First published in January 2018
Football teams normally take a while to detach themselves from long-standing associations and that’s been true for Stoke City. The rugged style upon which they constructed their Premier League reputation outlasted its architect, with many of the synonyms authored by Tony Pulis enduring beyond his 2013 departure.
It didn’t help that Mark Hughes replaced him. As both player and manager, Hughes could hardly be described as a shrinking violet and his greatest club coaching success, at Blackburn between 2004 and 2008, was in building a team which decorated its obdurate centre with occasional flair. There are differences between him and Pulis, but not the vivid contrast required to create a true break from the past.
Retrospectively, Peter Coates’ decision to bring him to the Potteries looks fundamentally sound. Hughes lacked Pulis’s fundamentalism and made greater deference to entertainment, but wasn’t different enough to turn the existing tenets to rubble. He was, in theory at least, someone who could fit Stoke’s iron fist with a velvet glove.
But 2018 has arrived and three-and-a-half years later, there is no glove, no fist and, yet, plenty of rubble. Stoke are in ruins. There was a time not so long ago that the sight of this team being humiliated by Chelsea – or West Ham, or Tottenham – would have soothed the neutral. So opposed did they once stand against assumed footballing principles, that their defeats could be enjoyed by supporters the length and breadth of the country – not quite celebrated with the glee that meets a Jose Mourinho or Arsene Wenger failure, but still received with a warm smile. Stoke were the team of a million Rory Delap throw-ins, of the shuttling wing play of Jermaine Pennant and Matty Etherington, and of a relatively charmless stadium in a nondescript, hard-to-get-to part of town.
When they lost, it was a good thing. They were a natural enemy – the Oakland Raiders of the Premier League. The players, many of whom were unlikely reclamation projects, seemed galvanised by the world’s antipathy and the supporters embraced their outsiders status. It was ugly, but it worked. Pulis’s departure was still ultimately correct and the drop in standards under his watch wasn’t an illusion, but the club succeeded only in diluting their previous identity, rather than actually creating a new one. It’s proven to be a mistake and, actually, maybe even a point of collective regret.
One of the Premier League’s unique selling points is the diversity of its challenge. Week-to-week, any team hoping to achieve anything must deal with a range of threats – from hulking targetmen to dainty creators, slick moves to aerial assaults; English football isn’t definitively better or worse than anything found elsewhere in the world, but its breadth is unique – and Stoke were a part of that: they had a distinct characteristic which helped to shape the landscape. A landscape which, not coincidentally, is being stripped of its jagged edges and stinging nettles and seems overly concerned with its own aesthetics.
In that context, their demise is a great shame. As the wealth in modern football grows, so too does the corrosive threat posed by clubs who exists to survive. Rather than being animated by a desire to barge their way into the the VIP rooms, many members of football’s traditional underclass have grown content with stasis. The aim now is to squat at a certain level of the game, collect the benefits, and do the bare minimum required to stay in that comfort zone. Mike Ashley’s Newcastle are a long-standing example of that, so too were Randy Lerner’s Aston Villa and, at the time of writing, West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City are both showing similar traits.
Stoke don’t fall into that bracket. Recent transfer-windows have been underwhelming and the club’s recruitment, particularly in targeting “name” players prone to emotional under-investment, has often been naive. Their decline, however, has been a consequence of failure rather than inertia and the result, inevitably, is that they are now just another team.
In the contemporary context, the importance of Stoke in their original form is self-evident. Irrespective of whatever resentment they bred or the residual animosity from incidents in which they were involved, their refusal to accept their place was most welcome – particularly given how that seems to have become the resting state for most Premier League sides. If a team can’t win the league or qualify for Europe, then they seem content now just to fade into the background and survive. To defend deep and take what they can. To be indistinguishable from half-a-dozen 6-out-of-10 teams that comprise the competition’s fatty centre.
Nobody will ever yearn for Pulis’s Stoke, not even the native supporters who themselves grew tired of his nuts-and-bolts football. However, they were a colourful villain who stirred something in rival fans. Playing at the Britannia Stadium was an ordeal; a circled fixture which every team, irrespective of size and standing, had a reason to dread. Part of that was myth, a lazy assumption bred by “wet Tuesday night” cliche, but it made the league a more interesting place. Sometimes a more infuriating, aggravating or unpleasant place, but more interesting nonetheless. For Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City, travelling to Stoke was a test of survival, the kind of fixture from which it was impossible to hide vulnerabilities, and now the equivalent trips are just an opportunity to rest players for the real games down the line.
For clubs of a certain standing, playing Stoke is now a completely unoriginal experience: score some soft goals, win, listen to their manager’s conspiratorial excuses on the coach home. They and he are white noise and it’s a shame.
You needn’t have liked them then, you probably don’t pine after them now, but English football misses what they once were, even if only because they were unapologetically different in an environment which has grown both increasingly homogeneous and frustratingly limp.