As a Doncaster Rovers fan I’m beginning to get used to the phrase, “well I never thought I’d see this day”. Seeing 10,000 Doncaster fans at Stoke, Rovers winning the Division 3 title, the move to the new Stadium, trips to the Millennium Stadium and Wembley, or Elland Road and Hillsborough for that matter, and ultimately Championship football. Tonight I added another to that list as I ticked off what for me is one of the most significant “never thought I’d see it” moments. I saw a Doncaster Rovers player play for my country as Brian Stock made his long overdue debut for Wales.
As I edged toward my seat just in time for the National Anthems one of our group nudged me on my way past and said “Hey, who’s that number 7” nodding towards the teams lined up down below. I’ve been shouting the odds for Brian Stock’s inclusion in the Welsh set-up for the best part of two years, and where perhaps I suppose the emotion I should have felt at this point would have been a mixture of pride and satisfaction instead I spent the duration of the anthems wrapped in other internal dilemmas. The main crux of which was “Please Stock, please don’t make me look an idiot”.
It is not necessarily Stock’s form or his ability which have formed the basis of my arguments for his inclusion for Wales, but more his technique. Stock, even for Rovers, plays the game like an international footballer. He recycles the ball quickly and effectively over both short and long distances. At international level the pace is a little slower than the Championship, the Millennium Stadium pitch affords a lot of room. Where Stock would get one or two seconds at club level to move the ball at this level he gets three or four. He was never going to let me down and he eased his way in steadily. Slotting straight into a central midfield position just in front of the back five and helping to get the play moving, by always offering an option to those around him.
Having begun quietly Stock almost turned his international debut into a Roy of the Rovers-esque less than ten minutes in. With Wales putting Russia on the back foot the ball was cleared from the box into the path of Stock twenty-five yards out and he caught it superbly with a half volley which arrowed upwards to just skim the outside of the goal frame. Thus announced on the international scene Stock played his part in Wales early attacks with some neat short passing in the middle, a glorious raking ball out to Chris Gunter on the right and then a hand in Wales’ next best chance of a promising opening spell. Again a ball was hooked clear of the Russian area and began to drop towards Stock as the home fans yelled “Shoot!” Stock shaped to, only to instead usher a disguised pass out to Gunter again who’s cross was headed just over by David Edwards.
Unsurprisingly I watched this game with at least one eye serving as a personal player cam on Brian Stock although admittedly this was a tactic made easier by Stock’s tactical and formational discipline. By watching him throughout it was clear to see his own confidence grow as the first half wore on. It was clear that Stock himself was realising that he was far from out of his depth in international football, and was making the transition look easy. Not only that but he was starting to take control as well. Probably the only uncapped player to ever be brought in for his ‘experience’ Stock could be seen urging his team-mates to calm down and lessen the urgency of their play, and more than once shook his head in frustration as one of his fellow players opted for the wrong option.
What criticisms there were of Stock on the night concerned his ability to break up the Russians play. However, it needs noting that much of those doing the criticising had been informed by the press that Brian Stock was stepping into the role vacated by Carl Robinson and Carl Fletcher. Positionally he is their successor, but in terms of demeanour he is a very different prospect. Leading up to the game Wales fans were trying to fathome whether he was an attacking midfielder or a defensive one, does he take the ball at players or take it from them. As we know, he exists in a third option, as a deep lying creative player. If you expected him to be the new Carl Robinson then you probably left disappointed in his defensive sensibilities, but then if you aspire to see a new Carl Robinson your whole outlook on life is probably pretty gloomy to start with.
Wales were undone before the break by a neatly worked Russian goal as Andrei Arshavin’s excellent through-ball was controlled and finished well by Igor Semshov. And in all fairness, it had been coming as Wayne Hennessey made two excellent saves around the half hour mark. Despite a lively opening fifteen minutes Wales had done little to threaten but for a Stock throughball which just ran on beyond Craig Bellamy and another effort from Bellamy which flashed over the bar from a tight angle.
The start of the second half was probably the only real blight on Stock’s copy book tonight as he over hit two cross-field balls towards Chris Gunter. But he was soon back in his familiar role sitting deep and helping to formulate the play to bring Wales forward again. Ten minutes into the second half Wales equalised as James Collins’ managed to get a deft outside of the boot flick onto Aaron Ramsey’s corner and divert the ball in at the near post. Now level Wales enjoyed another impressive spell and could and should have taken the lead as David Edwards found himself one on one with the Russian keeper ten yards out but Akinfeev managed to block the effort.
That chance signalled the end of a good ten minute spell for Wales and they were made to pay from a softly awarded free-kick on the edge of the Wales area. Zyrianov looked to be backing into Danny Gabbidon but the referee gave the visitors the decision and Sergei Ignashevich found the bottom corner from the set-piece. John Toshack made a rare positive substitution as he brought on Sam Vokes for Gabbidon, a move which sparked some life into Wales attack, with Stock and Ramsey working well to get the ball forward.
Russia went on to add a third goal in stoppage time as James Collins tried to play his way out of defence through Stock only for the former to let the latter down with a short-pass and Roma Pavlyuchnko took advantage. For Stock it was a disappointing end to a very encouraging night which should be the first of many international appearances. If he wants to end on a positive he should note the compliment afforded him by Gus Hiddink ten minutes from time. To try and see out the game at 2-1 Hiddink introduced Rebko to shut down what home threat remained. Rebko’s target was not Ramsey nor Bellamy, instead he proceeded to stay in a 10 yard radius of Stock until the game’s end.
It was a disappointing result from an encouraging performance by Wales, but then pretty much every game under John Toshack gives you that feeling of frustration. Tonight though the frustration was tempered by genuine excitement and yes, as clichéd as it is, pride. Doncaster have a Welsh international for the first time in 71 years. Stock’s predecessor Eddie Perry won three caps, on tonight’s showing Stock look’s set to more than match him.