When Liverpool lost 1-0 against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, no-one was really that surprised. An example of just how far Stoke City have come in just four years in the Premier League.
It seems that the Potters have developed the prototype for every club trying to reach the Premier League and eventually managing to survive there, establishing themselves as a top half club and even featuring in the Europa League this season.
Stoke only reached the Promised Land of the Premier League in 2008, ending a 23-year absence, and then went on finish in 12th place despite being tipped as favourites to go back down. Their unexpected survival was built around their fine home form, as the Staffordshire side took an impressive 35 points from the 46 available with ten wins. Their outstanding home form has continued in the subsequent years.
They have given newly promoted clubs an outline of how to survive in the tough and uncompromising world of the Premier League. In the first season they did what was necessary to stay up, playing effective and no-nonsense football. This style attracted many critics, but it was ultimately successful. They then built on their strong points, added more quality to the team and then strengthened in the two most important positions (in defence and attack) again this summer. They may have detractors but they have now established themselves in the league while setting a benchmark in terms of sensible planning and taking a strategic long-term view of Premier League survival.
Stoke have always played to their strengthens under Tony Pulis, firstly using Rory Delap’s long throw as a way of causing problems to even the best defences. They were a strong and physical side who would get stuck into sides and make them work hard for any points they won. But recently Stoke have moved on from this approach with two exciting wingers, Matt Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, aiming to get crosses in for Kenwyne Jones and now Peter Crouch, with Jon Walters working hard to create space for the two forwards. In defence, Pulis relied heavily on a dependable back line during their early seasons but he has now added quality to that with first the excellent acquisition of Robert Huth last season and now former England international centre-backs Jonathan Woodgate and Matthew Upson.
In the now-unlikely circumstance that Stoke are relegated in the next few years, they would have the increased parachute payments to fall back on but it would still indicate a drastic and immediate revenue reduction of around £40m for the club. This is the rather large risk the club is taking by bringing in such quality but expensive players however at present this risk seems minimal with the side having easily enough expertise to survive.
This summer has been a step up in Stoke’s recruitment with international players brought in to add quality to an established side that could challenge in the Europa League this year and no longer are they expected to struggle. The side now have the strength in depth on the bench that is needed to succeed in the league and on Saturday they had the luxury of resting an £8m striker. When Pulis guided the club to the FA Cup final last season, they proved that they are capable of beating anybody on their day – especially at Fortress Britannia – using two mobile strikers, full backs who get forward with fast wingers and a solid midfield.
After a bright start in the league there has been some unsubstantiated talk about them challenging for a Champions League place but this seems unlikely, especially with the Europa League to distract them. However, I am sure Potters fans will accept a season in the top half of the Premier League and maybe even another trip to Wembley.
The Potters spent £60m in their debut three years in order to establish themselves as a Premier League side but, although Pulis won’t fully admit it, the club now has more lofty ambitions and I think it might not be too long before Stoke are regularly representing the Premier League in Europe. Quite a model of how a Championship club can become a successful Premier League side in just a few seasons.
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