Club Focus – Stoke – The Etherington England enigma

On Tuesday night, as England huffed and puffed but failed to unlock a resolute Montenegro defence at Wembley, the Englishman with the most assists to his name in the Premier League so far this season was nowhere to be seen.

Matthew Etherington has picked up this term where he left off in May, being involved in all but two of Stoke City’s goals so far in 2010/11. His display in the recent home win over Blackburn encapsulated why the former Peterborough player is so important to the Potters. His pace and ability to get beyond the last defender, even on the tiny Britannia Stadium pitch, really stretches the opposition, and his first rate delivery with both a moving and dead ball are manna from heaven to the club’s array of tall strikers. His clever through ball split the defence to allow Jon Walters to score the game’s decisive goal, while Etherington revealed the goal threat he himself possesses (he was the club’s top league goalscorer last season) by forcing Paul Robinson into a couple of fine saves. Meanwhile, his willingness to run with the ball is a vital outlet to ease pressure when his team are on the back foot.

He is on Capello’s radar as well, with the Italian watching the erstwhile West Ham winger on two separate occasions last term. There is certainly a case to be made that the left footed wide man would fit into Capello’s set up. The Italian values pace on at least one of the flanks, but has been frustrated by the lack of positional discipline his wide players have shown. Theo Walcott’s failure to follow instructions famously cost him a place in South Africa, while the man who started on the right in his place, Aaron Lennon, became inexplicably reluctant to stick to the touchline and run at his man once the finals began.

Etherington, however, has excelled in Tony Pulis’ rigid system, providing menace in attack but also getting back to cover his left back. This willingness to muck in defensively would dovetail nicely with Ashley Cole’s marauding runs, while the presence of Etherington on the left and someone like James Milner on the right, or Adam Johnson, who always seems to impress more on the right wing, would bring balance to an England midfield bereft of imagination or any Plan B.

At 29, however, he may have missed his chance. The emergence of a number of younger players, at higher-profile clubs, such as Johnson, Milner, and Ashley Young, as well as the in-form Stewart Downing, have left him way down the pecking order. While this is a bitter blow for the player, it may well be a blessing for his club. Free of the spotlight and attention that a call up brings with it – not to mention the prying eyes of admiring rival managers at bigger clubs who might seek to spirit him away – Etherington can continue to be something of a hidden gem, remaining the assist-laden creative heartbeat at the Britannia Stadium. Matthew Etherington might have to settle for just being the hero at Stoke City, but England’s loss could well be the Potters’ gain.

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