With a defiant ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ attitude, Stoke City have played the role of villain with great relish since returning to the top flight. But, it feels like a long time ago that defending a Rory Delap throw-in was talked up as a rite of passage for aspiring centre- backs and rookie goal keepers.
If they go down this year, it’s not stretching things to say Stoke won’t be missed by many. I was not automatically anti-Stoke simply because their default tactic is to lump it. I like the fact that Stoke are outsiders, and a name from ‘old football’ – by that I mean Stanley Matthews played for them – I have no idea if they were any good. I also remember Watford playing Stoke back in the early 90’s, and in those days they were one of the few clubs that brought a proper away following with them. They made plenty of noise back then, too. I haven’t been to the Britannia Stadium, but many have commented on the impressive decibels kicked out by the home fans, making it practically the only new build stadium to have retained an atmosphere from what it replaced.
I’m not sure what they’re cheering now, though, because this season Stoke have been relentlessly dire, epitomised by a moment of play during their recent game with Manchester United that I shall now describe: Ryan Shawcross was moving towards a loose ball. He had time and space to find a team mate, but having carefully assessed his options, proceeded to lump it skyward, using enough physical force to kick through four inches of solid steel. As the players waited for the Earth’s gravitational pull to draw the ball back towards the pitch, one of Stoke’s forwards engaged in a no holds barred WWF style grapple with his marker. Somehow, the Stoke player managed to gain a free kick. The free kick came to nothing.
This was one of Stoke’s attacking highlights featured on Match of the Day. This is what present day Stoke bring to the table. Needless to say, the table makes depressing viewing, both metaphorically and literally. Another example of their struggles this season occurred during a televised match at Everton. Goodison Park is not the quietest stadium in the league, so the fact that Tony Pulis was clearly audible above the crowd was impressive. Unfortunately for Pulis, it meant viewers could hear the full extent of his in-game instruction, which involved the bellowing basic commands like a frustrated granddad trying to play FIFA for the first time – “Turn! Turn!” he shouted at Jonathan Walters. Ah, Jonathan Walters. You might hate Stoke, but it’s hard to hate Walters. Last season he relegated Bolton by forcing the ball into the net via a collision with their goal keeper. It was a goal straight from the Matthews era – but not in a good way.
Walters also took one of the best penalties I’ve ever seen against QPR. It was disallowed for encroachment, but it was hit so hard that had Rob Green put his hand in the way I’m convinced it would have ripped his entire arm clean out of its socket. It was a classic Stoke goal – and by that I mean it was brutal. But, they don’t do that enough anymore. A group of Norse warriors known as the Beserkers used to work themselves into a rage before battle (hence the term). I’m pretty sure this is what Pulis’ original tactics were based on. Mamady Sidebe was never a Premier League striker, and even Pulis probably knew that, but by god did he scare the shit out of defences.
At the other end, Ryan Shawcross is capable of valuable defensive work, but it is difficult to make a similar argument for Andy Wilkinson. The Stoke right back appears to contribute little other than wild tackles, bookings, and the awarding of free kicks to the opposition. He is the type of player that managers like Tony Pulis adore because, like Walters, they run like bastards and do what they’re told. Truth be told, players like Wilkinson are often popular with the fans too (see ex-Watford and WBA fullback, Paul Robinson) or at least, the particularly English type of fan whose default and only tactical advice is to ‘get into them’ at every opportunity. But, while effort is important, it isn’t enough to sustain a winning side. I mean, does anyone even remember that Stoke signed Tuncay? Here’s what Pulis said at the time:
“Tuncay is an exciting player with his pace and skill who will certainly get the crowd going.”
Oh, Tone. You tried, but it’s just not you. Stoke invested in their squad, but all they have to show for it is a boring side that won’t be missed. The one thing they did well was make some of their more established opponents look stupid. They don’t do that any more, they don’t really do anything.