A text that will help you bet­ter under­stand the expres­sion “on a cold rainy evening in Stoke.”

Today this fact may seem strange and inex­plic­a­ble, but this does not cease to be a fact: in the late 2000s and ear­ly 1900s, one of the most fun­da­men­tal con­fronta­tions with­in the Pre­mier League were match­es between the Lon­don Arse­nal and the provin­cial Stoke City.

“SE” is about how games with an unre­mark­able, at first glance, sign became true clas­sics of British foot­ball.





***

Novem­ber 2008. The young Arse­nal team, led by 21-year-old cap­tain Cesc Fab­re­gas, is going to vis­it cham­pi­onship new­com­er Stoke City. The name of the oppo­nent does not fore­tell big prob­lems, but the “pot­ters” — pow­er­ful British guys — lit­er­al­ly tram­ple the young “gun­ners” into the turf. Stoke play rough and unprin­ci­pled, and score both goals with the help of Rory Delap, a bril­liant ball throw­er with his hands, who turned any throw-in not far from the opponent’s goal into a dan­ger­ous cor­ner.

Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson. Snarky phras­es, thrown piz­za and many titles. The sto­ry of the great con­fronta­tion between Fer­gu­son and Wenger

Dur­ing the match, three Arse­nal play­ers were injured: Bacary Sagna, Emmanuel Ade­bay­or and Theo Wal­cott. See­ing how Stoke head coach Tony Pulis was preach­ing old-fash­ioned foot­ball, Arse­nal head coach Arsene Wenger cried out in rage:

“I read in the press that my team were not brave against Stoke. But I can con­fi­dent­ly say: my play­ers are brave. It takes a lot of courage to play foot­ball when you know that you are about to be tack­led from behind, with­out any inten­tion of play­ing the ball. Do you think Delap want­ed to play catch when he hit Wal­cott? Or Shaw­cross want­ed to play the ball when he tack­led Ade­bay­or out of bounds?! All our play­ers were injured inten­tion­al­ly.

I’m tired of hear­ing lies. I’m tired of real cow­ards being called brave. The only inten­tion of the Stoke play­ers is to cause pain. But this is cow­ardice.”

Pulis’ answer was not long in com­ing. The Pot­ters’ coach imme­di­ate­ly remem­bered that dur­ing the game the ref­er­ee sent off only Robin van Per­sie from Arse­nal — for a ner­vous attack on Stoke goal­keep­er Mar­tin Sorensen.

“I remem­ber that on Sat­ur­day the ref­er­ee showed only one red card. And, as far as I remem­ber, it was not shown to our foot­ball play­er. Imme­di­ate­ly after the match, Mr. Wenger praised the orga­ni­za­tion of my team and how ded­i­cat­ed we were to the job. It was open and hon­est. But 48 hours passed, Mr. Wenger returned to Lon­don — and decid­ed to rewrite his­to­ry.
Rory Delap would nev­er inten­tion­al­ly injure an oppo­nent, it’s just not in his nature. These were ordi­nary vio­la­tions of the rules. But Ade­bay­or, as far as I remem­ber, received a yel­low card for rais­ing his leg too high and hit­ting Shaw­cross in the chest,” Pulis said.

A year lat­er, when Wenger com­plained to reporters about the con­ges­tion of the cal­en­dar, Pulis was asked what he thought about it. The “Pot­ters” coach was brief: “Arse­nal didn’t have the best cal­en­dar, and Wenger decid­ed to cry.”

***

The dichoto­my between Arse­nal and Stoke, Wenger and Pulis was evi­dent in every­thing, lit­er­al­ly in every detail. Glam­orous Lon­don and provin­cial Stoke. The lean intel­lec­tu­al Wenger, who prefers to wear a clas­sic suit to match­es, always with a red tie, and Pulis, who, nat­u­ral­ly, is dressed in all sports­wear, shakes his hand.

Arsene Wenger and Tony Pulis
Arsene Wenger and Tony Pulis.
Pho­to by Get­ty Images

Arse­nal always tried to keep the ball low, break­ing into oppo­nents with a sem­blance (pre­cur­sor?) of Guardi­o­la’s tiki-taka. The Stoke play­ers, in turn, did not need the ball below at all: their goal­keep­er kicked it into the bot­tom­less sky, like in the 1980s, and then — come what may; Every bounce mat­ters. In the chaos that end­less long­balls gen­er­at­ed, Pulis found har­mo­ny and philo­soph­i­cal hap­pi­ness.

The esthete Wenger, watch­ing the prim­i­tive, as it seemed to him, craft of the “pot­ters”, became ter­ri­bly furi­ous.

Arsene WENGER. Piz­za in Fer­gu­son and a naughty down jack­et. 10 sto­ries about Wenger

The ide­o­log­i­cal con­fronta­tion between Arse­nal and Stoke City reached its trag­ic peak on Feb­ru­ary 27, 2010. On this day, the teams met again in the Pre­mier League at the for­mi­da­ble Bri­tan­nia Sta­di­um.

Strik­er Dave Kit­son, who spent the match on the bench, recalled years lat­er: “The whole week that we were prepar­ing for the game, I found myself think­ing: I have nev­er seen a man­ag­er so des­per­ate to win a par­tic­u­lar match. It looked like Pulis had lost con­trol. I remem­ber we were prac­tic­ing cor­ners, over and over again, and Pulis was yelling: “Ryan (Shaw­cross), run #####, if you miss the ball, don’t for­get to take some­one out, #####.”
As soon as we real­ized that we were play­ing Arse­nal this week, some­thing began to stir in the team. The dress­ing room before the match was full of aggres­sion. I remem­ber Pulis pac­ing back and forth, shout­ing ran­dom phras­es. He was a bun­dle of ner­vous ener­gy, spit­ting out ran­dom swear words, try­ing to burn off this ner­vous ener­gy. We knew we would get under Cesc Fab­re­gas’ skin. But, by the way, Cesc answered us well.”

The first min­utes of the match went in full accor­dance with Pulis’ plans. Already in the eighth minute, Stoke once again con­vert­ed an ordi­nary throw into a goal: Delap threw the ball into the goal­keep­er (!), Shaw­cross made a dis­count, and Dan­ny Pugh flew into the goal with the ball.

Arse­nal missed an upper­cut, but came to their sens­es towards the end of the half: Lord Nick­las Bendt­ner crossed Fab­re­gas’ cross, 1:1.

The 66th minute is the trag­ic crescen­do of the match. Stoke des­per­ate­ly does not want to lose to Arse­nal at home, Pulis is ner­vous and wan­ders around the tech­ni­cal area like a hunt­ed ani­mal in a cage. Arse­nal is press­ing, Arse­nal is about to score.

At this moment, Ryan Shaw­cross — the bruis­ing cen­tre-back, the young lad who has absorbed Pulis’s ideas more than most — flies into a mad tack­le on Aaron Ram­sey. The Welsh­man’s leg breaks ter­ri­bly — almost in half; Gael Clichy clutch­es his head, Sol Camp­bell breathes an ani­mal roar at the ref­er­ee, and Fab­re­gas, judg­ing by the TV pic­ture, only mirac­u­lous­ly holds back his tears.

“I heard Ramsey’s leg crunch even from the bench. “I heard him scream,” con­tin­ues Dave Kit­son. — It was just ter­ri­ble. I clear­ly remem­ber how Wenger turned around at that moment, he was com­plete­ly hor­ri­fied. The first per­son he saw when he turned around hap­pened to be me. And even though it wasn’t me who broke Ramsey’s leg, I was sit­ting on the Stoke bench, I was part of this team.
Wenger looked at me with com­plete, utter dis­ap­point­ment. You know, that’s the look your father looks at you when you screw up and he does­n’t have the strength to be angry any­more. It was as if he was telling me, “I’m sur­prised you’re a part of THIS.”
Pulis’s des­per­ate desire to beat Wenger, to prove that his foot­ball also has a right to exist, has gone too far. Tony crossed the line. He was so des­per­ate to win that he asked us to make real­ly shock­ing tack­les.”

Aaron Ramsey's horrific leg fracture after colliding with Ryan Shawcross
Aaron Ram­sey’s hor­rif­ic leg frac­ture after col­lid­ing with Ryan Shaw­cross.
Pho­to by Glob­al Look Press

After the red card that ref­er­ee Peter Wal­ton issued to Shaw­cross, the intrigue of the match final­ly came down to the clas­sic dilem­ma: either the grandee would crush the mid­dle peas­ant who was in the minor­i­ty, or the mid­dle peas­ant would hero­ical­ly hold on to a draw.

Grand added fur­ther: at the end of reg­u­la­tion time, Bendt­ner fired the ball into Pugh’s hand, and Wal­ton award­ed a penal­ty. 21-year-old cap­tain Fab­re­gas approached the ball and, ter­ri­bly ner­vous, still beat Asmir Begov­ic. Cel­e­brat­ing the goal, Cesc pat­ted his ankle sev­er­al times — not for­get­ting Aaron Ram­sey, whose ankle was near­ly torn off by Shaw­cross.

In the 94th minute, Arse­nal scored again: Thomas Ver­mae­len put the ball into the goal after anoth­er assist from Cesc.

***

It was a spe­cial day: at the post-match press con­fer­ence, no one debat­ed the fair­ness of the deci­sive penal­ty award­ed in the 90th minute. Exhaust­ed by emo­tions, Arsen imme­di­ate­ly delved into dis­cus­sions about sui­cide: “Spare me the sto­ries about what a good guy Shaw­cross is. Did you see where the vio­la­tion of the rules hap­pened (Wenger noticed that the cen­tral defend­er Shaw­cross broke Ramsey’s leg by run­ning into the opponent’s half of the field. — SE note)? For me this is not foot­ball, I refuse to live like that. The Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion must take action.”

“I know Shaw­cross, he has no bad inten­tions. This is an extreme­ly sad day for foot­ball, for Aaron and for Arse­nal. I accept that,” Pulis’ response was diplo­mat­ic and, again, it seemed a lit­tle sar­cas­tic.

***

In sub­se­quent years, Wenger and Pulis repeat­ed­ly exchanged barbs in the press. Once, notic­ing how brazen­ly the Stoke play­ers were press­ing Tot­ten­ham goal­keep­er Heurel­lo Gomez, Arsene has­tened to tell reporters about it:

“We can no longer say we are play­ing foot­ball. Goal­keep­ers will tell you it’s more like rug­by than foot­ball. We saw Shaw­cross beat Heurel­lo Gomez. Robert Huth was seen push­ing Gomez into the goal. We can’t call it foot­ball.”

Today.  London.  "Arsenal"  - Wenger and Arse­nal: cup leg­ends

Pulis respond­ed to Wenger with clas­sic British xeno­pho­bia — the same one that would man­i­fest itself more clear­ly in the form of Brex­it a few years lat­er: “Wenger is con­sid­ered a genius, but he hasn’t won a tro­phy for five years. I don’t think we need many for­eign coach­es. I have noth­ing against for­eign coach­es, they are very nice peo­ple. Except Arsene Wenger.”

***

Tony Pulis left Stoke City in May 2013 after fin­ish­ing the sea­son in 13th place. In all five sea­sons after the Pot­ters entered the Pre­mier League in 2008, the mem­o­rable match with Ramsey’s bro­ken leg remained their only defeat against Arse­nal at home — Pulis did not allow him­self any more such mis­fires. It was as if the only time the heav­ens allowed Arse­nal to win at the Bri­tan­nia was when they demand­ed a sac­ri­fice: and the foot­ball God’s choice fell on Ram­sey’s ankle.

Tony Pulis
Tony Pulis.
Pho­to by Get­ty Images

From today, Tony Pulis’s foot­ball seems even more archa­ic: with the arrival of Pep Guardi­o­la, the prin­ci­ples of tiki-taka and the rejec­tion of rash long­balls have become an unde­ni­able dog­ma for Pre­mier League coach­es. Stoke itself now plays in the Cham­pi­onship, Pulis is unem­ployed, Wenger is watch­ing a stat­ue named after him­self, and even the Bri­tan­nia Sta­di­um has lost its proud name in favor of the util­i­tar­i­an-cap­i­tal­ist Bet365.

“Big things are seen from a dis­tance,” wrote the Russ­ian poet Sergei Yes­enin. This is the true truth: the more years pass, the more valu­able, bright, and promi­nent the con­fronta­tion between Wenger and Pulis appears from a dis­tance. They so sin­cere­ly want­ed to defeat each oth­er that there was a real, angry and at the same time right­eous pas­sion. An emo­tion that is per­haps sore­ly lack­ing in mod­ern foot­ball per­for­mances.

Boris Elkin