Writer: Tom Mckeon
Date:Wednesday August 17 2011
Ricardo Fuller was signed by Tony Pulis for the measly figure of £500k on 31st August, 2006.
Now, after five brilliant years, he`s firmly cemented himself amongst the Stoke greats but it remains to be seen whether the 31-year-old will start another Premiership game for the Potters.
After an in and out season last year, he ruptured his Achilles against Aston Villa on 23rd April, missing the FA Cup final, and he faces a fight to get fit and keep his position in the squad as Pulis seeks reinforcements.
He`s scored 49 goals for us, but will he reach 50? Whatever happens, it`s been fantastic to watch him play for Stoke and there isn`t one Stoke fan who doesn`t want him to get back to his old self, but it`s not looking great, with new signings expected there will be extra competition and mid-September seems the earliest he may return.
However, enough of what may happen in the future, it`s been fairly quiet of late so I thought I`d take a trip down memory lane.
When we signed Ricardo Fuller, I immediately thought to myself, 'who is this guy?', I then found out he actually did very well for Preston and whilst his knees were a bit knackered (to say the least) he was worth a go if only as a short term measure. In his first few games my initial reaction after a couple of scrambled goals was 'poacher', nothing more nothing less, 'he'll probably do a job ', I thought. He`ll be no Thorne, but he`ll do OK until the summer when we can bring somebody 'proper` in.
It took him a few games to settle in, but after a while I realised I`d made a slight error in my judgement.
Being only 13/14 at the time, I`d been used to a Jimmy O`Connor, Sergei Shitaniuk, Gerry Taggart or Peter Thorne style player, very good footballers for our level back then who gave their all for the club and I admired them purely because they played for Stoke and showed passion as well as quality. But now we had this Fuller bloke, it was a breath of fresh air, I`d never seen a player like this before at Stoke, every time he had the ball at his feet he`d storm down the right hand side of the pitch and hold off about 3 or 4 men and I`d turn to my Dad and say 'You know what, this player, he could do a job for us!" Similar to Peter Hoekstra in the way that he demanded the fans attention when on the ball, Fuller`s sheer physicality along with his skill was an explosive and terrifying mix which put him ahead of the Dutch wizard very early on in his Stoke career, in my opinion.
So, a few games on and he kept doing it, he kept bashing his way through defences and finding ways out of seemingly impossible situations , the whole game would be rather uneventful until he had the ball at his feet - I KNEW something would happen and it did most of the time. It wasn`t all positive though and I remember the little spat he had with Luton defender Sol Davis, not Ric`s finest hour I have to admit but hey, every genius is flawed in one way or the other!
So, as the 2006/07 season passed with the help of shrewd loan signings such as Lee Hendrie, we managed to finish 8th, just missing out on the play-offs. Fuller had a good first season, notching 10 goals in 25 starts, but we all sensed he was still trying to find his feet and despite being a major cog in the wheel, his temperament was still questionable, emphasised by the two red cards and eleven yellows he received.
It could be argued that the promotion season was when we really saw Fuller at his frightening best; fifteen goals included the stunning hat-trick at home to West Brom but the goal at Wolves, well, it merged on the ridiculous - it was fitting that a man who made everyone believe Stoke could be great again scored such an important and outrageous goal, moments after Salif Diao seemed to have chopped down a Wolves player in the area. Picking up the ball from near his own penalty area, the Jamaican carried it a good 70 yards, making a couple of defenders look like the Chuckle brothers before emphatically smashing the ball into the bottom corner of the net.
Many Stokies will remember a commentator`s cry referring to Potters great Mark Stein of "This man`s magic, he scores goals others can only dream of` (Or something along those lines, forgive me if I`ve made a mistake), well, the same applies to Fuller.
The Jamaican is not all about scoring great goals though, in fact, that`s not even scratching the surface and in my opinion he`s never essentially been about only scoring goals. In any other context you`d think 'Strikers are paid to score goals, if they don`t score goals they aren`t doing their job`, but Fuller doesn`t really play striker for Stoke, effectively - he played as the 'attacking threat` with the aid of the brilliant Lawrence and more recently Etherington, he carried our side going forward on his back at times and it would be a safe bet to say at least 70% of our goals came from Fuller making something happen, out of nothing most of the time.
He`s never been the greatest striker of the ball, and whenever he`s one on one you don`t have a clue what to expect, but that was part of his game, we didn`t have a clue what he was going to do at any given moment, the defenders facing him didn`t, and even he didn`t know what he was doing!
I think the encounter which really summed up Ric`s contribution in the promotion season was at Coventry. 1-0 down at half time and with the team looking totally deflated, 3,000 of us were sitting in the stands thinking our dream was over, thinking all of the effort the lads have put in over the course of the season would amount to nothing. 10 minutes into the second half, still nothing. We needed someone to step up, we needed someone to force the issue and well, a couple of seconds later, what happens? Ric picks the ball up, bustles his way into the area and gets brought down, he slams in the resulting penalty and with our dream reignited, Lawrence pounces on a loose ball with time running out to win us the game.
So promotion came and went, and I`m sure I wasn`t the only one who had serious doubts over whether Fuller could succeed at a higher level. I had doubts over whether he had enough to his game but looking back at how he tore the Championship up, they were completely irrational. The obvious increase in quality of the Premiership was evident but he made the transition brilliantly, firmly establishing himself as the ultimate talisman, notching 11 hugely important goals in another massively influential season and helping us to stay up against all the odds. Decisive goals against Sunderland, Arsenal, Bolton, Wigan and crucially, in the relegation six pointers against Hull and West Brom when he had a hand in all four of the goals changed the complexion of Stoke`s season and ensured another year in the promised land.
Stoke were fighting against the odds in every game that season and we proved everyone wrong, just as Fuller fought against the odds to get his career back on track and prove that he had the ability to play in the Premiership despite a disappointing stay in the top flight with Portsmouth four years earlier.
It didn`t take long at all for Fuller to announce himself in the Premier League, scoring an amazing goal in our first ever premiership home game. If someone would have told me before the match that Fuller would perform a Bergkamp-esque turn around a top class, proven Premiership defender in Martin Laursen, delay for a second, then slot the ball home in front of the Boothen in the 80th minute I`d have slapped them in the face(I`m sure Ric would never do such a thing), it was a moment of sheer inspiration - as it happened, 15 minutes later Sidibe scored a 95th minute winner from a Delap throw-in which looking back on now, was magical and freakishly dream-like.
It hasn`t always been an outright love affair with Stoke, mind. There have been murmurs over the years that he is lazy and some were even calling for his head after the 'slapping` incident at Upton Park. Let`s lay the lazy myth to rest though; there's always been a minority of Stoke fans who have really angered me with the usual 'Oii! Fuller you lazy plonker(Eh em), get back on side, arrrgh he`s so lazy and greedy` etc,etc, etc. Wait a minute, a player who continuously chases punts smashed towards the corner flags throughout a game and turns it into a goal scoring opportunity can`t be regarded as lazy - quite the opposite. 'Why is he walking to get back onside then and looking so tired `, probably because he`s just sprinted 50 yards at full pelt to try and make something out of that punt into the corner, mate.
Getting the negative stuff out of the way, whenever I`ve mentioned his name to supporters of other clubs they completely dismiss him as being a donkey who is nothing but a battering ram. It really is unbelievable. Well, I`m telling you all now, he`s a flippin` magician, OK! Although he certainly found his niche at Stoke and no one knows how well he would`ve faired at any other club.
His second criticism is that he doesn`t score enough goals. Well, his second Premiership season was nothing short of phenomenal, yet he only scored 3 Premier league goals, weird eh? We relied on him massively though and his trickery, pace and physicality meant that we were actually capable of scoring goals. It was only Fuller in many games in 2009/10 who enabled us to get beyond the half-way line. The solo effort against West Ham will live long in the memory, a punt upfield by Danny Collins was brought down by Fuller in one touch, with his back to goal, he shrugged off a challenge and surged in between two West Ham defenders in one foul swoop, fooling another in the penalty area before lashing it home in front of us 2,000 adoring Stokies. However, It was the reverse fixture at the Britannia which really showed his true contribution to the cause, the score-sheet read Stoke 2-1 West Ham United with James Beattie scoring both of our goals but we were poor for large parts of the game and Fuller inspired the team, dragging the whole unit forward with his direct play and forcing us over the finishing line. Even when the season was up and we had nothing to play for, he was still on hand to bamboozle a Fulham defender and lay the ball on for the awesome Matty Etherington who hit a fine volley and ensured we`d better our previous years` points total. It was that episode of play from Stoke`s number 10 which we saw week in, week out in the 2009/10 season, he even managed to set up Salif Diao to score his first ever Stoke goal away at Portsmouth after another mesmerising run down the channels. (Salif still nearly put it over from a yard, mind).
Impact sub? Pfft, don`t be so stupid. The only reason he excelled in that role and improved the team`s performance was basically because were were lacklustre going forward without him until he was on the pitch.
I don`t think last year saw a massive change in his performances, it was however the first season we stopped relying on him, largely down to the arrival of the fantastic Jermaine Pennant along with new signings Jon Walters and Kenwyne Jones but looking at the various videos of last season`s goals, I wasn`t surprised to see the amount he created. Even in a season when he struggled for game-time and fitness, he more than contributed to the team effort as well as giving us one glimpse of absolute world class quality. (No, not the rainbow flick against Cardiff).
He was dropped for Jon Walters in a period where it looked like he and the team were hitting form and whilst Walters had a fine end to the season with some sensational displays, the Jamaican`s omission was unusual to say the least. Given the great season we had though, it`s hard to justify that Pulis made the wrong decision in favouring the former Ipswich man and Kenwyne Jones over Fuller.
He`d have been a privilege to watch if only for the wonderful solo goals we witnessed against West Ham, Villa, West Brom, Wolves and Birmingham but he brought, and can still bring, so much more to the table than that.
The clattering of seats reverberating around the Britannia every time he receives the ball is an indicator of the respect and adulation Stokies have for him, rarely has a player caused so many to rise in expectation and rarely has a player joined a club and transformed its fortunes as much as Fuller has.
If the man hadn`t done enough for the football club already - it was revealed after the 5-0 FA Cup semi-final win against Bolton that he`d given a rousing speech to his teammates before the match, I can only hope that wasn`t his final defining action as a Stoke City player.
However, we must never rule him out! Against Birmingham last November I feared for Fuller`s Stoke future for the first time, looking leggy for the large part of 75 minutes, a ball was sprayed out wide for him to chase. It didn`t look like his legs could carry him any further. I turned to my Dad just as I did a few years earlier and said 'It`s a shame seeing Ric like this, I think Tone should take him off now`.
Approximately 10 seconds later and I`m hugging a bloke I`ve never seen before yelling 'FULLLERRRRRR FULLERRRR' at him.
I still think he`s saving something special for his 50th Stoke goal and I think pre-achilles he was still our best striking option; one thing`s for sure - watching Stoke won`t be the same without Ric, a true Stoke legend.
By Tom Mckeon
Date:Wednesday August 17 2011
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