Anti-football, 1890’s tactics, cheating, dirty Stokies. That seemed to be the general consensus from the debate on The Times ‘The Game’ blog when Oliver Kay posed the question: Are Stoke City the least popular top-flight club since Wimbledon?
Fans from pretty much all corners had their say and the overwhelming answer seemed to be, yes, Stoke are the least popular side since Wimbledon. In Kay’s piece to start the debate he stated that “Certainly the establishment will shed no tears for Tony Pulis and his players if embarrassment in the FA Cup is followed at the end of the season by relegation from the Barclays Premier League.”
He balanced out his argument by saying that they were not a bunch of thugs but rather “an honest bunch of players trying to make the most of their limited abilities in a league where they would perish if left to get by on technique alone.” Something which I’m sure Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson would dispute after seeing possible leg-breaking challenges on Emmanuel Adebayor during Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at the Britannia and on Cristiano Ronaldo during United’s 1-0 Boxing Day victory.
First you have to agree that the way Stoke play is not the type of football that people love to watch. They get lots of men behind the ball and look to hit long balls into the channel for Ricardo Fuller to chase. They rely heavily on Rory Delap’s long throw to create goal scoring opportunities and Pulis has signed big strong players to give them a physical presence that very few team’s can match.
They have players who are not afraid to put a tackle in and the claim’s that they are over-aggressive have some truth. Other criticism that has been labeled at them is that they cheat by tactically fouling to break up the opposition’s play and that they time-waste to run down the clock.
All these claims have some truth to them but what a lot of people don’t realise is that these are things that maybe 70-80% of all team’s do. Manchester United and Chelsea often surround the referee to pressure him when making decisions. Liverpool’s Javier Mascherano is a master of the tactical foul, it’s something that foreign team’s have always done and time-wasting is hardly a new phenomenon and referees are wise enough to know when it’s going on.
What Tony Pulis has done, and has had to do, is create a team that is disciplined and plays to a system that may be defensive and may be ruthless but is one that got them in the Premiership and is one that will give them the best chance of staying there.
If you speak to many Stoke fans they will tell you that they believe the media is totally biased against them and that they were prejudged before they even got promoted. As they are an unfashionable club from an unfashionable area with an unfashionable manager. The criticism they received seemed to hurt both the club and its fans earlier in the season and they both became defensive about their style and tried to justify themselves. But why should they?
Unlike Tony Mowbray’s West Brom side who seem determined to win as many plaudits for their style of play as points on the table, Pulis is not here to win fans or praise. He wants to keep his team in the division and it’s his job to do that anyway possible. He has made mistakes in the transfer market, notably the deadline purchases of Michael Tongue and Tom Soares, but they were signings to add bodies to the squad if nothing else. The signings of Matthew Etherington and James Beattie add Premiership quality and experience to the side, as well as a touch of creativity.
The Premier League is so tight this year that no team from Hull in 8th are safe from relegation and Phil Brown’s team are no longer on the run they were had at the start of the season and are slipping fast. The problem that Stoke face is that the likes of Tottenham and Man City have some top class players who will eventually click into gear and pull them to safety. Stoke don’t have that luxury and will have to rely on all the things that people hate to give them the best chance to stay up.
That task starts at Stamford Bridge today against a Chelsea side who, despite being far from their best, are perhaps the team most suited to resist Stoke’s physical approach. But if Pulis stick’s to his guns then there is no reason why they couldn’t cause an upset to further Phil Scolari’s troubles and stick two fingers up to the haters.