They’re circling the wagons at the Britannia Stadium.
After Stoke came under renewed criticism for the robust approach of their players, manager Tony Pulis launched a stringent riposte to their many detractors, insisting others, for whatever reason, including their beaten opponents, have equal need to get their houses in order. You might describe him as refusing to pull any punches, but given his side’s unwanted reputation, it’s perhaps best not to.
Andy Wilkinson, the Stoke defender, has been dealt with ‘in house’ for his fearsome challenge on Fulham’s Mousa Dembele in midweek, but after climbing out of the bottom three with their first victory at St James’ Park for 35 years, Pulis took the siege mentality to new heights.
He refused to name names, but it’s thought he was referring to a first-half incident involving Joey Barton when Pulis said: “We’ve had bad publicity this week with Andy’s challenge, but I was really disappointed when one of the Newcastle players went down and I think simulated an injury from a challenge. Three passes later he was running around as if nothing has happened.
“The PFA have a responsibility as an organisation to make sure their players don’t do things like that. You put other players and officials under enormous pressure doing that. We’ve been highlighted with one or two other clubs as being supposedly over-physical but other aspects of the game need addressing.”
The allegations were strongly countered by Newcastle manager Chris Hughton, whose side succumbed to a second successive home defeat after a 26-game unbeaten run in front of their own supporters. “There was no play acting from any of our players,” he insisted. “I’d be very surprised at that. I can’t legislate for the opinions of other managers but I refute those allegations.”
That the visitors finished the contest with five former Sunderland players on the field merely rubbed salt in the wounds as Newcastle capitulated after the break, the visitors’ comeback rounded off by James Perch heading into his own net from Matthew Etherington’s 85th minute corner. “However down the lads are feeling in the dressing room, James is feeling worse,” Hughton added.
Before the interval, it was a different story. Robert Huth has previous when it comes to tangling with Newcastle centre-forwards, and back in the day at Chelsea, the German defender escaped punishment for what many saw as a deliberate stamp in a rather delicate part of Alan Shearer’s anatomy.
Some six years on and the centre-back has seemingly not learned his lesson as he got to grips, literally, with Newcastle’s latest number nine, with dire consequences. Struggling to contain Andy Carroll’s run to meet a raking cross from Jose Enrique, Huth manhandled the lumbering forward to ground a dozen yards from goal under the gaze of referee Mike Jones. It was one of the more clearcut penalty decisions of the Cheshire official’s career.
Thomas Sorensen famously saved a spot-kick from Shearer as Sunderland goalkeeper a decade ago, but it wasn’t so great for the Dane this time, comprehensively beaten by Kevin Nolan, Sorensen going the wrong way. The Newcastle skipper’s unflustered effort was the only shot on target of an abject first half, coming two minutes before the break.
The second goal, however, never looked like materialising and Stoke gave warning of the about turn to come as Kenwyne Jones struck the woodwork twice, with a shot against the post and a header that came back off the crossbar in the space of five minutes.
It was soon third time lucky as, with 23 minutes remaining, the Trinidad & Tobago forward headed into an empty net from Huth’s knock-back as Etherington’s free-kick – awarded for Enrique’s foul on Ricardo Fuller that left the forward with a suspected dislocated shoulder – caused confusion in the Newcastle area. “It’s disappointing that we’ve not dealt with two set-pieces for their goals,” Hughton conceded.
Nolan might have levelled in stoppage time from a Jonas Gutierrez cross, but it wasn’t to be, and while Stoke show steady signs of improvement after taking seven points from the last three games, Newcastle have already shown enough in the campaign’s opening six weeks to suggest that Blackpool won’t have the monopoly on rollercoaster seasons this time round.
The Toon Army are preparing for eight more months of a white-knuckle ride that promises to be anything but predictable.
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