It was threatening to be another grim night for West Ham United and, for Joe Hart, a personal ordeal given that the England manager, Gareth Southgate, was here to see the latest evidence of his deterioration. Hart has already lost his place as Englandâs No 1 and, at this rate, he must be in danger of being cast adrift from the squad that Southgate takes to the World Cup in Russia this summer.
Unfortunately for Hart, the mistake that led to Peter Crouch, one of Stokeâs substitutes, opening the scoring can hardly be described as a one-off. Indeed, Hart did something very similar in the 3-0 defeat at home to Burnley last month, having just been recalled to the side after a long spell in the wilderness.
His latest lapse came after 79 minutes and at that stage Stoke will feel they ought to have registered their first away win since October. Instead it was another substitute, Andy Carroll, who had the final say, lashing in a 90th-minute equaliser to spare West Ham an ignominious result. David Moyesâs team also had three second-half goals disallowed and it was a dramatic finale to a game that had taken an age to ignite.
Not that Karren Brady, the clubâs vice-chairman, seemed too enthused. A quarter of an hour before kick-off, her Twitter feed pinged up a cheery message reminding television viewers to tune into her new show, Give It a Year, at 8pm, as if it had slipped her mind that a televised football match, involving her own team, was kicking off at precisely that time.
As PR own-goals go, it wasnât the ideal way to start the night and the replies from West Hamâs fans were particularly fruity (âGive it a year? Youâve had eight,â being the general tone, expletives removed). Then the game kicked off and, for a long while, it was tempting to think there might have been people at home turning over from the football, just as she requested.
It certainly took a while before there was anything to liven up the atmosphere. Stokeâs fans, who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time booing either the match officials or opposition players, quickly set about targeting Marko Arnautovic, formerly one of their favourites. Arnautovic, in turn, looked eager to make the point that, deep down, they probably miss him. Yet the game lived down to expectations during the opening 45 minutes â two ordinary sides huffing and puffing without any real wit or creativity â and when the half-time announcer introduced a West Ham fan who had flown in from Australia it was tempting to wonder whether he might have chosen a more attractive fixture.
The only noteworthy chance for West Ham until that point had fallen to Arnautovic, inside the six-yard area, with a snap shot that struck Jack Butland in the face and flew out for a corner. Southgate at this stage had little to see as Butland and Hart were largely untroubled. Stokeâs best chance fell to Moritz Bauer, coming in from the right, but the Austrian aimed a tame shot straight at Hart. Stokeâs lack of threat was hardly a surprise bearing in mind they had managed only seven league goals since the turn of the year. They had lost all seven of their previous trips to London, conceding 26 goals and scoring only five, but at the start of the second half the penny finally seemed to have dropped that West Ham can be vulnerable when teams run at them. It is just a pity for Stoke that Xherdan Shaqiri is not a more consistent performer. Shaqiri showed in flashes that he is surely too talented to remain with Stoke if they are relegated and Bauerâs driving runs on the right of midfield were another prominent feature.
All the same, it was easy to see why they were averaging under a goal per game this season. Stoke have not managed two goals in a league fixture since beating Huddersfield 2-0 in January. They have the worst goal difference in the league and it is a problem that urgently needs to be fixed if there is to be a dramatic feat of escapology in their remaining four fixtures, with Europa League-chasing Burnley and Champions League semi-finalists Liverpool their next two opponents.
The other subplot to the evening was that this was Michael Oliverâs first game as a referee since the now-infamous Champions League tie between Juventus and Real Madrid, Gianluigi Buffonâs red card and all the unpleasantness that has followed. Oliver had a steady night â a nice change, presumably, from being told he has a âdustbin for a heartâ â and his assistant got the big decisions right. Arnautovic had strayed offside before directing in a 55th-minute header and the same player was flagged again when Edimilson Fernandes fired in a shot from 20 yards. This time, Arnautovic was standing directly in Butlandâs line of vision and that looked like being a key decision when Hart spilled Shaqiriâs shot for Crouch to turn in the rebound.