As Stoke played out an impressive victory against title contenders Tottenham at the weekend those watching the game listened with amusement to the home fans singing ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, a rugby song, with a sense of conscious irony. The reputation they have built for themselves over the years under Tony Pulis as a no-nonsense physical side that takes no prisoners has certainly been warranted. However, whilst at first the furor that surrounded their style of play was evident throughout post match interviews around the country the attention paid to that side to their game seems to have calmed recently. This begs the question: have Stoke tempered their aggressive attitude or have we, and the referees, simply become accustomed to it?
In the 2010/11 season Stoke came 18th in the Premier League Fair Play table racking up a total of 68 yellow cards (fourth highest in the league) and two reds. They also have the tallest average starting eleven in the league and the second heaviest starting eleven. All this spells one thing for opposition teams; they’re in for a tough time. With 27 yellow cards so far this season too Stoke are on course to match last season’s tally for yellow cards as well. That is despite Stoke manager Tony Pulis’ claims that they have one of the best disciplinary records in the league.
The reason the Stoke manager likes to say this is because when it comes to fouls conceded last season they came twelfth in the table, behind teams like Arsenal. The problem with this is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. To have conceded less fouls than the majority of teams in the league yet received almost the highest number of cards shows that, in comparison to other teams, only the most dangerous fouls are being penalised. The fact is that fans and referees have become so used to watching Stoke kicking opposition players off the park that what is considered a foul in most grounds isn’t at the Britannia. For Younes Kaboul to be sent off on Sunday yet Stoke to get away with numerous similar challenges and twice handball in the box without being penalised seems somewhat farcical.
I’m not trying to be subjective in my approach, I don’t support Tottenham and I don’t dislike Stoke, and I can understand the argument that Pulis puts forward suggesting that they are now being unfairly treated because of their reputation; but to be honest I’m just not buying it. Just because a Stoke player hasn’t threatened anyone’s career recently with an over-zealous tackle it doesn’t mean that they have changed their style of play. The introduction of Wilson Palacios (persistent fouler), and two giants in Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome over the summer prove this, even if the chanting of famous rugby songs by the crowd doesn’t.
Obviously any debate such as this is hard to prove whichever side you may be arguing but what is evident is that we all watch Stoke games and personally I haven’t particularly noticed a change in their style of play over the last few years but I have definitely noticed that less is done about it. Without wishing to criticise Pulis’ team too much it appears that there is one rule for Stoke in terms of on field aggression and one rule for everyone else in the Premier League. I’m not saying that this is necessarily Stoke’s fault but when the initial problems with Stoke’s style of play were raised instead of a solution being found Pulis’ side have used the commotion to simply establish that that is the way they play and nothing can be done about it. I appreciate everything that Pulis has done for Stoke; he is a good manager and the ascent Stoke have been on since his arrival as manager is truly remarkable. However instead of simply accepting that Stoke ‘are just like that’ shouldn’t there be some effort towards rectifying the situation. When Ryan Shawcross almost ended the career of the young Welsh captain Aaron Ramsey it should have been a wake up call for the Stoke team. Yes physicality is an important side to the game, but so is football and frankly what kind of football team are Stoke if they never allow any other team to play. There is a fine line between pressing hard for the ball with enthusiasm for the task and unnecessary aggression in your style of play. Are we sure Stoke are on the right side of this?
For more news and debate follow me on Twitter @H_Mackay