Twelfth, eleventh, thirteenth. Stoke City start their fourth season in the Premier League having been a model of consistency during their time back in the top flight, but this season will bring new challenges that the club has not faced before. The club’s run in the FA Cup came to frame their season but, even though they ended that run at Wembley with a defeat at the hands of Manchester City, their reward came with City’s fourth place finish in the Premier League, all of which meant that Stoke City would go on to play in this season’s Europa League. Whether this proves to be a double-edged sword, however, may come to be the defining story of the coming season for the club.
If nothing else, Stoke City has come to be the living definition of the football club as a bunker mentality. There were points during last season at which the criticism of the club, its support, its manager and his methods crossed a line and became mere outright abuse, but the supporters of the club ended their season in dramatic fashion, defiantly belting out their song, “Delilah”, as Manchester City walked away with a trophy that may well come to be regarded by the winners as little more than a stepping stone on the way to greater glory. Stoke City, though are one hundred and forty-eight years not out, and no matter what some people – including those that like to style themselves as “football purists” – may wish for, are with the Premier League for at least another season.
The more agricultural aspects of Stoke City Football Club have become exaggerated to such an extent that they have become close to being little more than an absurd series of caricatures. Those unfamiliar with the Premier League might, from occasional glances in the direction of the press, draw all manner of assumptions about that bear scant relation to the truth. If the worst excesses of the fourth estate were near the truth, The Britannia Stadium would be a visigoth fortress sitting atop of a mountain, bathed in perpetual gloom and with an occasional flash of lightning in the background, as the team fires footballs from one penalty area to another with a cannon and Ryan Shawcross roams the pitch, smashing opposition kneecaps with a snooker ball in a sock.
It doesn’t bear a great deal of relation to the reality of the club, though. The Britannia Stadium, on top of a hill and filled with a wall of noise from the start to the finish of every match, is an imposing arena and the support can be fearsome, but it is hardly The Castle of Otranto and the supporters are not the mongol hordes. The style of football is certainly economical, but it is successful and manager Tony Pulis has managed to keep a team that has been consistently tipped for relegation since its arrival in the Premier League not only safe but comfortably safe for three consecutive seasons. Moreover, they are capable of turning on the style – the 5-0 win against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup semi-final was considerably more majestic than anything that many other Premier League clubs managed at any point during last season.
A hint at where Stoke’s biggest challenge may lay over the coming months could be glimpsed at the end of last season, though. With a relatively small squad, they lost their last three matches of the season (including the FA Cup final) and gave the impression of being a team that had completely run out of energy as the final whistle blew at Wembley. This year, the overwrought Europa League may well further drain their resources should they get through the final qualification round of the competition, and while their aggregate win against Hajduk Spilt was undoubtedly an impressive win, their supporters could be forgiven for wondering just how much of a distraction getting into its group stages may prove to be in the long-term.
The club’s financial position would seem to indicate that the money for further investment in the team should be available. Stoke’s debt, at around just £8m, is, by the levels at which the Premier League operates, tiny, and the club’s annual turn-over holds up reasonably well against those that they finished near in the league last season. They remain over-dependent on their benefactor, the seventy-three year old Peter Coates, but with four years’ worth of Sky Television money having now come into the club (and to give an idea of how critical this money is, Stoke are estimated to have made between £45m and £50m last season from their television rights alone last season), there seem to be no immediate concerns over the club’s financial well-being. As with so many other clubs in middle or bottom half of the Premier League, though, losing that money could become a major issue were they to be relegated, but if the club can become modestly self-supportive, there is no reason to believe that a financial meltdown would even follow this dread scenario.
This, however, is probably a long way from the mind of Stoke’s support at the moment. Tony Pulis is believed to be looking at enough players to almost rebuild the team from scratch – Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker, Cameron Jerome, Scott Dann, Peter Crouch and Carlton Cole are just a selection of those mentioned over the course of the summer – and it seems almost certain that the squad will be strengthened by the end of the transfer window. It should, however, be added that much of this speculation is little more than tittle-tattle at the moment and that it would seem unlikely that anything like all of these players would be signed by the club in one go. Indeed, it would likely be a blessing were they not to be – bringing in that many players in one fell swoop is never easy, and a couple of those named above – and elsewhere – bring with them reputations. In no small part, Stoke have built their relative success around having a tightly-knit squad. Tony Pulis would, in this eventuality, be reliant upon all of his man management skills in order to keep them in line.
In amongst all of this gossip, though, some simple truths remain. The Europa League adventure isn’t, at the time of writing, even guaranteed – there is one more play-off to play, at the time of writing – but the group stages of the competition, should they reach them, would be a drain on Tony Pulis’ resources no matter how many players he is able to bring in before the transfer window slams shut until the New Year and Pulis is, if nothing else, a pragmatic manager. He is probably as aware as anybody else that the club’s security is best served by putting the Premier League first. On the other hand, though, he may well look to the example of Fulham, who managed a mid-table Premier League finish and taking Atletico Madrid to within five minutes of a penalty shoot-out in the Europa League final in 2010 and pause to consider whether such a double may be possible for him as well.
How the club can progress next season may come down to how, should it come to this, they manage to juggle these twin challenges. With a degree of nervousness having seemingly settled over several Premier League clubs this summer, there is no particular reason why Stoke’s supporters should be overly concerned by the threat of relegation and it is difficult to imagine, barring a set of circumstances that would be extremely difficult to foresee at this moment in time, that they would be dragged into a battle at the bottom of the table and fail to survive it. Recent form would tend to suggest a mid-table finish for them again, but even if they were to slip a couple of places next season they would still comfortable retain their Premier League place for another year.
In some of our previous previews for this new season, we have already noted that the Premier League is compartmentalised these days, with different clubs fulfilling very different roles. Stoke have been pigeon-holed in sections of the media as being one-dimensional thugs but, while this makes for good copy, it is some way removed from the truth, which is, of course, more complex. Over the last three seasons, the team has played to its strengths and has sat comfortably in mid-table in the Premier League, and the reward for this domestic progress is a chance in Europe this season, even though they were reliant on Manchester City’s quality elsewhere in order to seal it. The Europa League may prove to be beyond them, but a further season of consolidation in the Premier League almost certainly isn’t, and if the middle third of the table is tight again this season a top half finish wouldn’t seem to be beyond them. That double-edged sword, however, will be glinting in the middle distance.
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