x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Stoke City are a team flying down the wings

The modern-day Stoke are more of a throwback, harking back to an era before 1966. Their wingers were the wonders in Sunday's semi-final.

In the posh seats at Wembley Stadium, Stoke City's (and some would say the world's) greatest goalkeeper watched on. Gordon Banks achieved much in his garlanded career, including winning the World Cup on the same ground, albeit in its original incarnation, in 1966.

Sir Alf Ramsey's team were overly pragmatic for the purists' liking.

The same charges were levelled at Banks's former club before they reached the first FA Cup final of their 148-year history.

In each case, they can be refuted, but for very different reasons.

Banks was part of an innovative side nicknamed "the wingless wonders".

The modern-day Stoke are more of a throwback, harking back to an era before 1966. Their wingers were the wonders in Sunday's semi-final.

Plenty of others contributed to the 5-0 demolition of Bolton Wanderers, not least the two-goal striker Jonathan Walters, but the architects were the men stationed on either flank, Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant.

Etherington's curler began the rout. The third, and perhaps best, of the goals followed Pennant's weaving 50-yard solo run and precise pass to set up Kenwyne Jones's finish.

Together, they are the two best uncapped English wingers and the principal reasons why most of the commonly-voiced criticisms about Stoke (dirty, direct, dependent upon Rory Delap's long throws) are increasingly outdated.

Stoke lacked aesthetic appeal after their promotion to the Premier League in 2008. Tony Pulis, their manager, is a realist who has talked (ad infinitum, regular listeners might argue) about a three-year plan for establishing the club in the top flight.

The initial blueprint was for a scrap for survival but incremental improvement has included the recruitment of better players with a commensurate impact on the club's style of play.

Etherington, who arrived in January 2009, is Stoke's outstanding player this season, just as he was last year.

Pennant, who was signed last summer, has provided a mirror image on the right flank, a skilful dribbler and an accurate crosser whose service suits the sort of tall strikers Pulis invariably prefers.

Both are proof, too, that there is more to Pulis than first impressions suggest.

His regimented approach and fondness for national service indicates more of a sergeant major than a social worker.

However, each of his wingers has the biography of a familiar character from crime dramas and westerns: the fallen hero seeking to make amends.

Etherington is a recovering gambling addict who incurred heavy debts but he has been rehabilitated.

For two years, he has been playing his own redemption song on the left wing.

Pennant served time in prison for drink-driving and controversy has continued to play a part in his career.

His reputation was hardly enhanced when it emerged he had left a £90,000 (Dh538,200) Porsche parked at a Spanish train station for several months after swapping Real Zaragoza for Stoke, forgetting he owned the vehicle.

Nevertheless, Pulis has channelled his considerable talent for City's benefit.

In an era when few teams play with two out-and-out wingers (and still fewer ally them with two genuine strikers), it gives Stoke a distinct look and opponents a genuine challenge.

The service from the flanks now extends far beyond Delap's javelin-throwing prowess as full-backs, such as Bolton's tormented Paul Robinson, can testify.

In some respects, Etherington and Pennant appear the apotheosis of the modern footballer. In another, they are continuing a long and distinguished tradition at Stoke.

Because the Britannia Stadium's address, on a street commemorating the world's most famous winger of his generation, is all too apt: Stanley Matthews Way, Stoke.