15 October ~ Stoke's first ever Premier League match was at Bolton in August 2008. We were outplayed, outclassed and 3-0 down inside 45 minutes. Relegation appeared certain, indeed Paddy Power had paid out on us going down by the time the classified check was read out. Of course, by the end of the season Mr Power was handing out ice cream at the Britannia Stadium to apologise to fans as we stayed up with ease. However, fast-forward two years and we return to the Reebok tomorrow with the outlook totally different.
Expectation levels are soaring in North Staffordshire. Preserving Premier League status is no longer good enough; Europe is even the aim of some. It is this heightened level of excitement that led to the ground being half-empty at the end of last season when the players did their lap of honour, despite an 11th-place finish and reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 34 years. And when you need a sense of perspective it's good to have Tony Pulis in charge.
Tony isn't a man to get carried away but he's brilliant at creating the us-against-the-world attitude that Stoke City display in every game. And although he wouldn't admit it, that's why Danny Murphy's comments last week (that we are part of a kind of axis of evil of bad teams along with Wolves and Blackburn) were probably just what he wanted to hear.
Is the criticism fair? No, frankly. Ricardo Fuller has always been capable of brilliance, and Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant are hardly cloggers. Similarly I wasn't aware it was a crime to be good at set-pieces, nor do I think we should apologise for utilising the skills of a bloke who can throw it miles. Or for that matter that we should say sorry for making the odd tackle.
This summer Pulis was finally able to add the quality forwards he's always wanted – and the £8 million spent on Kenwyne Jones looks so far to be well invested – and after a poor start things are coming together. Certainly the performance in the last game before the break, a 1-0 victory against Blackburn, was as good as anything we've produced since promotion.
We have a rigid system and good players don't always get into the team, as Tuncay and now Eidur Gudjohnsen are finding out, but a mid-table finish and a Cup run are realistic aims again. After that match against Big Sam's men our dependable midfielder Dean Whitehead – a man you suspect was born to play in a Tony Pulis midfield (he does everything quite well and runs all day) – explained rather gruffly that we'd played superbly but would still be last on Match of the Day. We weren't – Gary and the chaps praised us in fact – but it's good to be hated and, if you're not, you should at least pretend no one likes you. It's the Stoke City way. Andy Thorley