Andy Thorley believes his club don't get the credit they deserve and defends the Potters against popular stereotype
When Stoke City step out onto the turf at the new Wembley Stadium for the first time this month to face Bolton in the FA Cup semi-final, the club is under no illusions: the 32,000 fans who have snapped up tickets for the match might well be the only people who want the Potters to win.
We know how we are perceived among the neutrals. We are big, ugly Stoke City, the team that fouls, that kicks, that plays for thrown-ins. We are as popular as government spending cuts and as good to watch as paint drying. They are lovely little Bolton, with that pleasant Owen Coyle, and they keep the ball on the ground, you know, the way it should be played.
Stoke chairman Peter Coates and his family have sunk vast sums from their Bet365 empire into the club to get us where we are, and he felt the need the other week to round on the critics, saying: “There is a lot of garbage talked about us and it’s just lazy journalism.” The statement earned him a public rebuke from his manager, but many see it as a point worth making.
To illustrate why, a quick history lesson might be in order. Nine years ago Stoke City were promoted from the third tier. In 2008 we returned to the top flight for the first time in 23 years and stayed up comfortably, also reaching the quarter-finals of the League Cup in that first year. Last year Arsenal and Manchester City were beaten on the way to the last eight of the FA Cup as well as an 11th-place finish. At the time of writing, the Potters occupy a mid-table spot again and, of course, have that semi – their first in 39 years – to look forward to.
Now, if any other club had done this, I’d argue that the pundits would be lining up to describe the rise as “meteoric” – indeed that’s exactly what is said when Hull, or Burnley, or Blackpool are talked about. As if to emphasise the “throwback” (as opposed to “throw-in”) nature of Stoke’s game, it is generally the old school behemoths that line up to defend us. Kenny Dalglish reckoned recently: “There is no definitive way to play football. Stoke play to their strengths and we should all get on with it.” Alex Ferguson added much the same.
Even that misses the point. We do play to our strengths, that is true, but if we are so one-dimensional then how come we have improved year on year? Not for City the yo-yo existence of the likes of West Brom. Rather we have got up, stayed up by modifying our style slightly and, contrary to popular belief, have some decent players. We are not a dirty side either, presently sitting in the middle of the discipline table – with those lovely football sides Man City and Arsenal way below us, as are Bolton. Never let the facts get in the way of your prejudices, right?
That is not to say that Tony Pulis is universally popular even with his own supporters. Some of his tactics baffle and frustrate. We do, though, have faith in one thing. He wants the best for Stoke City football club. When we played Villa one September evening this season, it was common knowledge that his mother had died in the afternoon. It was assumed he would miss the game. In the end, even that tragedy couldn’t keep him away from the club he genuinely appears to love, and the round of applause which spontaneously erupted when he made his way down to the touchline for the second half was as touching as it was heartfelt.
Pulis frequently says he doesn’t care about outsiders and that all he needs to do is please both the people that employ him and the supporters. Maybe that’s true and if we are at our first ever FA Cup final on May 14 he will have done just that. In the meantime, as Potters fans have taken to singing at recent games: “We are Stoke City and we will play how we want.”
From WSC 291 May 2011