Stoke City returned to winning ways with a narrow victory at Wycombe Wanderers, who welcomed fans back into their ground for the first time since March this year.
The hosts came into the game after a welcome boost earlier in the week, with the news that a limited number of fans would be able to sit and watch on from the stands of Adams Park for the first time in nine months. It was to be the first time in their 133-year history that Wycombe supporters were to watch their team live in the second-tier of English football.
Gareth Ainsworth rung the changes for his side, with five new players coming in off the back of a valuable 1-1 draw away at fellow strugglers Derby. McCleary, Mehmeti, Adeniran, Thompson and Kashket all dropping out for Wheeler, Bloomfield, Onyedinma, Samuel and McCarthy.
City came into the game in indifferent form, with a draw, a win and a loss in their last three games. Michael O’Neill made three changes from a 0-0 draw at Sheffield Wednesday last time out, with Jordan Cousins, Jacob Brown and Sam Vokes replacing James McClean, John Obi Mikel and Lee Gregory, after the latter two picked up injuries in the aforementioned game. It was The Potters’ first game without Obi-Mikel this season, with the veteran playing every single minute since his summer arrival. Both Thibaud Verlinden and club captain Ryan Shawcross returned to the matchday squad after lengthy layoffs. There was also a surprise inclusion on the bench for former-Liverpool stopper Andy Lonergan, after the club confirmed his arrival on a short-term contract earlier in the day.
The players’ entrance was met with a rousing reception from the Wycombe supporters, and within the first minutes it was clear to see how badly the fans had missed the atmosphere of a game. Just one thousand season ticket holders had taken to the Adams Park concourse, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was a full house.
It was the hosts with the first chance of the game, as a fizzing corner from Wheeler was met by Knight and flicked onto the far post by the on-loan defender. It was an early sign of the obvious aerial threat that the hosts would pose to The Potters.
Wycombe had started the game the brighter of the two, with Stoke seeming somewhat intimidated by the presence of the loud home supporters.
However, the visitors produced the next chance of the game, and it needed a goal-line clearance by Daryl Horgan to deny Jacob Brown just his second league goal since joining Stoke in the summer. Brown had met Clucas’ corner from the left, but some great defending from the Irish winger stopped his header reaching the far corner in the eleventh minute.
The game was not without controversy, as a long ball fed through Wycombe winger Samuel who raced through into the box and fell to the deck, claiming a push from young goalkeeper Bursik. Referee Darren Bond saw the incident differently, however, and instead booked the Wanderers man for diving on fourteen minutes.
A huge chance went begging for Vokes at the other end after twenty-three minutes, as he mistimed a header that he simply needed to guide on target to open the scoring for his side. City were finally coming into the game and playing with more freedom than in the opening minutes.
A poor cross-field pass from Stoke right-back Collins found Wycombe’s Horgan, with the Irishman able to play a one-two on the edge of the box and let off a hopeful shot that would have had Bursik worried at first, but the England u-21 international made a comfortable stop to keep the score level.
It became a scrappy affair up to the interval, and the referee blew for half-time with most of the last ten minutes being played in the middle of the park. Overall, it had been a good watch despite the lack of goals.
The visitors had dominated possession, but just one shot on target from seven identified the need to be more clinical up-front in the second period.
Half Time: Wycombe Wanderers 0-0 Stoke City
The visitors started the second half stronger than they had the first, and it was Nick Powell’s turn to miss an excellent opportunity after fifty-one minutes. Wycombe were caught on the break and Brown slipped his teammate in, only for the midfielder to drag his shot wide after being one-on-one with ‘keeper Allsop.
Gareth Ainsworth signalled a statement of his intent a couple of minutes later, as midfielder McCarthy had to come off due to an injury. This resulted in the introduction of experienced striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, whose first port of call was to clatter into Clucas and give away a free kick.
Referee Bond had yet another big decision to make on fifty-five minutes, as Jordan Cousins put in a late challenge on Onyedinma. After consulting his assistant, it was only a yellow for the defensive midfielder. It was a decision that could have been seen as a red, had it been a different referee.
The first change of the game for both sides came simultaneously, with McClean replacing Brown for Stoke, and Kashket for Samuel for Wycombe.
It took seventy-two minutes, but Stoke’s persistence finally paid off with a deserved goal. A back-to-front move found sub James McClean on the Stoke left, who was allowed to drive through and clip a ball into the on-rushing Nick Powell. Powell was unmarked, and his first-time stooping header found the back of the net, despite the best efforts of a defender and the goalkeeper. It was the midfielder’s fourth league goal of the season, and a just reward for the pressure that the Potters had piled on since half time. He celebrated in jest to the loud Wycombe fans, as he cupped his ears to those behind the goal.
It looked set to be a tough last fifteen minutes for the Potters, as they contended with one aerial ball after another from the hosts.
Striker Tyrese Campbell nearly settled the game on eighty-three minutes, as a misjudged clearance allowed him to take the ball into the Wycombe area. It took a smart stop from the keeper to deny him a sixth of the season, after an unusually quiet game from Stoke’s star man.
Goalscorer Powell was replaced by Tashan Oakley-Boothe, as Michael O’Neill looked to sit on his side’s lead.
As time ticked on, City struggled to clear a corner and the ball was lofted back into the box with Wycombe players queuing up to score an equaliser. It was instead nodded back down to centre-back Stewart, who lashed the ball well over Bursik’s crossbar.
Once again signalling his intent to sit back and allow pressure, O’Neill brought on defender Tommy Smith for the uninspiring Sam Vokes.
A quick break up field led to a throw in for the Potters, and captain Clucas was booked for time wasting with a minute of the six added on to play.
Joe Bursik once again demonstrated his ever-growing credentials with a strong punch away in the dying seconds to clear the ball. He caught Smith in the process and the Stoke man needed treatment.
Time ran over due to the injury, and Wycombe continued their aerial assault on the Stoke defence, with nothing coming of any of the balls into the box- mainly due to some resolute defending from City’s back six.
A foul on Danny Batth allowed the full time whistle to be blown, after nearly eight minutes of added on time.
Full Time: Wycombe Wanderers 0-1 Stoke City
Man of the Match: Joe Bursik
It was a massive victory for the Potters on the road, with their grit and determination on full show to survive an enslaught of crosses into the box in the final minutes.
They should have had the game wrapped up prior to Powell’s goal, as numerous chances went begging to open the scoring. Michael O’Neill will need his team to get back amongst the goals as they take on a busy December schedule in the coming weeks.
The manager will be pleased with the showing of his defence, especially ‘keeper Joe Bursik, as his team kept a second clean sheet in as many games. The 21-year old was cool and composed under pressure, and will want to continue his time in between the sticks despite the signing of Andy Lonergan to rival him for the foreseeable future.
It was a first defeat in seven games for Wycombe, but The Chairboys will come away from the game knowing they may have snatched a point on another day. It will be a case of not letting the defeat get to them too much, as they look ahead to pick up more results and try to stay in the league.
They may have lacked cutting edge, but with possible incomings in January, their fans will see no reason as to why their team cannot avoid relegation come the end of the season.
The result leaves Stoke in eighth, just three points off top spot, having closed the gap to the playoff places to one point. Wycombe continue to occupy twenty-second place, three points away from safety. Next up for the Potters is Middlesbrough at home, whilst Wycombe travel to Deepdale to take on Preston.
Match report by Oliver Walton.