Tony Pulis’ Stoke City side have previously been compared to Bolton under Sam Allardyce. Both teams prospered in the Premier League due to a blend of physicality, directness, organisation and an unrelenting team ethic. Stoke’s style of play coupled with a succession of well publicised bust-ups, however, may make them the heirs to the defunct Wimbledon FC. The motley crew of players at the south-west London club were dubbed the ‘Crazy Gang’ for their eccentric behaviour and less than subtle approach to the game. Gary Lineker once said that the best way to watch Wimbledon was on Ceefax. With their relative success in the league and curious mixture of togetherness and aggression, are Stoke becoming Wimbledon’s Premier League contemporaries?
Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ took the club from the old Fourth Division to the top tier in 1986 within a mere four seasons and won the FA Cup against Liverpool two years later. The team spent sixteen successive seasons in the top flight of English football, becoming a Premier League mainstay. The club regularly recorded top table finishes and this was accredited to players such as John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise and Lawrie Sanchez. Wise argued that despite frequent scraps, the players who were low on morale felt that collectively they could achieve something. The team boasted some excellent individual players too, foremost among them was Robbie Earle who became club captain and an all action midfield dynamo. However their successes were built on the creation of a siege mentality, unsophisticated tactics and intimidating opponents using their unrefined approach.
Against the odds Stoke City gained promotion to the Premier League in 2008 and recorded a twelfth place finish. Avoiding the notorious second season syndrome they beat their previous points tally last season to finish eleventh. The team have won the plaudits of commentators and pundits who regularly cite them as having provided the template for newly promoted clubs to survive in this unforgiving league. Their on-field antics and reported dressing room spats are now beginning to rival that of the ‘Crazy Gang.’ A recent ill-tempered pre-season friendly against Wrexham saw the Jamaican Ricardo Fuller sent off for violent conduct. The striker’s fiery temper was in evidence when he slapped his then captain, Andy Griffin, during a league match at Upton Park. Team disagreements took a decidedly more bizarre turn last season when Pulis allegedly head-butted James Beattie after a loss at the Emirates. Unruly behaviour was reported again after an away defeat in London. After their 7-0 defeat to Chelsea, Glenn Whelan and Abdoulaye Faye had a tete a tete. “What happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room,” Pulis later said.
Nonetheless Pulis has managed to engender a strong, if explosive, sense of team spirit in the squad which may be partly due to their brand of football. Their physical, direct approach has often been labelled as a long ball game by their detractors. They are particularly unpopular with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger after a series of eventful encounters between the two sides and Ryan Shawcross’ challenge on Aaron Ramsey earlier this year. Wenger’s criticism of this tackle and Stoke’s overall approach were rebuffed by Rory Delap who defend their robust but not malicious style. The player who has a penchant for long throws, aided by a towel, best embodies their unflattering style. Stoke took 608 long throw-ins last season and for many it summarises their approach of launching a high ball into the danger zone in the hope of a flick and a fortuitous bounce before a scrambled finish.
Pulis and the Stoke fans would argue that this is a cynical standpoint taken by those who wish to see the club fail. Pulis has often been at pains to convey the skilfulness in his squad and their ability to score good goals. Fuller’s winner at Upton Park springs to mind and gifted ball players including Etherington and Whelan ensure quality passing. No side in the division relishes a trip to the Britannia which is quite a feat for a side entering its third year in the Premier League. A solid back line is their foundation and provides a contrast to the defensive naivety which has afflicted West Brom and Burnley. The increasingly amusing nature of their on-field and dressing room behaviour may suffice to earn them the title of the 21st century Wimbledon FC. But criticism of their play from rival fans and opponents is unlikely to be heard by anyone within a ten mile radius of the Britannia Stadium on match days.