It has been a very busy week for Stoke City. The Potteries outfit finally concluded their soap opera of a quest to sign one of Portsmouth’s goalkeepers by snatching highly-rated Bosnian youngster Asmir Begovic from the clutches of Chelsea and Tottenham.
Having concluded that late deadline day deal, the Potters then proceeded to play out one of the poorest Premier League games in living memory against Sunderland. The only noteworthy incident from the goalless draw with the Black Cats was the faint creaking sound, carried on the breeze, of Sir Stanley Matthews turning in his grave, so cataclysmically dire was the football on show. The arrival of Begovic and the Wearside bore draw have overshadowed what could turn out to be the most significant story of Stoke’s season, as it emerged that contract negotiations are underway to secure a new deal for left winger Matthew Etherington. The hierarchy at the Britannia Stadium has been suitably impressed with Etherington’s performances this season to not only offer him improved terms but to assist him in repaying his well-publicised gambling debts accumulated during his West Ham days.
It is safe to say that Etherington has been the success story of Stoke’s season. The winger had endured a turbulent career prior to his arrival in the Potteries. His performances at Peterborough a decade ago made him one of the hottest young prospects in English football, and a trial at Manchester United followed. However, his big move to Tottenham turned sour and Etherington soon found himself at Championship side West Ham. It was at Upton Park where he began to show signs of fulfilling his potential, playing an integral part in the Hammers’ return to the top flight in 2005. He was even more impressive the following season as West Ham marched to the FA Cup final, and it was Etherington’s pass that allowed Dean Ashton to put the Hammers 2-0 ahead in that classic final at the Millennium Stadium. So good was Etherington’s form that his name was touted for an England call up. Like so many of West Ham’s FA Cup stars however, his career badly stagnated over the next couple of seasons to the extent that the Truro born wide man had become a peripheral figure by the time Gianfranco Zola took charge at the Boleyn Ground. His poor form was not eased by his mounting gambling addiction. It was claimed that a week spent at the Sporting Chance clinic in February 2007 had overcome these demons, but the problems returned with a vengeance in October 2008. Etherington was forced to ask the east Londoners to bail him out after allegedly receiving death threats over debts totaling a rumoured £800 000. Zola’s patience with Etherington ran out, and Stoke were the ones to take a chance, for a cut price £2m, in January 2009.
Although Matthew Etherington got off to an inauspicious start to life at the Britannia Stadium, he has gone on to become the embodiment of Tony Pulis’ “Battersea Dog’s Home” gift for revitalising the careers of players on a downward spiral. The Potters have a proud tradition of fielding classy wingers – Terry Conroy, Mark Chamberlain, Peter Beagrie and Peter Hoekstra all lit up the Potteries with their wizardry down the flanks, not to mention Matthews, arguably the greatest winger who ever lived. Stoke however had been lacking an old-fashioned, out and out left winger since Hoekstra’s emotional retirement in 2004. The emergence of Etherington has changed all that and added a new dimension to Stoke’s play. Before his arrival, Stoke were a team almost entirely devoid of pace. Now, the team strives to make the most of this valuable commodity by using Etherington’s acceleration on the ball as an outlet to ease pressure on the defence. The almost total reliance in Pulis’ trusted “Plan A” – the long ball to a target man – has been tempered by an increasing willingness to get the ball to Etherington where possible. Thomas Sorensen often looks to throw the ball quickly to the former Peterborough winger as Stoke seek to counter-attack at speed. A large percentage of the club’s best attacking play this season has relied heavily on Etherington’s trickery, velocity and delivery on the left flank, and he has featured in all but one of Stoke’s Premier League games in the 2009/10 campaign.
Tony Pulis is often accused of neglecting craft in his teams in favour of graft, and preferring artisans to artists. It is Etherington’s ability to provide both flair and a strong work ethic however, which has cemented his place as one of the manager’s untouchables. Stoke fans will be hoping that a new deal for their star winger can be thrashed out as quickly as possible – the 28-year-old Etherington has shown that he is an integral part of the Potter’s Premier League future.