23 November ~ Stoke City's tenure in the Premier League has been epitomised by a rock-solid defence. This has often counterbalanced a lack of creative flair and goal threat from open play, enabling the team to record three mid-table finishes and achieve European qualification as losing Cup finalists. The Britannia Stadium has become famous as one of the least appealing away days for even the strongest sides, but as QPR became the latest team to make a mockery of a once-rigid backline at the weekend, mutterings of discontent could be heard coming from the stands. Predictably, much of the fans' ire has been directed at the manager.
Despite the amazing success that Tony Pulis has brought to the club since chairman Peter Coates reinstated him in 2006, he has remained a divisive figure among the fanbase. "This manager has taken us as far as he can," commented the slightly eccentric old chap sat next to me as Heidar Helguson capitalised on some shocking defending to put QPR 3-1 up.
He is definitely not alone in this opinion. Some supporters – many of whom were probably singing Pulis's name at Wembley on May 14 – have ludicrously started to call for his head. Some are already peeved about the apparent reluctance to play expansive football, particularly away from home. Four consecutive league defeats, in which the side have shipped 14 goals, have pushed a growing minority of followers over the edge.
More level-headed fans who still harbour painful memories of demoralising third-tier thrashings by the likes of Bristol Rovers a little more than a decade ago are slightly more forgiving. That said, Pulis has to take some of the blame for Stoke's current plight. Pundits are blaming the ongoing Europa League campaign for Stoke being out of sorts, but to the City faithful, it is obvious there is more to the recent demise than regular Thursday-night football.
Constant meddling with the back four to accommodate the less-than-impressive Jonathan Woodgate can't be good for the overall confidence of the team. Even though Pulis dropped the shaky goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and also reverted to many fans' favoured centre-back pairing of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross against QPR, Thomas Sorensen and the defensive quartet in front of him often looked like strangers. The decision not to address the pressing need to install two natural full-backs since promotion also appears to be affecting the balance of the side, with all three of QPR's goals emanating from wide positions. However, the main cause for concern is the centre of midfield.
Looking around the games taking place in the Premier League this weekend, you would be hard pressed to find a less inspiring midfield pairing than Dean Whitehead and Rory Delap. Joey Barton and Alejandro Faurlin had far too much time and space to pick out their colleagues, which makes the continued omission of Wilson Palacios – a proven battler who also has an eye for a pass – even more baffling. A few top-flight sides can afford to have an £8 million midfielder sat on their bench. Despite some lavish summer spending, Stoke are certainly not one of them.
I'm loath to pay too much attention to lingering rumours of dressing room unrest pedalled by the likes of Stan Collymore on TalkSport without a shred of substantial evidence, but such tales – no matter how frivolous – are unlikely to help the cause. Pulis has had his issues with troublesome footballers in the past, but now more than ever, he needs unity from players and fans alike and he must learn from his own mistakes more quickly if the club are to emerge from this current rut. Lee Wagstaff