I wrote a guest blog, back in early November, where I suggested that Stoke were coming a little bit unstuck because Tony Pulis was attempting to take them away from their tried, trusted and maligned formula of direct football. Looking back now, it’s easy to think I was talking nonsense – Stoke are preparing to compete in the FA Cup Final today, and they sit a very comfortable 8th in the Premier League.
But back when I wrote that, Stoke had made a pretty average start to the season and you could really see them struggling to retain the Premier League status they had fought to retain, almost literally, for two seasons before this campaign. Pulis spent some decent money in the summer, bringing in some talented players who somewhat broke the mould of what we’d come to expect from Stoke City previously.
And I suggested in my article that Pulis needed to be a bit careful about ringing wholesale changes to the way his side played, and that he needed to retain some of Stoke’s traditional obdurate nature, the ability to overpower teams, to shut up shop when they needed to, and to have a real scarp and come out on top when the situation demanded it. It was good to see him trying to evolve his side’s footballing abilities, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of the strengths that had served them so well in the past.
And, after that initial bedding in period, it’s clear that it hasn’t. Pulis has been able to successfully marry his side’s more expansive and crowd-pleasing football with that old stubborness that makes Stoke such a difficult team to play. The combination of Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington on the flanks and Kenwyne Jones up fron sums up Stoke, almost to a tee.
The two wingers are both skillful, and underrated players. They’ve got pace and trickery but most importantly a good football brain. But they’re also grafters. They’re not a typical European winger. They’ll track back, they’ll get stuck in and they’ll fight for a cause. Kenwyne Jones too, is something of a hybrid. A big, strong centre forward, you’d expect him to dominate aerially and provide a potent physical threat, and he does. But he’s also a skillful operator with the ball at his feet, with a touch and a burst of pace to catch defenders off guard.
It seems to have been a case of patience for Pulis, waiting for these two sides of his squad to mesh together, to find a balance, and from there they’ve been on the up and up. A second half of the season to remember for Stoke, culminating in today’s FA Cup Final after having hammered Bolton in their semi-final, displaying all the flair anyone could have asked for. And if it’s to end on a real high with an FA Cup win today (and they face a huge task against Man City), then hopefully football will revognise the value of patience.
The crucial ting for Stoke is that Pulis was given time. When he got them into the Premier League, he was given two seasons of pretty dour football, but he got the job done. Many clubs reach the coveted heights of England’s elite division and let delusions of grandeur blind them. But Pulis knew that to make it stick he was going to have to upset a few people, and do things his way. And Stoke were willing to let him do that.
Then they showed further patience this season, when Pulis had begun to try to progress from the formula that had kept them up so far, and when results had slipped. It would have been easy then, for the board to decide that Pulis had served his purpose, had given them a foundation, but was not the man to take them forward. But they didn’t. They kept the faith and they gave him time, and just look how he’s repaid them.
So can Pulis get the rewards that his persistence and patience deserve against City today? I don’t know. They’ve certainly got it in them but they face a Manchester City side who are a real wealth of talent. But it’s also a City side with an enormous amount of pressure and expectation on their shoulders. Stoke are such overwhelming underdogs that they will have the freedom to go out and play their normal game, and that could be key.
What’s for sure is that Stoke have shown this season that they can beat anyone on their day, and they’ve got a strongly balanced squad to compete in any game of football. Whether they win the FA Cup today or not, the Stoke fans can be content in knowing that Pulis seems to have established them as a Premier League club to stay, and they’ve got the Europa League to look forward to next season as well. Looks like Plan B worked out pretty well for Pulis after all.