In Defence of Stoke

by Matthew Kenny

As a Liverpool fan I am privileged to have the majority of my team’s games shown live on TV and more often than not we are allocated a substantial slot on Match of the Day. This got me thinking, what must it be like supporting a team who are never on TV and who are subjected to 3 minutes of highlights on a Saturday night.

The quality of punditry in England is at an all-time low and the so-called experts’ knowledge of players outside the big teams could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I often get the impression that pundits aren’t remotely interested in educating themselves and are more than willing to trot out inaccurate clichés at the smaller teams’ expense. It’s no surprise then that this attitude spills over to your casual football fan, who begin to pick up the stereotypes and lazy assumptions that the likes of Shearer, Gray and Hansen spurt out week after week.

The team in question and the subject of this blog are Stoke City football club. Tony Pulis’ side were promoted to the Premier League in 2008 and as with any new top flight team they were patronised by the media. “We don’t know a lot about them but they’ll work hard and make it difficult for the opposition” is the type of sentence you will hear regularly in relation to the likes of Wigan, Bolton and of course Stoke. The media’s attitude towards them is very much ‘we don’t know them and we don’t want to know them’.

It’s often said that staying in the Premier League is one of the toughest tasks in football, so you’d expect that the Potters would receive tremendous amounts of praise after they exceeded expectations by finishing comfortably in 12th in 08/09. Stoke never got that ‘well done’ though and by the end of their first season they had developed a reputation for being a long ball side whose only attacking weapon was the long throw of Rory Delap. Quite how pundits came to this conclusion I do not know, as their only experience of Stoke is through heavily edited 3 minute clips which are impossible to judge a team’s performance from.

Stoke are often labelled ‘anti-football’ which implies that there is a right and a wrong way to play the game. Although Barcelona and Arsenal play a beautiful passing game, I would not say that this idealistic interpretation of football should be adopted by every team. Part of the intrigue of the game is the difference in styles of different sides and clashes between them. Sadly, the Sky era means that there has to be a story behind every game, a favourite, and an underdog. Teams such as Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have obvious identities and the media do not need to make false stereotypes at their expense.

Unfashionable sides are different story though and it’s far easier for fans, Sky and the BBC to watch 5 minutes of Stoke before labelling them ‘dirty’ and packaging them as the team everybody hates to play due to their ‘physical approach’ than to actually watch their games.

In reality, Stoke are actually a decent team whose squad is packed full of very capable players such as Matthew Ethrington, John Carew, Ricardo Fuller, Jermaine Pennant and Glen Whelan. Tony Pulis likes to play to his team’s strengths, namely their towering centre backs and the aerial prowess of Kenwyne Jones but there’s nothing wrong with that and why should he set his team out to play tiki-taka if he does not have the personnel to do so? That doesn’t make them a dirty side however; stats show that Stoke play well within the rules. They do not have a player in the top 10 for fouls or yellow cards (unlike Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) and last season there were 5 teams below them in the fair play table. One statistic that may shock fans is that the Potters lie 14th in this season’s fair play standings with Arsenal one place below them (what a surprise that would be to the media!) in 15th.

Teams who believe what the media say about Stoke get a great shock when they realise that the Staffordshire side can actually knock the ball about, are are more organised than dirty, and are very capable of outplaying a side rather than bullying them. They may use the ‘Delapidator’ whenever they can but what team wouldn’t take advantage of such a weapon?

Stoke are now in their third season in the top flight and look set for their best finish yet with the team sitting high in 10th. Maybe they will start to get more respect when fans and media realise than the Potters are not one-dimensional and they are here to stay, I wouldn’t count on it though.

13 Responses

  1. Samuel says:

    You can’t watch all the games in England? I mean, there’s no way? Really? Woah. You can in Spain. Any. And by the way, although I know it isn’t popular, I think Internet can give those fans a hand.

    Anyway, you tried to be the devil’s advocate here. Birmingham or even Hodgson’s Fulham aren’t/weren’t nice teams to watch, but Stoke took it a bit too longer. Etherington is their only talented player to me and he’s just used to take set pieces. They had Tuncay and misused him, like, ‘if you aren’t tall, big and clumsy, you can’t play here. ‘

    All this said, I don’t censure them. There must be anything in life, and football is no different. I know it’s difficult to believe me now after all I said, but Stoke’s reputation is only Stoke’s (or Tony Pullis’) fault. But if they can survive in the EPL in that way, stick with it.

  2. Samuel says:

    By the way, I meant you can watch any game in Spain from La Liga, of course! I think the way I wrote it, it could lead to some misunderstanding. So that’s it, in Spain you can watch your team, some times having to pay more than other times, but you can always go to a bar or a pub and ask for it anyway, you know.

  3. jimbob says:

    @samuel
    ‘if you aren’t tall, big and clumsy’?

    apart from knowing we have tall players, you clearly know just as little about our club as the pundits do.

    you may say that you don’t care, which shows your interest in football is minimal and would only stretch as far as your (probably top 4) team.

    what a shame.

  4. Dave Zoot says:

    Matty ETherington had the most assists in the league earlier this season and they weren’t all from free kicks.

  5. Kevyn Doran Kevyn Doran says:

    For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t lump Shearer in with Gray and Hansen. In an ocean of terrible domestic punditry, at least Shearer is able to swim!

    1. Rory Hanna says:

      @ Kevyn Doran: I disagree. Perhaps he is more clued up about the international game than Hansen, but he is also much more boring!

  6. Robbie says:

    TBH, anyone who refers to the Premier League as the “EPL” deserves to have their opinion invalidated

  7. Varun says:

    Stoke?
    But can they cut it at a pleasant Mediterranean night in the Camp Nou?

  8. Thomas Levin says:

    It’s not a new thing, pundit haven’t changed.

    If don’t play the way people think you should play you are deemed to be rubbish, no worth talking about.

    It used to be like this when English football was full of hacking and head down driving runs with the ball back in the early days.

    Stoke do play to their strengths but also Pulis has bought in those strengths. He has a very British mentality in using the wings, crossing the ball into a big man. His signings are often those who fit that mould, he doesnt want to change that style of play and why should he, your right!

    It’s a game that we are playing here, as long as it’s played within the rules and played to win, then you should be able to do that how you wish. If supporters don’t like this, then the use of consumer power should come into consideration. Liverpool started to do this with Hodgson and now the team has reverted to a more attractive style of football.

    Pundits in this country at least are very lazy on the mainstream TV. Too many examples of research not being bothered to be done. Even if these are going to show all the games, etc… least give us a good insight and well research expert view. With the money we pay for these services it would be the least to expect

  9. Matthew Kenny Matthew Kenny says:

    I remember the BBC covering a Slovakia game during the World Cup and Shearer admitted he didn’t know any of their players but someone told him that Hamsik was quite good. It’s just lazy, they don’t care about supposedly lesser clubs or countries. All he had to do was google Slovakia national team and do 10 minutes of research, but he didn’t.

  10. Chris Glover says:

    Well said. As a Bolton fan I totally agree with this piece. The stereotypes were unfair and overstated under Big Sam but were at least grounded in some sense of truth (we did play some long balls). Under Coyle we are one of the better passing sides in the division but are still subject to the standard “like to make it tough, physical” nonsense. As you say, the pundits are just too lazy to actually watch the games to update their outdated (if ever true) knowledge.
    It blows my mind how pundits in other sports seem to have watched every game a team has played to prepare for a game while some of the football ‘experts’ seem to have never seen the team play before.

  11. Saxxon Domela says:

    I was amused today when Alan Curbishley said that Crouch was a typical TP signing. This of course said with a knowing smile. The fact is, when you don’t have a sheik, oligarch, or American billionaire as your teams owners, you have to find a way to win within the clubs financial resources. Pulis has done exactly that. They are now in their fourth season in the EPL. They play the type of game which will net them enough points to stay up. Along with their fans amazing support, the “Pulis Plan” seems to be what keeps them in the EPL.

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