Stoke City: Football Club?

Stoke on the charge again.

Stoke on the charge again.

On seeing the result in the Stoke-Arsenal game, I feel compelled to comment on the success that Stoke City are having this season, and the manner in which they are bringing it about. I must admit that at this point I have not seen the game, but I’ve heard about it and seen the goals and so that’s what I am basing this on, as well as the other Stoke games I’ve seen so far this season.

I think it is a shame, for Stoke supporters as much as anyone, to see the attitude that they are approaching each game with this season. That they are so obviously and blatantly setting out to simply outmuscle the opposing team, playing such direct and downright ugly football, is such a shame for fans of football in general.

I must say at this point, that I am not against football being played physically. My club Everton, have, for years, been a tough side, with strong combative players, and indeed, I would love to see us sign a good skilful target man to add an extra dimension to our attack. I think that playing to a strikers head can indeed be a good tactic, but that it should not be relied upon.

Stoke’s only tactic, as far as I can see, is to lump the ball forward, and into the penalty area, time and time again. And it works. They’ve just beaten Arsenal, and they have got other good results so far this season, and have rarely given anyone a comfortable game – I’m thinking back to Everton’s 2-3 win over them earlier in the season, which was one of the most frustrating games of football I’ve ever seen.

But Stoke fans, while you will be happy with the results, you cannot honestly tell me that you are enjoying watching the football that your side is producing. Stoke simply are not playing football. For me, they are taking the beautiful game of football as close as the rules will allow to being bloody rugby! Tony Pulis fills his team with big, big men, and uses their strength to charge through the opposition, getting the ball over the line by sheer force of muscle and power.

I cannot imagine how it feels to sit at the Britannia Stadium and watch this sort of performance week in and week out. And not only do Stoke not play football, they also stop the opposition from playing football too. Arsenal, who are the best footballing side in the country, maybe even the world, often at detriment to their chances of actual success – were simply not allowed to play football today, they could not get going.

It was a similar story when Everton played at Stoke a few months back. Our team, from the midfield forward, is arguably one of the smallest in the league (though Fellaini has since changed that), with Arteta, Osman, Pienaar and Cahill all being low in stature. And thus our game is all about quick passing football, swift movement and playing the ball to feet. Against Stoke, we were simply not allowed to do this, the physical presence of the opposition just dominated our players and prevented us from being able to actually play proper football. The fact that we managed to win still amazes me.

And Rory Delap’s long throws. It’s almost becoming a joke to be honest. Because although yes, the man can throw a long way, that is not the secret of it. Many players can throw the ball a long way, but few teams score so frequently from these set pieces. No, it is all about the physicality in the box. They send up their enormous team, and just barge the defenders out of the way. Unfortunately, the referee can do very little, because body-to-body contact (within reason) is allowed. It is simply that the Stoke players are so much bigger and stronger than everyone elses that it almost gives them an unfair advantage.

I’m not meaning to let this turn into a rant, and I am trying to think about it unbiasedly, but it is hard. I am something of a football purist, and it just pains me to see the beautiful game being destroyed in this manner. Surely Stoke fans, when you dreamt of the Premiership, part of the allure was the chance to see the classic flowing football, played at a great pace and with players of great skill. You would have hoped that your side could fit in to this most idolised of leagues. You would have wanted to become a team that played teams off the park, that scored beautiful flowing goals and kept the ball with ease for minutes at a time.

But what have you really got? Your team plays horrible, horrible football, I hesitate even to use the word ‘football’ in conjunction with the club. And yes, I accept that it is getting you results, and yes I accept that with your current squad, that’s the only way you can play, but really, is that what you always dreamt of? In a way, I think other clubs are coming to dread the day on the calender that announces a match against Stoke, but not in the way they dread playing Arsenal, Chelsea or Man Utd.

We know when our teams play Stoke that it is not going to be a good game. We are not going to enjoy the match. And that kills half of football. English football, unlike some European leagues, is not an entertainment business. But that does not mean that the fans don’t want to enjoy the football on show. There is a reason why the Premier League is shown so widely in so many countries, but to be honest, Stoke are letting the league down.

I am not asking them to change, because it is working for them. And though they may prefer to play a different way, no Stoke fan will be unhappy if the results keep coming. But, at the risk of sounding very harsh and upsetting any Stoke fans who read this blog, I do hope that they are relegated. Two games against Stoke will be enough for me to watch. I don’t want to have to repeat the torture next season, and so unless they change their tack, I think most people will secretly be hoping that Stoke fail. Because at the end of the day, whichever club we support, the one thing we all have in common is that we are all football fans, and Stoke just aren’t playing football.

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