Behind Enemy Lines: Stoke City

MILLWALL face Stoke this weekend for the first time in almost 12 years when they head to the bet365 Stadium.

On form it looks like only one winner: Millwall haven’t won since October 27, a run of seven games; Stoke haven’t lost in nine games since October 20.

Lucas Ball spoke to Potters fan Matt Dalgarno this week.

Twitter: @SCFC_Dalgarno

Why do you support Stoke?

I’m Stoke-on-Trent born and bred with my Mum and Dad both Stoke fans so there was only ever one club for me.

What's been your favourite season following the Potters?

This is a tough one. A few stand out for different reasons. A few years ago, we had Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri playing the best football I’ve ever seen at Stoke.

Then there’s our Europa League adventure in 2011-12 and the season we reached the FA Cup final 2011.

But for me it’s the season we were promoted to the Premier League (2007-08), some of my favourite ever memories following Stoke and always will be.

How about the worst?

Again, this is a tough one with a few to pick from. Being relegated to League One in 1998 wasn’t much fun, and neither was Tony Pulis’ last season in charge (2004-05) during his first spell as manager, known among fans as the ‘Binary Season’ due to the amount of 1-0, 0-1 and 0-0s we had.

But the worst for me was last season. Relegation became inevitable as we went down without a fight. So many catastrophic mistakes led to the relegation and many fans saw it coming for a long time, yet we sleepwalked right into it.

Gary Rowett took over in the summer and seemed to struggle initially. Is he the right man for the job?

The club as a whole seemed to struggle acclimatising to the Championship and most fans knew the pre-season favourites tag wasn’t really going to be justified.

We were conceding too many goals at the start of the season and Rowett has certainly tightened us up defensively, though we’re still not water-tight by any means.

The manager certainly has his critics amongst the fans but it’s clear to see we’re improving. If we can start turning some of these draws into wins then I’m hopeful Rowett will lead us to the play-offs come May.

Where would you like to see him strengthen his squad in January?

The problem is more to do with supply than it is finishing. We play with one striker so we could probably do with some quality in behind him or another wide man with pace, something else we lack, to help supply the striker along with Tom Ince.

In my opinion, we’re still not right at the back either, we could really do with a more mobile central defender as well as cover at left-back. When Erik Pieters was injured earlier this season we had to play a centre-half in his place which is far from ideal.

Does the aim for this season remain promotion back to the Premier League?

It has to be. While we’re only five points adrift of the play-offs we have as good a chance as anyone.

We’ve lost just once in the last 13 league games, so things are certainly going in the right direction.

We are drawing too many games and need to be more ruthless but it’s taken time for the team to believe again so hopefully the confidence is coming back.

In that 13-game run we’ve won at Norwich, beaten Derby with 10 men and drawn games at Sheffield United, Forest, Villa and at home with Boro…so the team is definitely a match for anyone in this league.

Given the form of both sides, surely anything less than three points for Stoke this weekend will be regarded as a huge disappointment?

With respect to Millwall, yes.

There is certainly hope despite the poor away record. We’ve thrown away so many points from games we should have won this season, recently at home to QPR and away at Reading.

But if we’re to have any ambition of at least making the play-offs we need to win games like the one this weekend.

Millwall are on their worst run of the season

What are you expecting from the Lions this weekend?

I’m expecting a committed and disciplined Millwall team to come and try to frustrate Stoke.

They have experience and knowhow in the side, so they’re capable of causing us problems.

With our tendency to draw matches, I expect Millwall to make it difficult for us to break them down and try to take a point.

How much of an advantage are parachute payments to teams like Stoke compared to clubs like Millwall who only came up from League One in 2017?

I agree that it’s definitely an advantage for clubs coming down.

In our case, we managed to keep some of our big-name players with Joe Allen even signing a new contract. Off the players to leave from last season’s squad only Xherdan Shaqiri has been missed.

A lot was made of the money we spent this summer but our net spend wasn’t that high. A lot to supporters will argue that we were able to spend decent money due to a few years of transfer market neglect when we spent way below the PL average, one of many factors in our relegation.

Who will be the danger men for the home side?

Tom Ince will be the biggest threat to Millwall, he’s so dangerous at this level and in great form.

Joe Allen is also in good form and, after a period of transition, Ryan Woods is now an important part of the team, dictating play and allowing the likes of Allen and Sam Clucas to be feature further up the pitch.

Likewise, which Millwall players do you fear?

Lee Gregory appears to be the man most likely for Millwall, but being a Stoke fan I fear anyone who hasn’t scored for a while or is out of form. As an example of this Angel Rangel scored twice for QPR against us recently…his first goals since January 2017 and his first-ever brace!

What are your thoughts on Lions boss Neil Harris?

I like him in general, he seems to say the right things when I’ve seen him speak.

Although I admit I saw what he said after the Preston game and was surprised with his comments about his position. But I think it comes from the fact he clearly loves Millwall and wants to sort things out himself.

On the whole, given that Millwall’s budget is likely one of the smaller ones in the league, I think he’s generally done a decent job for the club.

If you could sign one of his players, who would it be and why?

We could certainly use some competition and younger legs at the back so I’d probably say Jake Cooper.

It’s always good business to tie down your better players, even if it just means you get the best possible deal for them should they eventually leave down the line. Not to mention the transfer window is around the corner so with a new deal he’ll be completely focused on his football.

What's your predicted Stoke starting XI and formation?

Some call it a 4-3-3, some a 4-2-3-1. Woods will be the deeper man in midfield with Clucas and Allen given licence to get into the box.

Rowett often switches the strikers so it could be Saido Berahino back to the left with Benik Afobe coming in up top. But I hope Saido is given another go.

James McClean was excellent at Villa last week and deserves to keep his place.

Butland; Martina, Shawcross, Williams, Pieters; Allen, Woods, Clucas; Ince, Berahino, McClean;

Finally, a score prediction?

2-0 to Stoke with a goal in each half from Tom Ince.

Graphic: @jay_taylor18

Image: Millwall FC