I have a friend who describes Tony Pulis as the “Pontiff of Utilitarian football”. A cruel jibe, but one most readers will understand if they’ve watched Stoke City play football in recent times. Pulis has been in the news of late, reminding anyone who’ll listen, with remarkable repetition, about his side’s bad luck, steak, hard work, socialism and him being the safe keeper of a “proper football club”. In short, a man occupying one of the safest jobs in English football is now facing his most challenging time as Stoke City manager as they battle to retain the top-tier status they regained in 2008 after a quarter of a century in the footballing wilderness.
I should start by acknowledging that I do not like the Tony Pulis “brand” of football. I find it turgid, one-dimensional, crude, basic and acutely …. Utilitarian. Whilst I acknowledge there was indeed a time and a place for it in our early Premier League years I firmly believe that given the level of financial backing Pulis has received that our style should have evolved to a more pleasing, expansive style. Many younger readers will probably not realise that Stoke City were once heralded as one of the finest sides in English football. Our heyday, in the early 70s, is still remembered fondly by many and not just Stoke fans. We had a reputation for entertaining and I struggle to compute why a converted centre-half, Ryan Shotton, plays wide in a position once occupied by the majestic Jimmy Greenhoff.
In fact, Pulis himself promised evolution and told our fans on more than one occasion that once we’d established a foothold in the Premier League that our style would change. His words not mine so I see nothing wrong in holding him to account for a distinct lack of progress in this area. He is the best paid manager in our history and, as already mentioned, has received tremendous support in the transfer market that many clubs bigger than Stoke look upon with envy. Whilst I’ll always be grateful to Pulis for re-establishing our credibility I do not subscribe to the theory that he is infallible. The architect of our swashbuckling 70s side was eventually sacked; no one man is bigger than the club.
Most (lazy) journalists assume that Stoke fans are disappointed with the progress we’ve made in terms of our league position. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do not have delusions of grandeur and the vast majority of us would happily settle for an indefinite annual 12th place finish. The odd cup run, the odd relegation struggle, the odd push for Europe. That would see us very happy. Our unhappiness is centred around our style, especially away from the Britannia. Its costs a small fortune to support your team away from home and our manager’s reluctance to approach games with even the smallest hint of positivity has seen many regular away supporters deserting the team in droves. Given it’s a small conurbation, and a two-club city, our away support has always been respectable, but not now. We had just over 600 at St James Park, a pathetic effort by our standards.
So why have we gone from the Europa League and Valencia’s Mestalla to this: a relegation fight that many commentators forecast we won’t win?
It’s an emotive subject that dominates the Stoke hashtag on Twitter, The Oatcake (our fans forum) and our local media and I’m not sure I have the proper answer. At the end of the 2011/2012 season most of us were forecasting a third successive season of decline but then a succession of high profile summer signings changed that view. N’Zonzi, Adam, Owen (don’t laugh) and several others arrived and we finally looked like a side with the squad resources to finish in the coveted top ten of the Premier League. It started well, a more expansive style away from home and our zenith, the Boxing Day demolition of Liverpool that saw us sitting pretty. And lest we forget that Sky Sport News graphic about us having the second best defence in Europe after Bayern Munich.
A number of factors have contributed to our demise. Despite the protestations of the manager, bad luck hasn’t entered into it. My own reading is thus. Our once heralded team spirit has been undermined in several ways. The manager continues to pick players who are out of form and he also insists on playing players in positions that they really don’t compliment. This creates imbalance and uncertainty. We’ve failed to address the full-back problem too. We’re rigid, have limited fluidity and no mobility up front. Crouch and Jones lack any kind of service and we simply don’t create chances from open play.
The manager has lost faith in Adam and clearly has no faith in Owen. N’Zonzi, a revelation before Christmas has looked disinterested and our reliable centre-half pairing of Shawcross and Huth have looked extremely vulnerable. We sit back, we invite teams on, and have paid the ultimate price for that negativity. In short, Pulis panicked, reverted to type, and type was no longer good enough. Many Stoke fans, who are much closer to the club than I, speak of divisions in the dressing room and several names crops up on a continuous basis. It would be remiss of me to name them, but the guile and offensive threat of one of them is sorely missed.
Consider this, we have spent a net £110M on player acquisition and yet Dean Whitehead and Ryan Shotton occupied two midfield berths on Saturday (Aston Villa, lost 1-3) in a game where we created next to nothing. Adam and Owen sat on the bench, as did Crouch. The club seems to have lost its mojo, the good things introduced by Pulis (work ethic, team spirit) have disappeared and we look like a side now in terminal decline. Many of us believe the manager doesn’t know his best team and on-field spats between players and manager have suddenly become vogue. Players, like Adam, clearly struggle with his mystical “cage” formation. We look a shadow of the side that finished 11th in our second season in the Premier League.
The Pulis apologists outline this rumoured bad luck (they’re lying) and point to the FA Cup final appearance and our mini run in Europe as signs of progress. They should be reminded that reaching a cup final, whilst very special, is no longer the achievement it once was and we lost the final limply. We got into Europe by default, namely losing. It wasn’t merit based; it was a nice fluke, a nuance of the system. We’ve finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 14th and you don’t need a Harvard MBA to know where that is heading.
I used to defend the club and manager to the hilt. We’d come from nothing, nowhere. But five years on and £110M in we offer nothing, especially nothing to get excited about which is why, should we not pull though, we wont be missed. Pulis tells us we’ve been dining on steak for too long. I can’t explain how patronising that is. My favourite ever season was 92/93 and we spent that in the third tier.
I’m boring you now so I’ll leave you with a final anecdote. A few weeks ago we played Newcastle at St James Park. The game entered injury time and it was level at 1-1. Stoke forced a throw in and Shotton (think Rory Delap) shaped to throw it long where Kenwyne Jones and Shawcross lurked. I was sat in the home end seats and the Newcastle fans around me sensed huge danger and clearly feared a winner from ex-Sunderland man Jones.
The crowd hushed and then your heard it, an audible bellow from the away dug out. Pulis was screaming “short short short” at a confused Shotton in an attempt to kill the game. Shotton did as he was told and went short to N’Zonzi who subsequently pressured into a wasteful cross. Within sixty seconds the ball was in the back of our net. I won’t forget Pardew gesticulating wildly for his side to attack. They did, they won and quite deservedly if not a little fortuitously.
The above sums up everything wrong with my beloved Stoke City. If you think negative things, negative things surely happen? This is Pulis all over. Had Shotton gone long any number of things could have happened: we could have scored, forced a corner or seen the ball go out for a goal kick. The game would have been over and Pulis would have banked his precious point. Instead, we tried to protect the point we subsequently lost and Newcastle took all three. That point will hopefully not prove vital in May.