Ryan Shawcross can be sure of a thunderous and heartfelt reception from the fiercely loyal Britannia Stadium faithful when he steps onto the turf for the first time since the awful events of the Aaron Ramsey incident. Shawcross has now served his three game suspension, and has received support from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello in the wake of what was, when all is said and done, simply a terrible accident. However, an ankle injury sustained in training, coupled with a fine defensive display from the back four who played in last weekend’s goalless draw with Aston Villa, has given Tony Pulis a dilemma – does he reintroduce his star defender immediately, or make him wait?
The stalemate against their fellow Midlanders was the Potters’ first since early February, and only their third this calendar year. It would be harsh to drop any of the defenders who proved so resolute against the Villans. The central defensive partnership of Abdoulaye Faye and Danny Higginbotham provided little finesse but plenty of experience. Faye turned in an understated but assured performance, doing the simple things effectively – something which has not always been true of his displays this season.
Higginbotham meanwhile, continues to cement his status as the unsung hero of the Potteries outfit. Himself a product, like Shawcross, of the Manchester United youth academy – Higginbotham was not welcomed back universally by the Stoke support on his return to the club from Sunderland in 2007. This was perhaps unsurprising, given how vocal the former Derby and Southampton defender had been about his desire to leave the Potters – then in the Championship – for the bright lights of the top flight with Roy Keane’s newly-promoted Black Cats. Higginbotham however, is a true professional, and set about winning over the vast majority of doubters by being the model of consistency at left-back over the past two seasons. Although he is hardly a genuine, overlapping full-back, and in spite of his distribution from the back still leaving something to be desired, he has hardly put a foot wrong defensively. Against Aston Villa, deployed in his preferred central defensive position, Higginbotham underlined his importance to the Stoke defence with a performance notable for its bravery and leadership, and his organisation of the back four was evident. Underrated by many, the Potters’ left-back has shown himself to be the glue holding the Potters’ back line together.
When injuries and suspensions offered a route back into the Stoke starting XI, Danny Collins chose the visit of the Villans to deliver a vastly improved showing. On the ball, he showed his customary tidy passing and intelligence, yet he also displayed a positional awareness that had been sorely lacking in previous performances.
Therefore, following a hard-earned clean sheet against Champions League contenders, and strong showings from the Potters’ rearguard, Shawcross should perhaps have to wait his turn. Pulis runs the risk of demoralising his squad by failing to reward good performances, and nobody should be guaranteed their place in the Stoke side. Team spirit has been pivotal in the success of this Stoke City team, yet the manager has made a couple of mis-steps in dropping in-form players. Dave Kitson’s fine early season form came to a screeching halt when he found himself unceremoniously jettisoned in favour of an unfit James Beattie at Goodison Park, while Andy Wilkinson has similarly found himself in and out of the team in spite of frequently outshining Robert Huth at right back. The Welshman should be wary of repeating these mistakes.
However, there is an equally strong argument for Shawcross’ immediate reinstatement to the team. He has shown himself to be a key component of the club’s success in recent years, catching Capello’s eye in the process. His lack of respect for reputations has been the making of him as a Premier League defender, proving entirely un-phased at having to contend with world class opposition and this could be vital against the danger posed by an in-form Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko on Saturday. Moreover, the young centre back offers a threat at the other end of the pitch, his height and power meaning that he is always likely to profit from corners and Rory Delap’s long throw.
Tony Pulis might also consider it better to get Shawcross “back in the saddle” sooner rather than later in the hope of exorcising the demons of “Ramseygate”. Getting that first game under his belt will be a big step on the road to putting the incident behind him, and the Potters will be hoping that it hasn’t taken a psychological toll on the starlet’s defending.
Whoever the Stoke boss decides to select on Saturday, they can be sure of a tough test as Harry Redknapp’s men seek revenge for their shock home defeat to the Potters in October. Stoke were stalwart in repelling Champions League contenders last weekend, now they must do the same again.