Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles

Unexpected Journeys : Chapter 5

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 10, 2018
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Few, if any, Premier League clubs have had as clear and uncompromising an identity as Stoke City under Tony Pulis. Direct, physical and ferociously committed, their style of play stood out like no other in a top level that was becoming ever more intricate and involved. Opponents knew what they were going to do, but stopping them was another matter entirely.

Stoke’s decade-long stay in the Premier League started with an inauspicious 3-1 defeat to Bolton Wanderers that had one publicity-hungry bookmaker already paying out on their relegation, but they soon proved to be anything other than a soft touch. The Potters finished 12th that season and made lower mid-table their home over the four years that followed.

The club achieved a remarkable level of consistency as Pulis turned the Britannia Stadium into a fortress, an imposing venue synonymous with passionate supporters, difficult conditions and a unique brand of aerial bombardment. Opposition spirits were tested by relentless harrying, high balls into the box and Rory Delap’s signature piece – long throws of unprecedented pace and flat trajectory.

Although Stoke weren’t as one-dimensional as the stereotype suggested, organisation, work rate and efficient use of set pieces were undoubtedly central to their success. They knew where their strengths lay and were unapologetic about playing to them.

No respecters of reputation, they revelled in making the elite as uncomfortable as possible. The increasingly careworn cliché about a team’s character being tested by a wet and windy night in Stoke at least had a kernel of truth to it.

“We had a good team,” says Jonathan Walters, who arrived in August 2010, a few days into Stoke’s third season in the Premier League. “The one thing about the manager was that he did his homework on the players he signed and made sure he got the right blend in the team, and the right type of people too. There were no egos. It was a good group of lads.

“We had a way of playing that was well-documented. We could mix it but we could play football when needed. We had some good players in the team. It was a good group of friends. Everyone was close and everyone played for each other. The manager ran things well and the dressing room looked after itself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was probably the best time in my career looking back on it.”

Tireless and unflinchingly committed to the cause, with a sprinkling of quality too, Walters had all the hallmarks of a Tony Pulis player. He went on to become a convenient symbol for the Stoke side he represented with such distinction. A key figure during that era, the versatile forward would score 62 goals in 271 appearances for the Potters.

After starting his professional career at Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers, Walters was forced to drop down the divisions to establish himself and find regular first-team football. More mature and experienced, he joined Stoke at the age of 26 and enjoyed an excellent first season, helping his new club to the FA Cup final with five goals, including a brace in the semi-final.

“Everyone was up for it. We had a couple of chances in the game and it could have swung the other way. We were always underdogs against Manchester City. They were a really impressive side. It was tough and it was obviously devastating to get all the way there and get beat. It was hard to walk up the steps and not collect the trophy.”

Stoke were game and competitive throughout the final but succumbed to City’s additional quality, as Roberto Mancini’s side won their first silverware of the petrodollars era. The only consolation for the beaten finalists was a place in the Europa League qualifiers. While it might have been the poor relation to the Champions League, it still carried considerably more prestige than the short-lived and often fractious Anglo-Italian Cup that Stoke had competed in during the mid-nineties.

In their run to the round of 32, Stoke got the full Europa League experience, taking on teams from Croatia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel and Spain. There were a couple of former giants of the European game, some more obscure sides from less renowned leagues, and one of the favourites to win the competition. It was a horizon-broadening experience for supporters and players alike, as the Potters traversed the continent during an unforgettable season.

Stoke’s first major European match since 1974 saw them take on Hajduk Split in the third qualifying round at the Britannia Stadium. It was a special occasion which fans feared might never be repeated, the sense of a novelty drawing the biggest home crowd of the club’s Europa League run – 26,322. They were given something to cheer just three minutes in as Jonathan Walters scored what would prove the only goal of the game, heading in from Matthew Etherington’s cross.

“It was obviously a good moment for myself,” says Walters. “It was early on in the season as well, when you just want to get off the mark as quickly as possible and get some goals under your belt. It was great to do that so I was more than happy.”

There might only have been 400 Split fans in the stadium that night but they made quite an impression that carried over to the away leg. Out in force at the sweeping Poljud Stadium, supporters bounced up and down, chanting loudly and twirling scarves, while the area behind one of the goals was consumed in smoke and bright red light as flares were let off. In a tight and occasionally feisty game, during which seven players were booked, an own goal deep in added time sealed Stoke’s place in the play-off round.

“That was a great experience,” recalls Walters. “Just being out there and hearing the fans making noise outside the hotel. It was a new experience for a lot of us. I remember a flare or a firebomb booming off in the stadium and the lads all flinching on the pitch. It was unbelievably loud. I think that was in the warm-up and we were thinking, ‘Jesus!’ The Stoke fans that travelled out there were great.”

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FC Thun, and their brand-new 10,000-capacity ground, were a rather different proposition. The synthetic pitch took some getting used to in a game of few chances, with Danny Pugh scoring the winner after 19 minutes. There was some late drama as Thun goalkeeper David da Costa was sent off. With all their substitutes used, a midfielder went in goal and superbly denied Walters in added time.

Back on home soil Stoke completed their passage to the group stage with a comfortable 4-1 win. Two headers, from Kenwyne Jones and Matthew Upson, got them going. Glenn Whelan’s driven effort from outside the box finished the tie off before half time. Jones then completed his brace, leaving Thun to grab a late consolation. With four wins from four games, Stoke were already on a roll.

“We were pressing teams high up. People would put a lot of it down to us playing the long ball, and getting balls in the box, but we pressed teams so high up the pitch to win the ball back,” says Walters. “They couldn’t live with the intensity we played at, especially in European football. It tends to be a little bit slower paced, and teams build out from the back, but we were full-on pressing as hard and fast as we could. We’d look to win the ball back near their area and push on from there.

“We had a way of playing – energetic, high pressing – and it was good. We’d get the ball into their box. You don’t score by keeping the ball for 40 or 50 passes. We’d get it down, play through the pitch, get it to the wide men and get it in the box. Don’t turn a cross down. We bombarded people’s boxes and it paid off.”

The draw for the group stage was greatly anticipated but the outcome wasn’t the most appealing from a supporter’s perspective, as Dynamo Kiev, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Besiktas made for some challenging away trips. “You couldn’t get any further journeys than those three,” laughs Walter. “And then we looked at the Premier League fixtures after each one and they were all away too. It was like, ‘Yeah, thanks for that.’ It was ridiculous but it was great.”

Cumulatively, Stoke’s three away trips amounted to around 11,000 air miles, an extra strain on the players and those who went to watch them. The first was the closest, as a small band of supporters made it to Ukraine, and the Valeriy Lobanovskyi Stadium – named in honour of the club’s revolutionary former manager – at great expense.

Stoke were all set for victory when Cameron Jerome finished calmly from close range for a debut goal. A back five featuring the strength and aerial power of Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross and Matthew Upson kept Dynamo at bay until the 88th minute, when Ognjen Vukojevic forced the ball over the line to cruelly deny the Potters victory.

A fortnight on and Besiktas, managed by Carlos Carvalhal and boasting some familiar faces in Rustu Recber, Ricardo Quaresma and Simao, came to the Britannia Stadium. Quaresma set up an early opener but Stoke were level within a minute through Peter Crouch. Jonathan Walters was the hero, coming off the bench to fire in a winning penalty.

Unbeaten after two matches in their group, Stoke stretched that to four as they made relatively light work of Maccabi Tel Aviv both home and away. A 3-0 win, featuring a red card apiece as Yoav Ziv was sent off for bizarrely kicking his boot at the linesman, was followed by a 2-1 victory in Israel that put Tony Pulis’ men well clear at the top of their group. In the process they ended Maccabi’s proud record of going 12 European home games without defeat.

Walters remembers it as a slightly surreal occasion, particularly the build-up. “We saw a missile go off into the sea from our hotel. Sirens were going off and you were thinking ‘What’s going on here?’ We were all panicking. It was just a test apparently but I remember that quite vividly.

“Obviously people think you’re travelling the world but you’re off the plane and you’re in a hotel room. You might have a little walk with the team the day before the match, or the morning of it, but that’s it. It wouldn’t really make a difference where you were apart from things like that, and the atmospheres, which were all unbelievable.”

Another 1-1 draw with Dynamo Kiev saw Stoke qualify for the knockout stages, as Kenwyne Jones made amends for Matthew Upson’s own goal. Andriy Yarmolenko was a particular nuisance for the visitors but Asmir Begovic’s spectacular reflex save late on kept out the Ukrainian striker’s shot to preserve a point.

That meant the Potters only had to avoid defeat in Istanbul to top their group but the Besiktas supporters weren’t going to make it easy, creating the sort of hostile and intimidating atmosphere which they’re famous for. Ricardo Fuller put Stoke in front but the pressure ratcheted up in the second half and Besiktas were roared on to victory after Upson’s red card.

The first defeat of their European run, coming at the 10th attempt, proved unintentionally costly. Stoke were already through regardless but dropping down to second gave them a tough draw against Valencia, who entered the competition having finished third in their Champions League group. The Spaniards’ stifling technical quality was all too apparent in this clash of styles.

“Although with some European teams you might not recognise all of the players’ names, they’re all technically very good,” says Walters. “They’re all hardy lads too, from all over the world. Each team that we played brought their own thing but Valencia were very good. They kept the ball and had a lot of technically gifted players. There’s no shame in saying we got knocked out by them.”

Stoke came into the home tie on a run of poor form, having lost their last four in the league, and were behind again after 36 minutes as Mehmet Topal thumped an unstoppable 30-yard shot into the top corner. Pushing hard for an equaliser, the tension mounted, not helped by some wild tackles and angry exchanges between players. The referee’s notebook was always at the ready.

Unable to get back into the game, Stoke had a one-goal deficit to overcome at the Mestalla. Despite the backing of 4,000 travelling fans, they couldn’t do so. Jonas extended Valencia’s lead as the away side battled hard to no avail. The only disappointment was with Tony Pulis’ team selection, as the manager showed where his priorities lay by resting several key players, including Matthew Etherington, Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters.

“We weren’t doing great in the league,” says the Republic of Ireland international. “We weren’t struggling but there was more pressure on the league. That’s the thing when it comes to Europe, obviously the Premier League is your bread and butter and you don’t want to risk that. We got to that stage and the manager left a lot of lads at home. Although there were a number of games, and you’re probably a bit stiff and carrying knocks, it’s an atmosphere and a stadium you want to play in. But it wasn’t to be.”

“I like to play in every game but I understand why he did it, because of the league situation. It’s not our decision to make as players. You go with the manager’s decision. You can’t moan too much, you’ve just got to get on with it. It was difficult, and I know there was a bit of a furore about it at the time, particularly because so many fans had paid to go out there, but it’s part and parcel of football I suppose. It was a difficult one to take but you’ve just got to get on with it.

“We obviously went out at that stage, but as a European adventure, so to speak, it had a bit of everything. A game in Switzerland against a team who were flying. Hajduk Split. Then nobody gave us a chance against Besiktas, Tel Aviv and Dynamo Kiev but we blew some of those teams away. To come through that, at the time I don’t think the manager or the players got the credit they deserved.”

Series: Unexpected Journeys

Unexpected Journeys: When Ipswich Town’s tractor boys roared into Europe Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Wigan Athletic take solace in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Relegated Birmingham rebound in the Europa League Unexpected Journeys: Middlesbrough’s year of miracles in the UEFA Cup Unexpected Journeys: When Stoke City ran up the Europa League air miles
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