Paul Merson recently said “if you read it in a book, then you would throw the book away”. He was speaking of course, of Stoke City’s dramatic rise in the past 5 years under the ownership of Peter Coates and the management of Tony Pulis, Merse said it would come across as unrealistic. And ten years ago, we would have agreed.
It will be ten years in November since Pulis first took the job and it has been an up and down decade full of extreme highs and desperate lows, most of the lows coming in his first spell. He arrived after being out of work for over two years and he dragged the Potters to survival from a disastrous position in the Championship, despite the odds being stacked heavily against him.
A couple of years of mid-table solidarity followed, with Pulis making the most of a small budget allocated by the then Icelandic owners, who plagued the club until 2006.
They, like many of Stoke’s loyal supporters, didn’t take to the Welshman and he was sacked in 2005 for “failing to exploit the foreign transfer market”. After a brief but successful spell with Plymouth Argyle, he accepted an offer to return to Stoke after the also returning owner Peter Coates promised him funds to spend.
Within two years Pulis had taken a club tipped for a relegation scrap and transformed them into promotion winning material, accompanied by the likes of Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence and Ryan Shawcross. Stoke heroes forever.
At the beginning of the clubs first Premier League season one bookie even paid out on them to be relegated come May, but that was all the inspiration Pulis needed as he incredibly took them to 12th in the league. Since then two more years have followed of Premier League security, throw in an FA Cup final (the first in the clubs 149 year history) and a creditable Europa League adventure , and you can see why everything in Stoke’s garden looks rosy.
But as is the saying in football ‘you can never stand still’ and the next challenge for Pulis and co is to take the club forward, but how? With a strong finish to the season, Stoke could achieve their first top ten finishes in the Premier League. But where do they go from there?
With the top six looking impenetrable and the likes of Newcastle, Everton, Sunderland and Aston Villa not far behind, it is difficult to see how a comparably small club like Stoke could ever infiltrate the top half on a regular basis.
One method of progression could be addressing the dreaded style of football. The Potters ‘rugby’ style according to some (yes, I am looking at you Arsene Wenger) has been widely criticised, and arguably rightly so. At first, it was exciting, entertainment of a different kind. We can’t all play football like Barcelona and be successful (yes, I am looking at you again Mr Wenger), but there has been a growing sense of frustration around the Britannia on a Saturday afternoon this season.
The atmosphere isn’t the same, the football is becoming stagnated and teams are working it out, the Europa leagueis partially responsible, but only partially. Last season Stoke did play some nice football with two genuine wingers, but the disappearance of Jermaine Pennant and the prolonged inclusion of Ryan Shotton are as baffling as Mario Ballotelli.
Whether Pulis can implement some technically superior footballers and use them the right way remains to be seen, but the way that Pennant, Kenwyne Jones, Eidur Gudjohnson, Tuncay and Wilson Palacios have all struggled to adapt their game, does give me some doubts. Maybe Leopards can’t change their spots.
But he is a man who will never rest on his laurels, and if he can take the Potters and tweak their style of football, not drastically, but definitely enough for technically better players to be given a slightly free rein, like at Everton and Newcastle, while still maintaining the intensity at which they currently play at, Pulis may just win the adoration of all the fans, and go down as the greatest manager this club has ever had when he finally leaves.
Unbelievably many fans would have him out of the door now. I dread to think of the day he leaves, Charlton’s sudden plight after Alan Curbishly left are all to revealing, also look at Bolton’s current position since a certain Sam Alladyce left. Curbishly believed he couldn’t take the club any further, and maybe Pulis can’t either. Mid-table obscurity is perhaps the limit for Stoke, but with Pulis in charge you can almost guarantee that every season. And after the past 25 years of hurt, that can’t be a bad thing.