Stoke City’s victory at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday all but confirmed their place in the Premier League for a second season. After being written off by the media from the start and with bookmakers Paddy Power paying out on their relegation back in September, this is as an amazing achievement for Tony Pulis and his players. Yet they still don’t receive the credit they deserve.
Stoke came up with the reputation as a physical, long ball team and there is no doubt that they are capable of playing in such a style. But to suggest that is all they are would be to tarnish one of the great stories of this Premier League campaign.
Their survival has been based around their excellent home form. They have been formidable at the Britannia, taking the scalps of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Manchester City and holding title-chasing Liverpool to a 0-0 draw. However with just one victory on the road, which came last month away at West Brom, it has been vital that they have made the Britannia Stadium such a difficult ground to play at.
The ground’s location leaves it open to the elements and with 3 of the 4 corners not being filled in, the wind swirls through the ground making life hell for teams not used to the conditions. The home fans also play a huge part in the Britannia effect. The club has a hugely passionate following and the voracious roar created on match day is as intimating as you will find on these shores.
Of the 3 promoted teams it is Stoke and West Brom that have drawn the most comparison, due mainly to the difference in approach of the two managers, and the fact that both clubs have spent the best part of the season towards the bottom of the table.
It has often been portrayed as a battle between right (West Brom) and wrong (Stoke) and it’s admirable that Tony Mowbray wants his team to play in an attractive way. But this is a results business and it is a manager’s job to do the best for his club.
On Sunday Mowbray again talked up his side’s ability, despite having just been beaten 4-2 by Manchester City and rock bottom with just 24 points. He said: “We’re an easy target for people to say, ‘You’re doing it wrong’, but I disagree. We’re just a few ingredients away from being a very good Premier League team. We miss too many chances; we give too many soft goals away. Give us Rio Ferdinand at the back and Fernando Torres up front and I would suggest we would be top 10.”
He may be right, yet the same could be said for pretty much every team down at the bottom of the league. If Newcastle had a defender in the class of Ferdinand, or if Torres led the line for Middlesbrough instead of the hopeless Afonso Alves, then I’m sure both teams would be nowhere near the bottom three.
The fact is that Mowbray has deluded himself by thinking that because you can pass a team off the park in the Championship, you are equally capable of doing so in the Premier League. It was obvious as early as October when his side got beat 4-0 away at Old Trafford to Manchester United and 3-0 at home to Hull City in consecutive weeks that this approach would not work.
As the season has progressed Stoke’s style of play has evolved. Where there was previously no place for a talented passer of the ball like Glenn Whelan, Pulis has found a way to incorporate the Irishman in the centre of midfield without losing the competitive edge that has been so important and the inspired signings of Mathew Etherington and James Beattie have added a new dimension to a team previously labeled one-dimensional.
Tony Mowbray has shown enough promise to suggest he will develop into a good manager and the fact that his team will be relegated this season should not be used as evidence that he will not. After all, both Rafa Benetiz and Juande Ramos were relegated at the start of their managerial career.
However, as Pulis has shown, adaptability is just as important as style when competing at the highest level and keeping Stoke up should make him a major candidate for manager of the year. He won’t win it and he probably won’t care. It’s reward enough that his team will live to fight another year in the top tier of English football.
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