All football clubs want to progress, but the truth of the matter is that not all of them can, and for many there is a glass ceiling of expectation at which further growth may just about prove impossible. What has been achieved at Stoke City over the seven years in charge that Tony Pulis enjoyed at the club has been little short of remarkable. A club that had not played in the top division of the English league system over the course of the previous two decades – and had spent more than one spell in the third tier during that period of time – won its way into the Premier League and, once there, stayed there, for year after year and with relegation only ever seldom a threat in the distance. Now Pulis has left The Britannia Stadium, reportedly by the sort of “mutual consent” that may or may not have contained the words, “if you don’t jump, we will have to push you,” and now Stoke join the ever-growing list of clubs that now face, depending on which way you look at it, either a new beginning or a period of uncertainty this summer.
Stoke City Football Club has spent the last six years defying the odds and upsetting the purists, and there is something admirable about that. The style of football that Pulis employed was out of kilter with the orthodoxy of the Premier League, which requires conformity with a certain set of standards that has emerged in recent years. This has allowed A Truth to settle over the club, one that perceives the club as being some sort of cultural backwater, in which thuggery is not just tolerated but encouraged, a place in which a different set of rules apply. Whether there is any significant degree of truth or not to this is debatable. The Ryan Shawcross tackle on Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal exists in a bubble of infamy all of its own, but to suggest that this tackle was somehow unique in the history – or even the recent history – of football in this country, in which the physical has always been valued over the artful, would be misleading, and there is a temptation to think that, in a culture in which any statistic can be used to reinforce any predetermined argument, Stoke City has become the smaller Premier League club that it’s okay to hate. Whether there is a justification for this is, perhaps, an argument for another day.
The truth of the matter is, however, that there are justified reasons for moving another manager into the hot-seat at The Britannia Stadium at this precise moment in time. Stoke City have spent a lot of money on players in recent years, and it might well be argued that the club hasn’t spent this money as wisely as it might. And with the money that clubs can expect from television money set to be dramatically increased again, perhaps it is time for a change in policy with regard to the way that the club spends its money. Twenty-two million pounds was spent by Pulis on Peter Crouch, Cameron Jerome and Kenwyne Jones, for example, and few of the players that Pulis did bring into the club left for much like the amounts of money that were spent on them in the first place. Stoke City has, therefore, managed to take on one of the highest “net spends” in the Premier League, has one of the biggest squads in the Premier League, and has very few young players coming through its ranks at present. Pulis has been keeping the ship steady, but the best managers – and this is a lesson that must surely be learned by owners in the wake of the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson – evolve to the point of ruthlessness, and there is little to suggest that Tony Pulis evolved very much as a coach and manager over the course of his six years in the Premier League. Without changing as a manager, how much longer would he have been able to keep them in the safety of mid-table?
It might also be argued that there is, due to the extraordinary level of instability in the managerial job market at the moment, a huge amount of managerial talent that is available at present. Already, such names as Roberto Martinez, Gus Poyet and even Rafael Benitez are being linked with the now vacant position at The Victoria Ground. From the point of view of owner Peter Coates, it starts to look entirely rational to look elsewhere for a manager if the likes of Benitez – who has won the Champions League and won the Europa League last season – are suddenly available. It’s bound to turn the head of an ambitious owner, and the fact that coaches of this calibre are being linked with the job at The Britannia Stadium is proof, as if it were needed, of the transformation that the club’s profile has undergone since it became an established Premier League club. Perhaps, we might consider, there is a glass ceiling, a level beyond which Stoke City will not be able to reach. But if the club has managed this mid-table stability under one manager, a new broom sweeping through the club might yet be able to find room for further improvement in the terms of results and, probably all-importantly, the club’s league position.
So if there is a balancing act to be had at The Britannia Stadium, then it is a particularly delicate one. All of the clubs below the top seven or eight in the Premier League are considerably closer to relegation than they are to winning the Premier League or even finishing in the Champions League places, and the reductionist nature of much of the football that Stoke City played meant that perhaps Tony Pulis was always standing on a knife-edge with regard to his job, even if we take into consideration the biggest factor in his defence – those league final league positions. And for all that he did achieve for the club, if it is to continue to be stable in the middle of the Premier League then perhaps it is the time for somebody new to try a new approach. The one dimensional nature of Stoke’s game – particularly over the last couple of years – has probably left the team open to being, for the want of a better phrase, “found out,” and there were times last season when it felt as if they may have been. Few Stoke City supporters would deny what Tony Pulis achieved for their club and many may regret the fact that they didn’t get the opportunity to say goodbye to him at the end of the season. Time, however, moves on, and if Tony Pulis could adapt with those changing times, then perhaps Stoke City have made the right decision at the right time. And only time will tell whether they called this decision correctly.
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