Match analysis: Aston Villa 0 Stoke City 0
SITTING close to Stoke City hero Mike Pejic at a football match isn't always a great idea.
Just about anyone pales by comparison next to a guy who looks as though he could still be playing 30 years after he finished, while his devotion to Stoke City could leave your arms black and blue after 90 minutes of nervous excitement.
• GALLERY: Match Action: Aston Villa 0 Stoke City 0
But there is the benefit of hearing his natural passion pour forth to paper over the cracks of a game producing precious little genuine excitement in front of goal.
Pej could make a coffee morning with Ken Barlow sound like a night out with Alan Hudson, but even his enthusiasm was pushed to its limits by the end of this one.
For it was an afternoon to admire tactical tinkering, resilient defending and decent passing, not quality or excitement in the final third.
Some will blame Villa for lacking the know-how and cutting edge to complement their youthful exuberance and tidy possession, while others will take their usual pot shots at Stoke's ability to snuff out danger rather than sniff out chances.
For those Stoke fans crossing off the points as their team remorselessly advances towards that traditional 40-point safety target, all is well.
But for those wanting a bit more for their £39 – yes, that's what Villa were charging on Saturday – there is plenty to nourish their grumbles.
Those grumbles will go largely unheard and the empty seats at away grounds largely unseen, but the stakes will be a lot higher should the shortage of excitement consistently extend to home matches as well.
One thing we are all agreed on, however, is the wonderful set of results continuing to catapult Stoke towards their safety target and, fingers crossed, towards a first top-10 finish in the Premier League.
The manager's perspective is clear and understandable. He could be sat on 39 points with 15 games to go and he would still be haunted by the spectre of relegation.
He is leaving nothing to chance and, given Sunderland's current plight, that policy isn't about to change.
Watching his good friend Martin O'Neill struggle to keep a bigger club afloat is proof enough for Tony Pulis that the merits of a well-drilled defensive unit are beyond reproach.
That unit was protecting its goal with their lives, or at least any part of their body available, as they once again strangled all hope of a breakthrough for an eighth opponent in 16 league fixtures.
Ryan Shawcross gained most plaudits for chucking himself in the way of an early goalbound effort from the occasional threat that was Christian Benteke.
The £7m Belgian striker also caused a couple of rare second-half flurries from a knock down and then his own nifty footwork, but the first effort was a weak shot at the keeper and his second a weak shot into a defender.
Villa's play was neat, their former Crewe midfielder Ashley Westwood busy but not damaging, and so 0-0 was always hovering over this game.
The illuminated scoreboard was still showing the scoreline some half-an-hour after the game had ended, as if it was still holding out for the miracle of a goal.
Stoke, who switched after 15 minutes to three centre-halves and wing-backs, were an even scarcer presence than their hosts in front of goal, sadly, and it wasn't until 67th minute that we witnessed their first attempt when Jon Walters saw a plausible goalbound effort deflected at close quarters for a corner.
The referee awarded a goal-kick, but that wasn't the worst of his decision-making.
Having turned a blind eye to several offences that would have warranted a booking when the likes of Pej were still meting out their rough justice, Roger East suddenly took a dislike to poor old Ryan Shotton.
Shotton, having been given a bit of a public dressing down by his manager after being told to concentrate on his career, found himself back in the dock without good reason on Saturday.
He may have spoken out of turn to earn his first booking – but when you see why the foul was awarded against him you can understand why – but that was nothing compared to the misfortune befalling him in the neck end of the game.
He quite clearly did his best to avoid clipping the heels of Fabian Delph, and may well have succeeded because any contact was pretty slight, but that didn't stop the referee marking only his fifth Premier League game with a red card to go with two in his previous outings.
So what, Shotton only misses one match through suspension?
True, but he might miss many more once Andy Wilkinson re-claims the right-back berth Shotton had been threatening to make his own for a few games yet.
What a pity the club's only two locals are both at their strongest in the very same position.