It is a reflection of the financial rewards on offer in modern football that teams have to do what they have to do on the pitch in order to survive and that sometimes what they have to do isn’t that pretty. Stoke City’s promotion into the Premier League just over two years ago was something of surprise in itself and they were, accordingly, widely tipped – the point of unanimity – to drop straight back into the Football League. Two full seasons on, however, they are still there and without having to spend too much of that time worrying that much about getting relegated back. They’re not often that pretty to watch and there are plenty of purists that would like to see them crash and burn, but Stoke City are still in the Premier League, and it is likely that they still will be come the end of this season, too.
For all of the complaints of thuggishness aimed at their team last season (particularly after that tackle by Ryan Shawcross on Aaron Ramsey), Stoke City didn’t finish last season at the bottom of the Premier League’s Fair Play table and, while the sixteenth position that they did manage might not be anything for the club to be particularly proud of, as such, it does at least go part of the way towards dispelling the notion that they are somehow “worse” than anybody else in the Premier League. Ultimately, Stoke City are a football club with very limited resources and, if their style of play has to be a little more agricultural than otherclubs in the division, there are reasons for this that transcend simplistic complaints that they are just a bunch of thugs. The realpolitik of it is that the gulf in financial wherewithal in the Premier League means that there may be clubs that come up from the Football League with the understanding that they may feel the need to roughhouse a little in order to survive.
Moving on, Stoke’s problem this season could be goals – they managed just thirty-four of them in the Premier League last season. Dave Kitson seems to have burnt his bridges with manager Tony Pulis at the end of last season and is currently being linked with a move to Bristol City. Meanwhile, James Beattie instituted grievance procedures against Pulis after – and if you don’t already know about this, it’s probably best not to dwell upon it for too long – a naked head-butting incident after a row over a Christmas Party following a defeat at the hands of Arsenal in December of last year. He lost that particular battle and seemed certain to leave the club but, having been linked with Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Rangers (amongst others), it now seems likely that he will stay at the club. The talented Tuncay wasn’t a great goal-scorer last season and necesssity is the mother of intention – he is likely to leave the club if their bid for Nice’s Loic Remy were to come to anything.
Remy would be an ambitious signing, for sure. Capped by France, trailed by the likes of Arsenal & Milan and valued at around £12m, the problem for Stoke is that he doesn’t seem to want to play for them very much. He has been linked over the last few days with Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, and it seems unlikely at this stage that their pursuit of him will be successful. A more likely match for Stoke would seem to be Kenwyne Jones, who seems close to joining the club for £9m from Sunderland. Whether he alone will be a panacea for their goalscoring problems remains to be seen, but a partnership with a freshly contrite James Beattie could be fruitful for Tony Pulis. It seems unlikely, considering their financial constraints, that they will be able to sign Jones without losing Tuncay, but nothing is yet signed, sealed or delivered.
Defensively, though, Stoke were amongst the best in the entire Premier League last season and they strengthened signnificantly during the transfer window with the signing of young goalkeeper Asmir Begovic from Portsmouth. He is likely to provide a stern challenge to Thomas Sorensen for the first choice goalkeeping position. Otherwise, the defence from last season seems likely to be relatively intact and, in midfield, Matthew Etherington continues to provide width that suits their direct style of play on the left hand side and, although his throws lost some of their potency last season, Rory Delap still has the capability of providing a quick fix to get the ball into the six yard area in a matter of seconds. Such a lack of relative sophistication seems unlikely to break them into the group chasing a place in the Europa League, but their simple and effective formula seems likely to keep them safe from any serious danger of relegation, even if finishing in eleventh place again may prove to be a tall order.
In the all-singing-all-dancing Premier League, Stoke City remain an “unfashionable” club, and this causes them obvious problems. How do you persuade a young, professional player with a choice of clubs to play for to eschew the bright lights of, say, London or Manchester for the Potteries? There may not be an easy answer to this question, and the answer says considerably more about the ambitions and priorities of modern footballers than it does about Stoke City FC, its supporters or even the area itself. Perhaps the way forward would be for Stoke to bring through its own young players in droves. Premier League football gives the club the couple of million pounds that would be required for such a venture and would reap its own rewards.
For now, though, the aim for Stoke City remains survival and consolidation. Each year that they can survive in the Premier League whilst spending moderately insulates the club against the dangers of any future relegation and they are not in a financial position to be able to be enormously fussy about how they do this. It seems unlikely that they will change their style of play for as long as as it is effective, so it is up to other managers to find a way through their ample defence and defend when are attacked directly. We can say with a degree of confidence that Stoke City will provide as stubborn opposition as they did for most other teams in the division last season, and it seems similarly likely that their supporters won’t be overly concerned about how they survive, as long as they do. Beauty, indeed, is in the eye of the beholder.