SATURDAY’S encounter against Queens Park Rangers was entitled ‘Sir Stanley Matthews Day’ in tribute to the great man’s 100th birthday but it will long be remembered as ‘Jonathan Walters Day’ after the forward notched a clinically taken hat-trick to sink the West Londoners.
Walters, starting in the lone striker role for a third successive fixture, produced a performance befitting of the momentous occasion, and had the football icon been in attendance then he would certainly have been brought to his feet by the outstanding performance from the match-winner.
Like Matthews, the 31-year old prides himself on his fitness and dedication to the cause, but it was his prowess in front of goal that ensured his side a thoroughly deserved third straight victory in all competitions.
Harry Redknapp’s outfit looked cautious yet organised during the opening 15 minutes of the encounter as he looked to lead the R’s to their first away points since winning promotion back to the top-flight last spring.
Once the Potters, and in-particularly Walters, got into their groove though, there really was going to be only one winner on a cold and wintery afternoon in the Potteries. Although there was a second half scare.
Stephen Ireland, one of two changes to the starting eleven, capitalised on a Karl Henry mistake to skilfully free Walters through on goal midway through the half, and he made no mistake in curling his effort beyond the reach of Rob Green and into the far corner.
Ten minutes later the forward was at it again – displaying sublime composure from an almost identical position after Ireland superbly laid the ball into his path. Only this time with his left foot.
With 60 minutes of the clash remaining, the question was how many would the Potters go on to score? Four as was the case against Aston Villa or Newcastle United last season, or even more?
Well, 90 seconds after Walters’ second, the game was hanging back in the balance.
Some poor Stoke defending allowed Leroy Fer to burst into a dangerous area, his effort was blocked by Philipp Wollscheid, but only into the path of Niko Kranjcar who tapped home from 6-yards. Game well and truly back on.
Asmir Begovic was forced into a series of superb saves to thwart the likes of Fer and Joey Barton from range, whilst the industrious and tricky Victor Moses thought he had scored when his curling 30-yard free-kick flew inches wide of the upright.
The second half brought with it a thoroughly rejuvenated Rangers performance. Redknapp had certainly made his point clear to his players who looked far more up for the challenge after the interval than they did before it.
At 2-1 down they had nothing to lose. Hence the decision by Redknapp to thrust the more attack minded Bobby Zamora into action – withdrawing defensive midfielder Henry, who wasn’t quite having his finest afternoon.
The powerful striker, who dispatched the winning goal in last season’s play-off final at Wembley, added more cutting edge to the side, and partnered alongside leading English goalscorer Charlie Austin, all of a sudden Stoke had something to ponder.
But for the brilliance of Asmir Begovic, who twice had to be alert to thwart Fer the scoreline could incredibly have been level.
Barton then rattled the woodwork with a ferocious strike from 35-yards, after referee Mike Dean awarded the visitors a free-kick following a relatively innocuous challenge from the impressive Glenn Whelan.
At the other end Moses hammered another strike just over after manoeuvring space for himself on the right hand side of the penalty box, whilst Steven Nzonzi will feel aggrieved not to have got more power on a long range strike of his own.
As Rangers began to throw players forward in an effort to salvage a point from the game, gaps began to appear at the back. Could the Potters capitalise on that and punish them, and finally kill off the spirited visitors?
The answer to that was yes! A long punt forward into the QPR penalty area resulted in Barton leaping highest to nod the ball seemingly away from danger, only for Walters to steam in and with the ball bouncing upwards plant a header into the far corner and cap off a quite splendid day for himself.
In fact, it would have been four goals for the striker had substitute Peter Crouch not narrowly danced over the touchline prior to squaring to the unmarked forward, who tapped home from close range, only to see the linesman’s flag elevated.
All in all, a hugely satisfying afternoon for Mark Hughes and his players, who moved themselves up into ninth position in the league table.