On Saturday evening I watched Stoke City score against the reigning world champions. Amazingly, this wasn't a Championship Manager flight of fancy, rather the Republic of Ireland taking on Italy in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Eight minutes in, Ireland won a free-kick wide on the right which Stoke winger Liam Lawrence, playing his first competitive game for his adoptive country, cleverly cut back to club teammate and Republic midfield regular Glenn Whelan in the centre. 25 yards out, Whelan struck the ball perfectly, sending it speeding past the helpless Gianluigi Buffon, the goalkeeper many consider to be the best in the world, to nestle in the top corner and send Croke Park wild.
A little under ten years ago, I was one of just 11,600 Stoke fans to turn out at the Britannia Stadium to watch us lose a League One match to Notts County. Our international representation in the team that day came in the form of Bermuda striker Kyle Lightbourne, whose ability to make an easy chance look very difficult few but the most recent of Potters converts will need reminding of.
Those two matches go a long way to illustrate how far we have come as a club over the last decade or so and, happily, next summer we will be able to do something we haven't since 1982, watch a Stoke player turn out for his country at the World Cup. This weekend both Denmark and Germany confirmed their automatic qualification for the tournament in South Africa, with Stoke 'keeper Thomas Sorensen and defender Robert Huth seeming extremely likely to feature in their respective squads.Ireland's ultimate 2-2 draw meant they'll have to settle for a play-off spot, but still look strong for qualification, meaning Whelan and Lawrence could be taking on the world's best on an even grander stage, while Uruguayan midfielder Diego Arismendi could complete a quintet of Stokies in South Africa if his country close their qualification this midweek. It's a joy to watch Stoke players performing well for their countries, and will be fantastic to watch them at the World Cup in the summer. The best thing about it? When we wrap up the signings of Nikola Žigić, David James and Emile Heskey in January we'll have a whole lot more to cheer on.