THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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

Comments (19)
Comment by Alex Anderson 2011-09-01 12:23:39

Brilliant piece. Totally agree. There's a mainstream/Sky/Big Five culture of bittereness towards any club which over-achieves these days. Plainly derived from anger at being unable to defeat the likes of Stoke, it always masks itself as "a desire to see the game played properly".

If you manage to give an entire generation of your fans something they've rarely if ever seen before, and you do it without out-and-out cheating then THAT is how the game should be played. What man city did at Spurslast week may be "pretty" to watch but with the chasm between the amounts of money they're spending, Stoke's win at the Hwthorns was every bit as substantial as City's in North London. Perhpas more so.

Stoke's achievements under Pulis and Coates (who, obviously now Liverpool have signed that Uruguayan defender, will have to pronounce his name "Kowatays")also come from, as you've clearly pointed out, a much nicer place and with far more altruistic intentions than money from a sheik with civil rights abuses going on in his homeland and a Russan oligarch who's path to wealth ... well, it makes on-line gambling look like the NSPCC.

Manchester United are arguably the biggest club on the planet. last sason they won a record 19th title and reached the Champions League final. The only team to stop them scoring at Old Trafford for all of that season was mine, skint Rangers from the wee SPL - and all I heard after that downright heroic 0-0 at the Theatre of Reams was the "boring nature" of our five-man defence. Stick with it Stoke - the more abuse you receive, the better you know you're doing.

Comment by Bomber57 2011-09-01 12:33:16

At last a piece that sums up My Clubs approach to surviving & evolving in Premiership ! I'm old enough to recall when the Newspapers would regularly award Stoke 10/10 and Alan Hudson was by far the best player in Division 1 (That means Premiership young uns!) Excellent piece. Thank You !! Up THe Potters!

Comment by Satan Wit 2011-09-01 13:54:30

I agree that the general attitude towards Stoke is a little OTT a lot of the time but it is not without foundation. I saw my team lose at The Britannia last year, not because of illegal goals, but because repeated, un-punished fouling on set-pieces caused pandemonium in our penalty area. With our goalkeeper feeling unable to come and collect the ball without being fouled, we conceded late goals from set-pieces which, had the referee adopted a more consistent approach, we may have defended more successfully. I don't blame Stoke - I blame the referee for allowing it to happen.

I also think that Stoke do not get the credit they deserve for their general play. They can break with pace on the flanks and I agree that Etherington is playing the best football of his career. He's not afraid to take players on and his end product is dangerous. On his day, he is a pleasure to watch and I'm surprised he seems to have gone under the radar for the last few years.

I'm very impressed with the progress that Stoke are making. Yes, they get a bit of a hard time in the press but I don't think they can complain too much about it. The stuff that people complain about DOES go on. It's just that there's much more to Stoke than people give them credit for.

Comment by atlanticjaxx 2011-09-01 14:32:55

Some of loudest, most impressive fans in the country too. As a Bristol City fan I remember them beating us at the old Wembley. The archetypal 12th man.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-09-01 14:48:04

Whenever I have seen Stoke play they have got away with a myriad of off the ball incidents and played bloody horrible football. But if they played nice football they could well be down in the championship with Blackpool.
I admire what they've done, but am rather glad I don't have to watch them every other week.

Comment by Coral 2011-09-01 15:43:54

Still bores me to watch them, long throws take minutes to do, free kicks even longer. They turn football into NFL, not in the physical sense but in the way things come about set plays so there is not real flow to things. I don't mind that they play that way and Barcelona's style bores me as much but in a very different way.

As for helping out a multimillioaire footballer with a million pound problem by giving him some millions, that really is a good news story that should be relayed to everywhere from Sudan to Sierre Leone.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-09-01 15:48:44

I'm a recent convert to Stoke City. I used to loathe them, but now I quite like them.

Stoke City first re-appeared on my radar during the season that they steamrollered their way out of the Championship and into the Premier League. JEEZ - talk about agricultural! They were painful to play against, leaving a trail of bruised and bloodied opponents in their wake - and they were even more painful to watch.

So what did I do? I stopped watching them. Every time Stoke came on the telly, I'd go and paint the bathroom. Or wash the car. Or both. By 2009, after about three years of not watching Stoke City, my attitude had softened, the loathing had subsided and been replaced by a mild ambivalence.

Fast forward to the present day, season 2011/2012, and I'm still not watching Stoke City, I'm still washing that bathroom and painting that car, and guess what: I've virtually forgotten what it is that I loathe about Stoke City. In fact, I quite like them now. No really!

The key is to avoid watching them at all costs.

;-)

Comment by jonmid 2011-09-01 17:09:34

So then Paul you don't have to comment on them on articles like this then don't you? and Coral I think what the article meant was players that have had problems like Pennant and Etherington have improved and the style of the play can be seen

Comment by Coral 2011-09-01 18:37:07

I might have misread it wrong through, just seemed to be leading me in a certain way by mentioning specific large amounts for Etherington and talking of Pennant's childhood issues and not referencing his drink driving offence and general attitude issue

Comment by jonmid 2011-09-01 19:29:45

I remember that Pulis referred to the club once as an animal sancturary nevertheless some of the comments do depress the whole Stoke play ugly football thing is a sign of laziness and stupidity if I'd wanted to read that then i'd have gone on the guardian's comments section frankly

Comment by Liffrok 2011-09-01 21:27:04

Plenty of clubs play dreadful football (remember Mourinho-era Chelsea?).

I suspect all the anti-Stoke feeling comes from the usual London/north-west-based hacks who can't be bothered with a trip to the outposts of the Potteries.

Comment by jonmid 2011-09-01 21:50:19

yeah that's it it's a pretty similar experience with Wolves as well

Comment by ian.64 2011-09-02 07:49:54

Well, you do get Midlands voices from those who've seen it up close and have visual experiences of their 'reputation', so such 'anti-Stoke' feeling doesn't just come from lazy Southern hacks who are usually embarked on an arse-kissing 'Arry marathon. There wouldn't really be such feeling were it not for a history where Stoke for many years relied on rough physicality to gain results - that's where it came from. Not from newly-gained, up-it-popped notoriety.

Yes, Stoke are going on in leaps and bounds (and the money helps, obviously), but reputations, no matter how much Stoke are trying to build an exciting new future for themselves, can't be rubbed out in just a season or so. It may take years to shake off the reputation of being bruisers, and for all the whining going on, try as you may, what's been going on for years before will easily determine what people think of you rather than those who see the 'new' monied Stoke that can afford Crouch, Palacios and what have you. History counts a lot in this business.

And anyway, Villa apart, it's tough for any of us here in the Midlands to attract an appreciative gaze from this country's sports hacks. When they're seated around the Sunday Supplement table near-fellating Alex Ferguson, you realise that there's an awful lot of work to do.

Comment by Jongudmund 2011-09-02 12:08:52

It seems that whatever level your team plays at, any media criticism is down to "lazy journalism".

Comment by Janik 2011-09-02 14:19:10

ian64, the direct style is not inherrant of Stoke as a club. It is, or at least there is ample evidence of it being, something to be expected of a team managed by Tony Pulis, though.
Remember, Pulis' precedesor as Stoke boss was Johan Boskamp. A member of the 70's Dutch team, and his coaching philosophy was stylistically true to his roots. Equally, your club may have had a couple of managers who wanted to play fancy passing football recently (Mowbary, Di Matteo), but that wasn't Gary Megson's way, and Hodgson is a bit more pragmatist than his predecesors.

Comment by jonmid 2011-09-02 17:32:04

hmmm and it is intriguing to note that Albion under Mowbray and Di Matteo struggled to establish themselves in the premier league

Comment by SoccerLimey 2011-09-03 13:40:24

Stoke are not the first team to opt for the somewhat physical approach to form the basis of their game, and it's worked. Last season, the media was literally urinating all over itself over the "fresh" attitude of Blackpool and Ian Holloway. How's that working out for them ?

You have to do what it takes to survive with the players you have. I don't see Stoke's disciplinary record to be any worse than Arsenal's. If they get out of hand, they'll pay. Notice you never hear Ferguson squawking like a stuck pig about opposition tactics other than to say it makes it difficult.

Lastly, just one comment about the Ben foster thing. There's a reason why Capello could care less if foster never plays for England again. Now there is a classic under achieving player if ever I saw one.

http://www.soccerlimeyinamerica.com

Comment by jameswba 2011-09-06 09:44:19

It's difficult to like Stoke as an Albion fan because we never ever beat them. I honestly think they could field a team of dustbins or traffic-cones against us and they'd still win 1-0 with a scrambled last-minute goal. Or something similar.

But, as has been said here already, if, under Robson, Mowbray or di Matteo, we'd had even half their resilience, our record against them might not be as bad as it is - and we might have spent longer at the top level rather than going up and down like a bouncy ball. I don't think it's any accident that the only Albion manager to earn a league win against Stoke since 88/89 is the above-mentioned Gary Megson, a guy who, for all his faults, understood the need to defend properly and to be strong.

Anyway, putting natural antipathy to one side, their football
isn't that bad. You have to be more than 'primitive' or 'agricultural' to do what they've done over the last few days.

Comment by jameswba 2011-09-06 10:12:38

Should have been 'last few years'.

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