothes, his tattoos and, regrettably, his sexual preferences.
Isolated, the Blackburn fan began to pace nervously up and down Platform 2, looking for support among the handful of locals, all of whom suddenly found their own shoes to be utterly fascinating. And then the tannoy crackled into life.
“Would the passengers on Platform 2 awaiting the Blackpool South train, please move to Platform 4 where your train will shortly be arriving.”
No Stoke goal could ever have brought a louder, more jubilant roar of approval than the sudden flash of fear across their tormentor’s face. But that was as good as it got for their fans on Saturday.
This was a catastrophic performance by the Potters. Elimination from the FA Cup wouldn’t ordinarily be so depressing, but with Chelsea and Manchester City already out, the trophy was there for the taking. None of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool are so powerful that you would confidently back them to win at the Britannia Stadium. Stoke had already got one wobbly performance out of the way, fending off Wrexham when they had the temerity to take the lead in their third round tie. In the fourth round, Rochdale had tried to out-Stoke Stoke and had fallen short. This really could have been their year.
It was a strange performance. For 20 minutes, they dominated Blackburn, creating enough clear cut chances to put the game beyond doubt before half time. Then they suddenly disintegrated, allowing Rovers to cut through their lines at will. It has long since been established that Mark Hughes’ Stoke are very different to Tony Pulis’ Stoke, but it is still mildly disconcerting to see an average Championship side dismantling what used to be of the most formidable rearguards in the league with such ease. Geoff Cameron and Philipp Wollscheid will have nightmares about Blackburn striker Josh King for weeks now.
Injuries have taken a heavy toll on Stoke. At the back, the defence lacks stability without Ryan Shawcross. In the front line, the absence of Bojan has robbed Stoke of creativity. Jon Walters, Steven Ireland, Marc Wilson, Erik Pieters and Peter Odemwingie are all up on bricks and now Marc Muniesa joins them with a hamstring injury. In retrospect, the decision to allow Robert Huth to go on loan to Leicester now looks highly questionable.
It is a success, of sorts, that these injuries are highly unlikely to precipitate a slide towards the drop zone. With 33 points in the bag, Hughes’ side are all but safe, but he will not want this season to ebb away now. This, after the disaster of Queens Park Rangers, was supposed to be the job to redefine Hughes, confirming the abilities he displayed at Blackburn Rovers and, briefly, at Fulham. He has done much to reinvigorate Stoke, who for all of Pulis’ achievements, had stagnated horribly by 2013. But he will be mortified by the defending on display at Ewood Park, not to mention the sight of yet another goal conceded at a set piece.
In modern football, teams like Stoke will never win the league or even come close. They are already peddling like mad just to keep up, with 90% of their £67m turnover in 2013 going on wages. By contrast, Arsenal spent 54% of their £283m turnover on salaries, while Chelsea laid out 69% of their £260m.
Seasons like these, when the domestic silverware is suddenly up for grabs, do not come around often enough to be taken lightly. For all the injuries, the side that Hughes put out should have been good enough to beat Blackburn, who are by no means a Derby County or a Middlesbrough. That they didn’t will be the cause of profound frustration in the Potteries. Their season is now effectively over.