Stoke turn on the style
'We'll do it our way' read the typically defiant headline above Tony Pulis' programme notes, and while such a statement was clearly a riposte to persistent critics of Stoke's style, it was also a warning to Bolton that the Potters would approach this game with passion, desire and ruthlessness. But even Pulis could not have anticipated what followed at Wembley as his side exhibited all of those qualities, and more, in a stunning performance that has taken the club to the first FA Cup final in their 148-year history. This was not a result achieved in Stoke's usual manner; it was, their fans sung, "just like watching Brazil".
Counter-intuitively, it was a victory achieved in some style. Though the ball saw more air time than ubiquitous TV star Jimmy Carr, four of Stoke's five goals were expertly taken and the margin of their victory was fully deserved as they produced one of the great semi-final performances. Addressing criticism of their approach, their fans sung with gusto, "we're Stoke City and we'll play how we want", echoing the pre-match sentiments of their manager. Such was Bolton's ineptitude, Stoke were allowed to do just that, and more. Much, much more. Perhaps the emphatic nature of this victory will even go some way to addressing the widely-held image of the Britannia bruisers ahead of a final date with Manchester City on May 14.
After all, this was a clash of two sides who have both dealt with problems of perception in recent seasons. But while Owen Coyle has embraced the challenge of transforming the image of a club that, under the revered Sam Allardyce and then the reviled Gary Megson, came to develop a reputation for uncompromising football, Tony Pulis is still grappling with the task of doing likewise with Stoke. As he said earlier this season: "It's very difficult shaking perception off our shoulders", particularly when those shoulders are as broad and imposing as those possessed by Stoke's phalanx of giants.
But here those giants bestrode Wembley like colossuses. Of course, Bolton are hardly Lilliputian, but even they were unable to cope with the physicality and energy of Stoke; in the face of unrelenting pressure, the Trotters had no chance to showcase their much-heralded style. Owen Coyle has infused a more creative streak in the squad bequeathed to him by his predecessors - there are artists amid the artisans, it is said - but on Sunday, they were merely insipid, and culpable for some critical errors. For as much as this was a vindication for Pulis, it was also a nightmare for Coyle. Bolton paid for being toothless in attack and sloppy at the back, lacking the style or swagger that has been much applauded this season. In football parlance, they simply did not show up.
Coyle said his side "capitulated" when making numerous individual errors, adding: "Without taking anything away from Stoke ... we were architects of our own downfall. Too many today didn't give a performance to match their ability and quality, and that's the galling thing ... we haven't performed anyway near what we are capable of today. When you underperform it leaves a bad taste in your mouth."
However, events could have transpired differently as Bolton were appealing for a penalty after only seven minutes when Kevin Davies was manhandled in the box by Robert Huth, who also inadvertently handled the ball. However, Stoke escaped and would punish the Trotters within four minutes with the opening goal. An incredibly sloppy pass gifted possession to Matthew Etherington, who found the corner of the net with a beautiful strike. The Stoke supporters, tongues lodged firmly in cheeks, sung "we only score from a throw-in".
Seven minutes later they scored again. Following a Rory Delap throw this time, a hopeful punt into the air by Andy Wilkinson dropped to Gary Cahill, who saw his messy header bounce into the path of Huth. The German defender struck a fine volley from 20 yards that flew past Jussi Jaaskelainen for his ninth goal of the season. Bolton found themselves in disarray.
Infused with energy where the Trotters looked lethargic, and pressing with intensity, Stoke's in-your-face approach resulted, remarkably, in a third goal after 30 minutes. Martin Petrov was criminally caught in possession by Pennant, who charged forward and nutmegged Cahill with a pass to find Kenwyne Jones. The big striker finished calmly; his trademark somersault celebrations were rather more exuberant. It was a brutal first half for Bolton.
The Trotters had called on the memory of the great Nat Lofthouse - who passed away in January at the age of 85 and scored the two goals in Bolton's last victory in the final in 1958 - to inspire them ahead of this game, and they certainly needed a display worthy of the 'Lion of Vienna' in the second half. But forget lions, it was more like lambs to the slaughter. Jones, imperious up front, continued to wreak havoc in the Bolton backline, Jaaskelainen extending himself fully on one occasion to keep out a header from the striker. When Bolton did open up the Stoke defence, Ryan Shawcross was across quickly to halt Davies in his tracks with a fine tackle. Bolton were second best all over the pitch, in all facets of the game.
On 66 minutes, Jones could have made it 4-0 after Jonathan Walters saw a low effort saved by Jaaskelainen, but with the goal at his mercy he somehow succeeded in only connecting with the ball with the bottom of his studs, seeing it skew away harmlessly. Walters, though, did apply the finishing touch. This time it was Davies caught in possession high up the pitch, but when Walters began to run with the ball there appeared little real danger. However, the forward held off substitute Mark Davies and unleashed a wonderful curling effort from 25 yards that found the bottom corner. With nine minutes remaining, he had a second when finishing past Jaaskelainen after a scramble in the Bolton box. A messy goal, for once, but none of the Stoke fans inside Wembley cared one bit. Why would they?
Pulis hailed his side after their victory and said Stoke's gradual evolution into a more attractive side was a long-term aspiration of his. "We have a plan that is in place," he said. "When we got in to the Premier League the aim was to build gradually and slowly. We knew we would be criticised for certain things that we do, and would not do, but if you look at the side that started today compared to the one that started in the Premier League, we have improved, we have become more expansive."
It may take more than this performance to finally silence Stoke's critics - and Pulis himself admitted "I'm not sure whether it will or it won't, you are what you are" - but their supporters can sense something much more tangible than public opinion, something silver and shiny. Something that renders such criticism obsolete.
"We're Stoke City, we'll play how we want" rang out again and again. Usually that chant is defensive, defiant, a denial. Today it felt exultant.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Matthew Etherington. It would be churlish to pick out any one player, so let's go with the choice of the match sponsors. Etherington was rampant, as was Pennant, while Walters and Jones were a constant nuisance. Even Sorensen was on top form. This should really be a collective award.
BOLTON VERDICT: Terrible, in a word. They were lacking in invention in attack and torn apart with regularity in defence. This was an afternoon to forget, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
STOKE VERDICT: Brilliant. This must rate as one of the greatest days in the club's history and now Stoke can emulate Portsmouth in becoming only the second side outside of the 'big four' to win the FA Cup since Everton in 1995. Can they replicate this display against Manchester City though?
A GOOD LOSER: Owen Coyle is always approachable and honest, and his post-match press conference was very gracious as he even tipped Stoke to triumph against City in the final: "Stoke have got every chance, they will certainly come into it with a lot of confidence given how they played today. I think they have got a fantastic chance."