1 September ~ Three early season events seemed to capture neatly the very mixed views inspired by Stoke City. After the no-score draw with Chelsea, André Villas-Boas was quick to draw attention to Stoke's approach to the game, not, in his view, "pushing the boundaries of fair-play, but pushing the boundaries of shoving and pushing". Sections of the press jumped in, with the Sun screaming that AVB had sensed GBH in the Stoke game plan. As Tony Pulis pointed out, the original remarks were more balanced, but that reputation follows them everywhere.
Stoke's progress since their promotion was illustrated by victory over FC Thun and undefeated progress into the group stage of the Europa League. Unlike some other managers, Pulis greeted European football as "something new, very fresh and we're enjoying every minute of it". The most recent event was Ryan Shotton's vigorous challenge on Ben Foster leading to Stoke's winning goal against West Brom. Foster's part in the goal led Roy Hodgson to suggest the goalkeeper "could have been brave… but unfortunately he decided to turn away".
Perhaps it's the Shotton goal that reveals the dilemma. Stoke are seen to be punching above their weight, making the most of it and regularly giving "bigger clubs" a bloody nose. But, as the detractors would point out, the blood is not always metaphorical. It seems too easy to condemn or sneer and patronise with "they can play some good stuff as well" as many pundits do.
Some see them as going from "back to front" too often, relying on set pieces (including throw-ins) and bullying opponents. But it's just as easy to identify old-fashioned virtues in their use of width and directness. And the Foster incident reveals a simple truth – players need to be brave and maybe Stoke test that courage to the limit. The difficulty is that reputation gets in the way of forming any kind of balanced view, in much the same way that the harrowing sight of Aaron Ramsey's injury has, for some, become the dominant visual memory of Stoke's time in the Premier League.
The broader view is to see Stoke as a club that has made progress without the huge investments that some more successful clubs have enjoyed. Owner Peter Coates has sunk a chunk of his bet365 fortune into the club – from the £10 million it took to buy the club back and settle the outstanding debts in 2006 through to the net investment in players now approaching £50m – yesterday's transfer dealings brought in Cameron Jerome and Peter Crouch. Equally, the club's care in building a squad and their handling of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant deserves praise. For all the apparent idiosyncrasy of Pulis's approach to managing James Beattie, his two wide men are playing the best and most settled football of their careers.
Etherington's struggle with compulsive gambling is well known, with his debts at one time estimated at around £800,000 and accumulated losses approaching £1.5m. Coates, aware of the potential irony created by the source of his fortune, has reportedly helped with a substantial loan and a new, front-loaded contract to allow Etherington to get on top of his debts. As Pulis has put it, the owner has "cleared the way" for Etherington to concentrate on his football. The itinerant Pennant, his childhood touched by tragedy and his teenage years distorted by expectation, struggled through five clubs but Pulis's trust has allowed him to blossom.
Coates has said that some people see the club as the model for small clubs surviving in the Premier League, and the realist in him adds "it is so easy for things to go wrong in football". Some of those pitfalls might be more easily avoided and due credit given if only they were allowed to shed that reputation. Brian Simpson