Who Will Be 2010's Beattie and Etherington?
Feature by Dan Buxton
Updated Thursday, 14th January 2010
Alec Vjestica's latest column
During the final weeks of 2008, Stoke were on very poor form and struggling to earn Premier League points, failing to win in December, losing to Blackburn, Manchester United and West Ham and drawing with Newcastle and Fulham. December 2009 was also a bad month for Pulis and his Potters, as we gained just one point, from a 2-2 draw with Wigan, while we suffered defeat at the hands of Arsenal, Aston Villa, Manchester City and Birmingham.
A year ago, Pulis made two major signings, bringing Sheffield United striker James Beattie to the Britannia Stadium for around £3 million, as well as West Ham winger Matthew Etherington for around £2 million. Beattie, who'll be 32 next month, made a brilliant start in a Stoke shirt, scoring on his second appearance for the club at Tottenham, and then again on his third as he netted the only goal in a crucial win over Manchester City. His good form continued to the end of the season and he netted five more goals, making a huge impact in the Potteries and playing an equally large role in our very commendable top flight survival and twelfth placed finish.
Etherington, 28, played well on his Stoke debut against Liverpool, but was sent off three games later at Sunderland and after returning from suspension was never able to really get going, fuelling rumours that he was unhappy and looking to move back to London, with Fulham said to be interested.
This season, however, things could not have been more different. Beattie made a slow start in the league and has found the goal just three times so far, with one of those coming from the penalty spot and another very generously awarded to him by the dubious goals panel after the last, and probably only, touch on an Etherington cross came off Wolves defender George Elokobi. Beattie had looked off the pace all season, which is understandable for a player that can now be legitimately classed as a veteran. He also seems to have attitude problems and has often looked sulky on the pitch, particularly during the League Cup win over Blackpool, when, instead of trying to score goals he spent his time frowning and moaning to teammates. This poor attitude came to a head after that defeat at Arsenal early last month, when he was involved in a huge bust-up with Pulis after a disagreement about the players' Christmas party.
Etherington, on the other hand, has looked a new player this year, doing a very effective job on the left wing, a position that has long been a problematic one for us, only filled, between the retirement of fans' hero Peter Hoekstra in 2004 and Etherington's signing, with square pegs, such as Richard Cresswell and Paul Gallagher, in the round hole, and unsatisfactory stopgaps, such as the Czech loanee Martin Kolar. Rather than dwindling in prowess, Etherington seems to be at the peak of his powers, and looks likely to remain a key figure at Stoke for many years to come. Creditably for a player who has previously had major off-field problems, having recovered from a gambling addiction that once put him £800,000 in debt, his attitude this year has also been superb. Asked to come on as a substitute in that unglamourous tie with Blackpool, instead of sulking and considering himself too big for such a match, he instantly set about influencing it, scoring our second goal as a two goal deficit turned into an entertaining 4-3 victory. He has since netted three more times and is currently our top scorer.
Almost two weeks into this month's transfer window, Stoke have been linked with a vast number of players, ranging from global superstars, such as Real Madrid's Ruud van Nistelrooy, to promising young talents, like Huddersfield goalkeeper Alex Smithies. When working on bringing players to the club this month, Pulis must learn from the experience of one year ago and Beattie and Etherington. Beattie was excellent as an impact signing to help us to safety after we spent most of the season in and around the bottom three, but this year we should have no such relegation concerns, so have no need to make such impact signings. As we look to establish ourselves further as a Premier League club, we must target the likes of Etherington; players that will grow and mature with the club. There's nothing wrong with experience, but at the heart of long-term footballing success are players that can produce the best for a club for season after season, and it is those that I hope to see coming through the Britannia Stadium doors over the next eighteen days.