Stoke City: Has The Britannia Bear Pit Gone Soft?

Valencia will have the pleasure of travelling to Stoke this week. But will they enter the cauldron that has upset so many Premier League bigwigs or has the Potteries gone soft?
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“The Britannia is a raw and exciting footballing experience, unwelcoming temperatures and hostile home fans, with all the action played out in a noisy, bear pit atmosphere that is a real throwback.
And yes, it is absolutely fantastic.”

Phil McNulty, BBC Sport

It’s 5pm on a rather pleasant late February afternoon, just outside Stoke-on-Trent. I’m sat, roughly six miles from the Britannia Stadium.

Strange, in that the weather is pleasant. Doubly strange, as to all and sundry in the football world, The Potteries has taken over from Manchester the mantle of Inclement Sporting Weather Capital of the UK. It’s normally the Mancunian climate that has a finger pointed accusingly at it, but it’s since been superseded by the Six Towns, the 2012 version of the film Seven.

After all, isn’t the greatest examination of any modern day footballer just how much they fancy it on a cold, wet, squally Tuesday night at The Britannia Stadium?

Andy Gray asked whether Barcelona would be up to the challenge of “the onslaught” over a year ago. His interrogative was answered rather resoundingly by the team lying just behind Barca in La Liga, when Valencia emerged from the Britannia ‘Bearpit’ relatively unperturbed and unscathed after their one goal win last Thursday.

So the conundrum of eleven artists suddenly becoming tactically and technically bankrupt at the sound of 26,000 Stoke voices and the sight of 11 red-and-white-striped artisans, was laid to rest on the back of Mehmet Topal’s 30 yard arrow.

Gray’s question was one that most Potters fans would possibly have answered with a hand over a smirking mouth anyway. I’ve followed the club for 36 years and those of us of a certain vintage will tell you that on any number of occasions, not even Stoke can do it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke. Or on any other day of the week, come to that.

It’s a shame for The Potters that Gray hadn’t aired his views over four decades ago, as on 28th April 1965 Stoke City defeated a World XI 6-4 at the Victoria Ground. Mind you, that was a Wednesday, and from what my father tells me, it was a rather benign Potteries evening when Yashin, Eusebio, Puskas and all came to visit.

More to the point… is the Britannia still a ‘Bearpit’, or has it started to resemble a Sandpit? And shouldn’t the question now be, after the Europa League last 32 first leg, “Can Stoke City ‘do it’ on a congenial, mid-February evening at the Mestalla?”

Stoke have been kicking sand in the faces of various Premier League macho-men at their home ground since their last-gasp 3-2 win over Aston Villa in August 2008. Based on high-tempo attacking mantra, and an over-my-dead-body defensive psyche, The Potters have been a formidable beast on home soil. In their first three seasons back in the country’s top division since their bête noir season of 1984/85, Tony Pulis built his survival strategy on rarely lowering the drawbridge of the Britannia fortress.

Stoke City away was seen as the ultimate test-of-strength cliché for various footballing fancy dans. The volume generated by a staunchly parochial Potteries public was duly noted by the footballing fraternity.

"I love the atmosphere because it makes players play. If you don't pay attention to the atmosphere at Stoke, then it engulfs you. You must perform to get a result”, gushed Alex Ferguson, whilst Liverpool’s Pepe Reina’s commented on his proximity to the baying Britannia hoards.  “"It's enjoyable, when you are involved in this kind of atmosphere you find yourself in your best mood”. Other high-profile players even alluded post-match to how the Stoke legions had affected their team’s game.

There’s also no denying the emphasis Stoke manager Tony Pulis places on his crowd making a difference. Regularly quoted in the local press throughout his years wearing the infamous baseball cap, Pulis rightfully and dutifully plays on this “twelfth man” involvement before most Stoke home games.

The statistics for City’s first three years in the Premier League certainly back-up the Bearpit credentials and Pulis’ beliefs.

In their first season since clinching promotion (2008/09), The Potters only lost 4 of their 19 home games played, as thirty five points were harvested at home: a remarkable statistic for a newly-promoted side and one which was only bettered by five other teams in the division that season.

Their home form in the subsequent two years also points to a fondness for playing in North Staffordshire, as only 11 more matches were lost at home. If teams were successful at Stoke, they certainly left knowing that they had earned their three points the hard way.

So in their first three years the acid test to anyone’s title credentials, or indeed, if a team had any backbone at all, was a trip to Stoke. But why is it that the Britannia has been more accommodating to visitors this season?

Pulis’ side have already lost four matches at home. Nothing too shabby, not until you see that in their first three home fixtures Stoke avoided defeat to Chelsea and Manchester United, and defeated Liverpool. The Potters four defeats – Newcastle United, West Brom, Sunderland and QPR – have all come against opposition you would usually expect Tony Pulis’ gladiators to pick points up against, and it has been his side’s improved away form in 2011/12 that has seen them seemingly safely ensconced in mid-table.

Whilst it would be churlish, greedy and plain wrong for Stoke fans to be anything other than content with how the season has developed – still in the Europa League, in the last 8 of the FA Cup and 9 points clear of the drop-zone – it seems that their home ground isn’t the fortress it once was.

Why? Have teams figured Stoke out?

Pulis recently commented that opposition teams were playing a more cagey game than they had in previous visits. Indeed, when you look at how teams are setting up when they visit Stoke, a plethora have gone with five midfielders and a lone striker, compared to a rather more ambitious set-up and attacking intent in past visits.

The attacking onus has now shifted onto The Potters, possibly no longer the underdog with a siege mentality in Premier League matches, to break teams down.

Their showpiece signing of the summer, Peter Crouch, has already notched nine times and is a far more technically gifted player than many give him credit for. But whilst Crouch’s height made for a seemingly easy marriage with his new employers, it also masks his natural, and preferred, game of linking up with midfield runners and bringing others into play. In recent home games, with a lack of midfield support and genuine pace around him, Crouch has often been an isolated figure and Stoke’s much-vaunted frenzied fluency has somewhat subsided.

The ever-willing Jonathan Walters’ admirable work ethic is still there, but Valencia coped relatively easy with the questions posed by the Stoke striking partnership last Thursday, and some Stoke fans have questioned whether the more pacey Cameron Jerome, or crowd favourite Ricardo Fuller, would give The Potters better options behind the opposition back four and in the channels between centre half and full back.

This was a tactic used with regular success in past seasons, with the vastly underrated Fuller often winning precious set piece situations for his team, with these often being the ultimate examination of a team’s defensive organisation and heart. But Fuller hasn’t started a league game for over a year and City’s talismanic Jamaican has been a peripheral figure this season.

During their march to the 2011 FA Cup final and excellent post-Christmas form last season, The Potters were at their most potent and exciting when wingers Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant played in tandem, yet this season the pair have only started games in tandem in fits and starts. When one has been missing it’s often Walters or Rory Delap who has filled in out wide adding plenty of perspiration, but rather less inspiration, to the cause.

Noise levels at the Britannia Stadium, whilst still at a level that many other teams would welcome, are not at the same intensity or frequency of the previous three seasons. Has Premier League familiarity bred apathy? Are Potters supporters sitting back and waiting for what they hope is the inevitable? Is it a chicken and egg situation – what comes first, the performance on the pitch or the vocal backing?

“We’re Stoke City, we’ll play how we want” rains down from three sides of the Britannia Stadium, but it seems this season that other teams have found ways to negate this. Stoke haven’t won a home league game since December 11th.

Sometimes there is a danger when evolution or revolution is hoped for. Whilst some Stoke City fans may have desired a sea-change in the style their team played, most will have simply been overjoyed at witnessing fast, high-tempo football in the most thrilling environment in The Premier League.

Was there really too much wrong in the first place? Does Stoke City away on a wet, cold midweek evening in The Potteries hold the same fear? Or perhaps big, bad Stoke City were nowhere near as big and as bad as many misguidedly and clumsily made them out to be in the first place? Or perhaps the sometimes plastic and anaesthetised Premier League actually needs Stoke City to return to this possibly stereotypical misconception?

Never mind them lot, us Stokies need our Stoke back.

More stories about Stoke City…

Walking On Walters: An Appreciation Of Stoke’s Super Jonny

Tony Pulis: Stoke City’s Chilled Out Entertainer

Barcelona Couldn’t Do It On A Wet Wednesday At Stoke

Stoke City Love To Hate Manchester United And Will Try And Bully Them

6 Things We Learnt From Stoke City v Besiktas

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