Club Focus – Stoke City – Captain’s return to form steadies sinking ship

Born and raised in Hanley, Edward J. Smith – captain of the RMS Titanic – was a proud son of Stoke-On-Trent, the largest of the six towns that comprise the city. Yet even Captain Smith would have been alarmed at Stoke City’s slide towards the icy waters of the Premier League relegation zone in recent weeks. However, Tuesday night’s exciting 3-2 victory over Roy Hodgson’s battling Fulham has stopped the rot for now, giving the Potters their first league victory since November. Most of the plaudits for these hard-fought, vital three points have been shared between Matthew Etherington, whose whipping delivery created all three Stoke goals, and the electric Tuncay, who was the creative heartbeat of the team’s attacking play before a hamstring injury forced him off shortly before half time.

Nevertheless, equally as important to Stoke’s success against the Cottagers was the return to form of captain Abdoulaye Faye. The Stoke skipper was rested for Saturday’s victory over York in the FA Cup and there have been calls by some sections of the club’s supporters for the 31-year-old defender to be consigned to the sidelines for a prolonged spell after substandard form and fitness. Time and again this season Faye’s defensive lapses have cost the Potters. His tendency to lose the player he has been assigned to mark has become an expensive habit which has seen goals shipped to the likes of Chelsea, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Wigan.

Such errors were in stark contrast to the series of terrific displays provided by the Senegalese man-mountain during Stoke’s 2008/09 Premier League campaign, which saw him attain cult status among the fans. Eyebrows were raised when the newly-promoted Potters agreed a knockdown fee of just £2.25m with Newcastle for Faye, who was widely considered to be one of the few Sam Allardyce signings to emerge from Magpies’ terrible 2007/08 campaign with any credit. The Toon Army were quickly shown what they were missing as the Senegalese international scored in both games against his old club as they headed for the Championship, while a Faye-inspired Stoke enjoyed a dream debut season amongst the elite.

Faye embodied all the virtues of Tony Pulis’ hard working outfit. Deployed in the heart of the Potters’ defence – rather than the midfield role in which he had operated under Allardyce – little got past Faye, and his organisational skills helped the Midlands side to an impressive 12 clean sheets that season. He also displayed a touch of class, routinely bringing down an aerial ball on his chest and taking his time to calmly bring the ball out of defence. Thorough and robust in the challenge, Stoke fans took to rewording the popular Chuck Norris Facts with the Senegal stalwart’s name in place of the Kung Fu legend – and at times it really did seem feasible that Faye “could slam a revolving door.” The imposing African clinched the club’s Player of the Year award and finished the season as captain.

Given last season’s imperious form, it has become painful for Stoke fans to watch Faye this term as a markedly slower, error-prone shadow of himself. A pre-season hip injury left lingering question marks over his fitness, but there were also fears that complacency had set in after the adulation he received after his performances of the 2008/09 season. In a significant game against Fulham however, Faye delivered the performance that the team needed from their skipper. Given the unenviable task of marking a red-hot Bobby Zamora, the centre-back controlled the in-form England hopeful with relative comfort – albeit ultimately a little too much enthusiasm when his poorly timed tackle saw Zamora’s night end prematurely with a suspected dislocated shoulder. Nevertheless, the on-field leadership that Faye had failed to provide in recent weeks was restored and consequently, despite the two goals conceded, this was the Potters’ most assured defensive display for weeks. Fulham were largely restricted to forging chances from set pieces and long-distance strikes, as Stoke were able to play out the remaining moments of injury time in their opponents’ half.

Tony Pulis will hope that his revitalised captain gets the chance to continue his strong defensive partnership with Ryan Shawcross. With the transfer window open, the Stoke boss has slapped a £20m price tag on the much-admired 22-year-old in the hope of deterring potential suitors. Manchester City are expected to turn their attentions to Shawcross should their proposed £15m move for Bolton’s Gary Cahill not bear fruit. Meanwhile, across the city, the youngster’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson is a well-known admirer and could make a move given the uncertainty surrounding the future of both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Stoke City will spend January nervously praying that nobody puts their valuation of Shawcross to the test.

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