Defending the hard hitting Potters

In recent times, where football is played in such a way that it is compared to works of art thanks to the likes of Barcelona and the Spanish national side, it is frowned upon when a side swims against the current and plays a more unattractive brand of football, one that sees more yellow cards than goals and intricate passing. Step forward Stoke City.

Peter Crouch celebrating a goal for Stoke

I count myself as one of those people who hates the style of football that Stoke play, but I also find it admirable as they continue to play that way despite all of the criticisms and complaints from opposition players, managers and fans alike – especially Arsenal, somewhat justifiably – and it is has brought them stability in a league where an awful lot of clubs that come up from the Football League Championship go straight back down.

Before gaining promotion into the Premier League back in 2008 after finishing in second place, the Staffordshire based outfit hadn’t been in the top division of English football for 23 years and were one of the favourites to go back down at the end of the season. However, they went on to make the Britannia stadium a fortress, using their brand of football to stunt the passing game of the opposition, and if the opposition got anywhere near their box, they would have to beat the 10 men parking the bus in front of the goal. Stoke away quickly turned into a fixture that players and managers didn’t look forward to, especially those at the top end of the table. Not only could they lose points, but personnel also.

Teams that travelled to the Britannia and left dropping points that season included Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool – the latter dropping points at home and away.

At the end of the season Stoke had amassed 45 points and finished in 12th place, and then bettered that a year later finishing in 11th place with 47 points, and then in 2010/11 they continued to make strides to improve their squad.

After cementing themselves within the Premier League with their effective defensive tactics, Tony Pulis went about building a more attacking unit at the other end of the pitch, bringing in Kenwyne Jones for a then club record, as well as Jon Walters from Ipswich and Jermaine Pennant from Real Zaragoza.

The summer spending went on to redeem itself, but, not in the league – where Stoke finished the season equalling the medium average of their first two seasons in the top flight with 46, but in the FA Cup.

In past seasons Stoke had not done well in the cups but that year, Tony Pulis went on to become the first manager in Stoke’s history to take his side to the final of the FA Cup. On the road to Wembley they beat Cardiff City, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion, West Ham and Bolton Wanderers. The latter game ended with the Potters winning 5-0 which is the biggest win ever in a post-war FA Cup semi final. Big spending Manchester City would meet them at the national stadium showpiece occasion.

Stoke players looking deflated after FA Cup final defeat

Unfortunately, it would not be a dream come to reality with Goliath squashing David in this scenario. However, Stoke did not crumble to the pressure and made it difficult for City, keeping true to their reputation, as City squeezed out a 1-0 victory.

I feel they could have left the capital with their heads high, of course, it’s only natural that they feel disappointed with themselves after coming so close to a piece of silverware that they and their fans are desperately starved of but when they look back they will realise reaching the final itself was a massive accomplishment for a side such as the Britannia outfit. If not then the fact that they would be participating in European football next season surely sweetened the deal a little bit.

With a season in the Europa League to look forward to, Stoke once again went about strengthening their side, breaking their record transfer fee for the second year running when they signed Pennant’s ex Liverpool team mate, Peter Crouch, from Tottenham. Crouch’s Spurs team mate, Wilson Palacios also made the same journey up north. I like to imagine they car pooled.

Stoke manager Tony Pulis

The former Spurs duo were joined that summer by striker Cameron Jerome and experienced Premier League defenders in the form of Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate.

Once again, in the league Stoke failed to really improve their points total at the end of the season, finishing 14th with 45 points but they did do well in Europe.

Their first European opponents were Croatian side Hajduk Split in the 3rd round of qualifiers who the Potters brushed aside beating 1-0 in both legs. They then followed that up by beating Thun, thrashing the Swiss side 5-1 on aggregate.

If getting to the group stages wasn’t impressive enough, albeit after beating relatively minnow opponents, Stoke also advanced from their group stage with a fairly comfortable point margin in second place. They were joined in their group by Besiktas, Dynamo Kiev, and Maccabi Tel Aviv – hardly the easiest of groups from anybody’s point of view.

However, their European run was cut short by Valencia, a side who won the competition back in 2004 under the guidance of Rafael Benitez, after the Spanish side were able to snatch 1-0 victories in both legs despite a good performance by the losing side in the second leg.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate that I personally cannot stand Stoke City’s style of play at all and never look forward to seeing them, but in reality, I think that is exactly what they want. They want people to not look forward to facing them, and they don’t care if people don’t like them – they thrive on it, in fact – and I think that is what I find so intriguing about them. They aren’t a pretty side to watch but they have found a system that is effective to them, and it has brought them a FA Cup runners up medal as well as the opportunity to play in European football and buy players that would other wise be out of their league.

The old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” truly does apply to Stoke City.


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