What to make of Stoke City

Stoke City players celebrate

Stoke City are the Legion of Doom, they’re the Philadelphia Flyers, and they’re a club who would be far more suited to a menacing and fearful nickname than their current one. The Stoke City Wolverines should do it.

But that’s not a slight on them as a club, Tony Pulis has put together a team that no one in English football wants to face. When it’s August and a winter war on the wastelands seems otherworldly, the prospect of a weekend against Stoke forces the assembly of your finest men and bravest faces. Forget sleeves rolled up, this one calls for a nip down to the arms room.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Stoke had to play to their strengths to fend off the possibility of relegation and stake a claim for a regular spot among English football’s elite. They’ve done more than that, competing in European competition just a few short years after winning promotion to the Premier League. But now do they need to change their style?

I’m not totally convinced, and there’s certainly nothing to suggest Pulis hasn’t tried to take steps to develop his side’s game. Not everyone can play like Barcelona, and how unspectacular would football be if that was the case. Where would Barcelona, Spain and Brazil rank then if everyone played exactly the same way?

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Stoke hit hard and ‘finish their checks’, as so many coaches in the NHL will encourage their players to do. It’s two different sports but the principle remains the same. Is football a contact sport? There are far too many ridiculous rules in the game which would suggest it isn’t, but English fans want a meaty challenge just as much as Canadians want toothless hockey players. It’s a side of the game that Stoke aren’t quite ready to abandon yet, and if you don’t like it then there are many more products available in European football that would suit your need.

Do Stoke deserve criticism for the way they go about the game? If they do then Chelsea certainly deserve a hellish volley of insults following their European adventure last season. But it isn’t going to be so, at least it won’t allowed to be so. Both teams either did or currently are taking advantage of what they know best, and with Stoke holding one of the best defensive records in the league and are more than good enough to avoid the drop, where is the problem?

It’s not like we’re having this style of play forced upon us; doesn’t the Premier League promote itself as a league where anyone can beat anyone and the styles of football appear limitless? Is it a man’s game and a contact sport or is it the NBA? Which one suits you?

Stoke weren’t particularly interesting to look at when they met Tottenham at White Hart Lane, but they got exactly what they wanted. Pulis’ words at the end said as much, basically claiming Tottenham were the superior team with far greater resources. Everyone can beat everyone, yes, but they don’t do it by adopting Barcelona-like tactics.

Stoke could have won that game as easily as they could have lost it. It wasn’t all just long ball football and back to front as quickly as possible either, they moved the ball around on the deck and tried to play their way through on goal.

Tony Pulis knows what he has and he’s made the best out of it. They’re thuggish and know how to exploit weaknesses. They’re the Mick Foley of English football; every wrestling fan loves Foley, but he’s far from pretty to look at and no one would fancy getting into a hell in a cell match with him. No one called for him to change his ways when he give the Undertaker the thumbs up to throw him off the cell in ’98, but it was successful and endeared him to the fans.

Stoke have got what they wanted so far in English football and the fans enjoy it. The Britannia is as menacing as the team it houses, while the supporters greet opposing fans with the same kind of reception Cowboys fans would give Redskins supporters in Dallas.

Stoke may continue to progress in the Premier League and eventually find a way to marry their rough style with something easier on the eye, but there isn’t a clamour for it. They’re a club who have worked hard for what they have, and there’s no doubt that they’re the most impressive team to come up from the lower leagues in the last decade.


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