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* Disclaimer: I used it live in Stoke for a few years. Bits of it are really nice. Most of the kids or people over about 40 were lovely, and once you get into the country it’s beautiful. Parts of the city are nice despite a lot of poverty caused by the decline of the Mining industry.  I also had chats with knowledgeable Stoke fans, met some of their old  players and knew their unofficial kit man. I’ve had a press pass to the Britannia, have enjoyed nights out, theatre and great live bands in Hanley and love a good oatcake, especially with bacon and cheese when nursing  a hangover. Randomly I have a genuine interest in pottery. I am also very openly an Arsenal fan.*

Right now that’s out of the way…

Stoke City , eh? Does anyone like them but their own fans? But before we start to look at the present, let’s not forget their past.

Stoke are probably the second oldest football club in the world, after Notts County, having been formed in 1863. Older readers may remember the elegance of George Eastham, the brilliance of Gordon Banks and then Peter Shilton, the skills of Alan Hudson, Jimmy Greenhoff and even an aging Geoff Hurst. It was the club that made Lee Dixon and Steve Bould and gave the world Stanley Matthews  – ‘The Wizard of the Dribble’, the 50 year old top flight player who left Stoke to set up an anti-apartheid black team in Soweto. All three, as well as Hudson and Eastham played for Arsenal (though Matthews only against foreign opposition during WWII, despite his long standing affection and twice nearly signing for the gunners).

Stoke 1972 League Cup Winning Team – From BBC Website

Even Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dad was a bit of a legend there. In short they were the smaller midlands club that played decent stuff, were good for a cup run and occasionally suffered great misfortune (Like when the roof blew off their stand in a storm and they had to sell three first teamers to pay for replacing it, and promptly got relegated). They were also kind enough to lose to us in the FA Cup semi final in 1971, and less famously in ’72. With that and all the connections, Arsenal fans should like them  – we even wear the same colours. I certainly felt an affection for them.

How things have changed.

Tony Pulis is now their most successful and longest serving since the late, great Tony Waddington in the 70s. His philosophy is a little different. Waddington was an innovator, with a flair for PR, and an advocate of attractive football based on solid defensive foundations. He was well known for encouraging players input into tactics, encouraging them to take personal responsibility and being an ‘arm round the shoulder’ man. Pulis is a very effective proponent of at best rudimentary football and whose main innovation involves towels. According to his boss he is also a tactically rigid disciplinarian who takes a more confrontational approach.  I can’t imagine Waddington reacting to disagreement by headbutting his centre-forward whilst naked in the shower.

But Pulis is popular up there, with the chairman adamant he is their best ever boss, and it’s easy to see why, having got the team promoted to the Premier League and made them a relative fixture in the top flight. This is in part due to getting the most out of limited players through application and organisation, but also being the first manager of the club in nearly 30 years to enjoy a period of financial and boardroom stability. Before his second spell at the club, Stoke City had to make a transfer profit every year to stay afloat. Since then, despite his endless protestations about lack of resources to defend his negative tactics, Stoke’s net transfer spend is over 80 million pounds, although this is in part the direct result of the increased revenue from playing in the Premier League.

When compared with the likes of Swansea, Wigan, Norwich and West Brom, Stoke’s spending is very significant, and although not always with as much success, those teams all play a far more ambitious and entertaining style, whilst developing more of their own players.

The facts partially challenge the ‘poor us’ small town persecution complex he has promoted at the club, which for better and worse is increasingly shaped in the manager’s image, much like Arsenal and Manchester United. His ‘they don’t like it up em’ attitude, mistrust of southerners, foreigners and willingness to blame all outsiders for any failure is very much a reflection of a large percentage of men I met between 18 and 40 in the Stoke-on-Trent area. I believe the manager deliberately plays on their prejudices. This serves not only to build his personal support and that of his tactics, but encourages a hostility to away teams and referees on match days unusual in the English top flight.

Accordingly, Pulis is never shy of openly berating match officials during and after matches.  However the independent debatable decisions tables in recent seasons suggest Stoke have been one of the primary beneficiaries of referee error in the division in recent seasons. Apparently in 2011/12 Stoke had more incorrect major decisions in their favour than anyone else, and a full 30 more than Arsenal, who were the most sinned against. Taking away result changing decisions, they suggest Stoke would have been relegated. While it’s not scientific, it suggests that maybe Pulis’s tactics are more cynically effective than you would expect. Given that pragmatism underpins much of the approach he encourages his players to take it is no great surprise.

In addition to the much publicised selective availability of towels at throw ins, time-wasting and defence first approach, this Stoke side is clearly encouraged to play on the boundaries of what is considered acceptable levels of physicality. This is particularly the case at home, when visiting teams and officials often find themselves in an intimidating atmosphere. The pitch is often heavy, and the tackles are heavier, with players like Andy Wilkinson, Glenn Whelan and Ryan Shawcross all unafraid to leave their calling cards on opponents. With many Premier League match officials still being much more tolerant of systematic rotational fouling or a bit of rough stuff than their continental counterparts, it is a viable and effective tactic. This, combined with a tactical sophistication straight out of the Charles Hughes manual that set English football back 25 years, makes Stoke matches fairly painful viewing for those interested in a more progressive approach.

That is not to say that Tony Pulis is a bad manager. His sub-Allerdyce approach is married with excellent coaching of the back four, a good eye for goalkeepers, and successive seasons of Premier League safety. He has managed to attract players you would expect to be outside the reach of a lower-mid table medium sized club, such as Robert Huth, Peter Crouch and now Jack Butland, and has made good use of lower league signings as well. For a while he achieved a certain amount of success playing an old fashioned 4-4-2 with genuine attacking wingers in Pennant and Etherington, but sadly seems to now employ his wide men in a less adventurous fashion. In terms of bang for buck he has pretty much brought the club exactly what they had hoped for.

But there is cause for concern from a Stoke perspective. Their form has dropped off a little this season, not many of the squad have a significant re-sale value, and his tactics have reverted into increased negativity, particularly away from home. So far this season only two teams, both in the bottom three, have scored less goals, no-one scored less last year and no other team has a lower top-flight goals per game average over the last 5 years. After a good start, their recent form is dreadful and unless results pick up they could easily slide down the table into a dangerous area. They will probably be safe from relegation, but the parabola has been on a downward curve for three years now.

It is a difficult consideration for the club. His support is wide ranging and deeply entrenched, and he has been manager of the club on and off for a decade. But the increasing annual transfer spend and thus wage bill doesn’t seem to be taking the club forward. Whilst perpetual survival with the odd cup run is the aspirational ceiling of many top-flight clubs, others are starting to show what can be achieved with a more progressive approach whilst spending far less in salaries and transfers. Despite an almost zero net transfer spend in recent years (if not a profit), Swansea have got to the fringes of a European qualification place, a cup final and have won at both Stamford Bridge and the Emirates so far this year, all whilst playing tactically aware possession football. Other minnows are finding life a little more difficult, but are scoring a lot more goals and are occasionally taking big scalps. Even Bolton under Sam Allerdyce progressed into a team that could mix physicality with a number of exciting flair players.

The Britannia Stadium – What would you do if you owned this place?
– From Bruce Stokes on Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/bruciestokes/

So the owners of the club will soon have to decide what their ambitions are. If it is hand to mouth survivors, fighting (almost literally!) against relegation with diminishing annual returns, whilst remaining appreciated by only their core support, nothing needs to change. Many others have done it, but it has yet to lead to anything but an eventual decline and sinking back into The Championship or worse with no long term impact but on the Chairman’s bank balance. The opposing choice has a lot more short-term risk, but much greater potential rewards. A change in approach could lead to gaining plaudits and a growth of the club’s supporter base, and at least gives the club a chance at a top half finish, and maybe a taste of European competition or a cup final. Equally if not managed well, it could accelerate any decline in the clubs fortunes.

Stick or Twist?

My question would be: What is a football club for? To aspire only to grim survival at the top table, tasting only the worst flavours, or to risk eating in greasy spoons to aim for Michelin Star perfection? Waddington may have left the team in free-fall when they got relegated after the enforced sale of their stars, but he also won them their only trophy, the League cup, narrowly lost tow cup semi finals, and signed some of the clubs greatest ever players. Aiming for the stars can leave you in the gutter a la Leeds United, but you can always slowly climb out. But aiming purely for stasis can only lead to slow lingering death.

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