Stoke City: Match report v Reading
THIS might have been Stoke's 400th game at the Britannia, but for eerily long spells on Saturday it felt more like their 100th or 200th.
There was a strained atmosphere more reminiscent of days gone by as many fans, you felt, were sitting on the fence and holding their tongue.
Anxious about recent results, unhappy with performances and upset with the style of play, these are the fans who may just have turned had Reading ever taken the lead.
Their silence was so deafening on occasions that visiting supporters not only banged out a familiar rendition of "Where's your famous atmosphere," but followed it up later in the afternoon with "1-0… and you still don't sing!"
Fortunately, we'll never know just how many paying customers would have turned on their team and/or their manager, for Stoke produced a performance deserving of victory and warranting what audible support they did generate on Saturday.
No-one is pretending it was the free-flowing football we are all dreaming about, but it was an exhibition of decent pressure and chances when compared to some of their more meagre offerings since the turn of the year.
On one wing there was more than a hint of the old Matthew Etherington as he crossed with pace and purpose, while his recovery to help thwart a second-half break which was three-v-one to begin with was a marvellous exhibition of selfless defending typical of his contribution down the years.
And on the other wing there was Michael Kightly, the much-maligned Michael Kightly in recent times, being tossed back into the starting line-up and looking far more like the player Wolves fans once cherished.
Indeed, he was at the heart of his side's best moment in the first half after jinking into the area and dinking over a ball that Peter Crouch, another to look far more threatening on Saturday, did well to control on his chest before hooking towards the far top corner and forcing a tip over from Adam Federici.
The Aussie goalkeeper was in similar action to foil a Ryan Shawcross effort from one of several corners and crosses flung into the area to test Reading's embattled and somewhat diminutive defence.
Stoke's superiority – against a timid Reading side seeking a fourth win in six – was threatening to run out of steam by the time both sides started making their substitutions midway through the second period.
But it was a tried and tested formula bringing the home crowd to its feet when a deep left-wing corner was headed home via the underside of the bar for Robert Huth's first goal since last Easter.
And what a welcome change to see players gathering round the big German in celebration instead of to measure the width of his latest head wound.
Adam Le Fondre's introduction for Reading had raised their hopes of a shot on goal, never mind a goal itself, but it was that other super-sub making his mark at the other end of the pitch.
A deep ball into Reading territory was headed skywards by a back-tracking defender before Cameron Jerome, acting on a mixture of raw instinct and malice aforethought, controlled on his thigh and then spun his marker before crashing his shot across the keeper and into the far corner.
A brilliant finish to run close that humdinger of an equaliser in the dying seconds against Southampton just after Christmas.
It still leaves him in that dreadful catch-22 for goalscoring subs, however, because the less he scores the more he will sit on the bench, while the more he scores the more he will be considered an impact player best placed among the substitutes.
Not that such riddles were concerning him too much as he celebrated a goal that appeared to wrap up the points with only nine minutes of normal time remaining.
It was this newspaper which had warned Stoke that taking a 2-0 lead into the final 10 minutes is the last thing they should be doing against Reading these days.
And sure enough, just as they have in almost every game this year, Reading duly threatened another of their dramatic comebacks when Adrian Mariappa was allowed to bury a near-post header from a right-wing corner.
Stoke's nerve held until the final few seconds when that man Le Fondre very nearly had the last laugh after going down following a collision with Ryan Shotton inside the Stoke area.
There was genuine contact, but enough to impede him, let alone send him spiralling to the floor?
Referees have to distinguish between levels of contact and on this occasion, and with slightly biased eyes perhaps, we should applaud Michael Oliver for failing to blow when others would.
Manager Tony Pulis admitted he would have been devastated had Reading equalised, so devastated in fact he would probably have made a bee-line to the nearby portions of Lasagne left untouched in the Press Lounge.