Stoke City, 2002-2005; 2006-2013
I don’t think a manager outside the top six can ever honestly target a cup run. They just come along, as ours to the FA Cup final did in 2011.
You also need some good fortune – both on the pitch, and in getting the right draws at the right time.
In the summer of 2010, Asmir Begovic and Jonathan Walters were among those we recruited. Asmir’s the best goalkeeper I’ve ever managed – he, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross gave our team a fantastic base.
He’d been brought in to replace Thomas Sorensen, who had performed excellently during the previous two seasons. Both trained and competed in a way I admire, and although Asmir was unquestionably my first choice, I’d decided that Thomas would play in the cups.
I’d watched Walters when he was at Chester, and I wasn’t surprised when he stepped up to join Ipswich. He was everything a manager could wish for in a signing – he settled into the group very easily, understood our hard-working culture, and was unselfish.
That January we were drawn at home to Dave Jones’ Cardiff City, who were challenging for the Championship title, in the third round of the FA Cup. The club and our supporters were ablaze at Premier League football, and that game was played out in front of a smaller crowd. A draw was a fair result, but we played much better and won the replay when Walters (below) scored twice in extra time.
We drew Wolves away in the fourth round, when a penalty save from Sorensen and a goal from Huth took us past Mick McCarthy’s team and into the fifth round. The home tie with Brighton, who that season under Gus Poyet won League One, could easily have been a banana skin, but the lads approached it with great professionalism and quite comfortably won 3-0.
Reaching the quarter finals had left us just one game away from a trip to Wembley, and Stoke’s first FA Cup semi final for 39 years. West Ham were our opponents, making it a tough game, but one that – importantly – was at home. As fate would have it, our last match before hosting them was at Upton Park, where we were not ourselves and were beaten 3-0.
"I told the lads we would only get suits for the FA Cup final"
Training the following week was pretty tasty, and the performance was completely different from the week before – we scored two good goals, and Matthew Etherington also missed a penalty. The buzz afterwards was fantastic – the supporters had been given another fix, and it was so special that you could feel it all around Stoke-on-Trent.
We joined the two Manchester clubs and Bolton as semi-finalists. We drew Bolton.
I decided that training in the week leading up to the semi final (above) would remain normal. The lads had asked about suits, but I told them that we would only get them for the final.
Monday and Tuesday were spent at the training ground but, instead of having Wednesday off, we were to meet at the train station for a trip down to London. I wanted a dry run into Wembley so that the lads could get a feel for the place without anybody knowing.
"Winning 5-0 to reach Stoke’s first FA Cup final was a dream"
After walking around the pitch and going upstairs, we went for an Italian meal, concluding a great, relaxed day that was really important for those who hadn’t experienced Wembley.
We trained again on Thursday and Friday, when we focused on our shape as a team. We had to play really tight and inside the pitch. Kevin Davies was Bolton’s talisman, so it was important to be around the pass into him, and the first pass off him. If we could do that, with Etherington and Jermaine Pennant’s pace and ability, I was sure that we’d create chances on the counter-attack.
At Wembley we arrived in our tracksuits, whereas Bolton turned up in suits and with flowers in their jackets – I had continually told the lads that this was not the final, and that we still had work to do to get there. Being 3-0 up at half-time, and winning 5-0 to reach Stoke’s first ever FA Cup final, was what dreams were made of. The support was fantastic, and to be able to reward them brought great satisfaction to my team, my staff and the Coates family.
Our league form leading into the final was so good that our only setback – albeit a massive one – was losing Etherington to a hamstring injury. He joined Danny Higginbotham, who had injured his anterior cruciate ligaments, in being ruled out. His quality, pace and desire to work for the team was sorely missed in the final – a final that was, and remains, difficult for me to digest.
"We drew Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Besiktas"
The occasion (above) was again sensational, and I really believed we had a great chance against Manchester City, who we now know as one of the powerhouses of English football. Fate, though, favoured City – during the second half we had a great chance to take the lead, but they went on to win 1-0.
It had been a magnificent journey, and brought us truly great memories. From our first cup fixture on January 8 through to our last match of the season we played 24 times, which was an enormous challenge.
That summer we broke our transfer record to pay £10m to sign Peter Crouch. I was a great admirer of Crouchy’s attitude – every time I watched him he produced a performance that other players responded to. He was effective in the box and clever with his movement, and he turned out to be exactly what we needed – his fantastic personality soon became embedded in our great dressing room. Without the Coates family’s backing, none of that would have been possible.
We were about to embark on a challenge on four fronts. Our Premier League status was and always would remain my priority, but over the previous four seasons we had built a squad that was full of competitive individuals who were good players and, more than anything, enjoyed themselves as a group. Trying to get them home after training had finished was a nightmare; they resembled a close family which, with the number of games we were to encounter, would be essential.
"This, the Europa League, was new to most of our players"
Pre-season remained the same. The new signings embraced the Austrian mountains, and we started our Europa League campaign in late July. We beat Hajduk Split home and away – the atmosphere in Split was something really special – which was fantastic, started our Premier League season with a great draw against Chelsea, and then reached the Europa League group stages by winning home and away against Thun, of Switzerland. The away leg was played on an astroturf pitch, making that victory even more satisfying.
Victories against Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion gave us a great start in the Premier League, which was vital. The draw for the group stages had also taken place – it was Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Stoke City, and in that order because that’s how we were seeded. The other three teams had great experience at that level, and of being involved in European football.
I sat down with my staff, and worked out how we were going to prepare for those six games, and the six weeks of playing on Thursday and Sunday. The travel and time difference involved in every trip had to be factored in; I’m meticulous in my preparation, and had had years of Saturday-Saturday-Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday as a routine. Everything had to be moved, and in a way that preserved my patterns of preparation.
We knew that every team we would encounter would be technically good and would want to dominate possession, but that they would lack the pace and power that most possessed in the Premier League – and that was something we worked on. Our biggest fears were travelling back from these distant lands, so we chartered a plane to enable us to get home quicker. This was all new to most of our players – and every game was on television.
"We were sat on an airplane arguing with air traffic control"
The team had put in a tremendous amount of effort – mentally as well as physically. We had reached the FA Cup final, earning a place in the Europa League, and in the Premier League finished only three points off eighth.
Our group campaign started in Kiev, where we got a very creditable draw and played well against a very good side that scored really late on. We then hosted Besiktas, when goals from Crouch (above) and Walters gave us a brilliant victory that was followed by wins, home and away, against Tel Aviv. That left us needing only a point to reach the knockout stages.
When we hosted Dynamo Kiev (below, Jermaine Pennant and Andriy Shevchenko), Kenwyne Jones scored the goal that gave us the point we needed from a very tight and evenly contested game. Progressing had come from a fantastic effort from everyone, and was another wonderful achievement. We’d experienced a great journey as a club, from which I’m sure our players gained some wonderful memories.
Our last game, at Besitkas, was massive for them. They needed to win to guarantee reaching the knockouts. Istanbul has two airports, and we were due to land at the one closest to our hotel on the Bosphorus – until we reached Turkish air space, when we were ordered to go to the other airport, which was hours away by bus.
"Valencia, one of Spain’s top clubs, were our next challenge"
After we landed, we were sat on the plane arguing with air traffic control. In the end, we said that if we didn’t get clearance back to our original destination we would fly back to England. Two hours later we arrived at our designated airport.
Where we would usually get the lads up and do some light training, after the debacle of the previous night we allowed them to have a lie-in. On the day of the game, me and my assistant David Kemp took the 15-minute walk to the ground. At the hotel we were then told that our bus was leaving three hours before kick-off – we argued we wanted that cut because of how close it was, but after lots of discussions with officials we were told that that was when it had to leave.
When it came, the bus left our hotel, turned the wrong way, drove us around Istanbul for an hour and a half, and eventually dropped us off. Ricardo Fuller – a special player – gave us the lead with a fantastic finish, but we had a player sent off and a penalty awarded against us, both wrongly, and we lost 3-1. Fortunately we’d already qualified, so I needn’t say more.
Valencia were one of Spain’s top clubs, and they would be our next challenge. In our first, even leg at home, we lost 1-0 after a tremendous strike from Mehmet Topal – they then defended exceptionally well, and the chances that came our way were not taken.
"During that season, 2011/12, we played a total of 56 games"
That Sunday, because of television obligations, we were forced to kick off at 12pm against Crawley Town in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Rory Delap was wrongly sent off, meaning we had to play almost 90 minutes with 10 men. We showed great fortitude to win 2-0, and the decision to send Rory off was later overturned.
The return leg against Valencia (below) was the following Thursday. I had decided to make wholesale changes, because the lads looked jaded after a tough run. The game in Spain was much more open, and we created lots of chances. Kenwyne could easily have scored a hat-trick, but it wasn’t to be and we again lost 1-0.
Looking back with hindsight, I really should have changed the team for the first encounter at the Britannia. The main group needed a rest and, although some of our supporters would have been surprised with the changes I made for the trip to the Mestalla, they couldn’t have asked more from their players in that final match.
We’d created some great experiences for those who travelled, or who had watched us from afar. That season we played a total of 56 games, which included 33 from December to early May.
We encountered two wonderful seasons in which we twice visited Wembley, reached another FA Cup quarter final, enjoyed 12 fantastic European nights and preserved our Premier League status by almost securing successive top-10 finishes. The players, with the backing of Peter, John and Denise Coates, provided such great and proud memories for all of us to cherish.
Author: Tony Hodson