How to Solve a Problem Like Stoke

Posted: March 2, 2013 in Football
Tags: , , ,
"That's my favourite colour! How did you know?!"

“That’s my favourite colour! How did you know?!”

Would Gazza be a model citizen had he signed for disciplinarian Alex Ferguson in 1987, instead of having his every destructive whim indulged by Terry Venables at Spurs? Would Maradona have gone on to be the greatest player of his –and arguably any – generation had he signed for Sheffield United in 1978? Would the great Dutch team of the seventies have secured that elusive World Cup in Argentina had Johann Cryff not pulled out of the squad at the last minute? The list of hypothetical football imponderables is as long as it is fascinating. But one oft-asked, so-called imponderable we can remove from the list is that of whether Lionel Messi would be able to produce his unique brand of majestic football on a cold wet night in Stoke. The answer is simply, No. No, he wouldn’t. And it would have nothing to do with inclement weather.

For you see football and Stoke are, shall we say, uncomfortable bedfellows. In fact, so little have Stoke in common with the act of playing football that it’s difficult to imagine their tactics altering greatly if the actual ball was removed from the field of play.

Shirt-tugging, wrestling, stamping, elbowing, tactical fouling, late bone-crunching tackles – the list of nefarious means Tony Pulis’ side use to achieve their ill-begotten ends are all more characteristic of sports such as Rugby, Judo, Ice Hockey and the like. So the idea that Messi – the modern games’ greatest practitioner of skill, balance, flair and poise – would be allowed to so much as remain upright in a contest at the Brittania is nothing short of laughable.

It should be noted that Stoke are not – by any stretch of the imagination – the first team to deploy the overly-physical, long ball game. In the Premier League era alone, the hurley burley element have been manfully represented by the likes of Wimbledon, Sheffield United and mid-90’s Everton. But where Stoke are unique is that they are the first team to adopt these tactics when they have the option of playing a different way.

Where the likes of Wimbledon (with their Conference-level gate receipts) and debt-riddled Everton couldn’t stump up the requisite shekels for top end, skilful players, Stoke are in a completely different boat. Backed generously by owner Peter Coates, only ManchesterCity and Chelsea have a higher net spend in the five years since Stoke returned to the top flight of English football. Tony Pulis has managed to spend a fortune and ended up with a squad populated by non-footballing footballers  like Robert Huth, Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Etherington, Kenwyne Jones and Steven N’Zonzi.

Formerly the specialty of third round FA Cup minnows and cash-strapped clubs, Stoke have become synonymous with the type of anti-football Jack Charlton deployed to stink up two World Cups with his Republic of Ireland team in the nineties; the kind of effrontery to the game that scandalously allowed Vinny Jones to put ‘Footballer’ on his mortgage application form.

But like Charlton’s Ireland and Joe Kinnears’ Wimbledon side, Stoke remain largely immune from criticism lest the would-be critic land themselves an accusation of ‘football snobbery’- a charge to strike fear into the hearts of all Politically Correct analysts. ‘Stoke are entitled to play any way they choose as long as it’s within the laws of the game’ comes the near automated response from the right-on football fraternity. But therein lies the problem with Stoke – they rarely play within the laws of the game.

Aside from the bare facts of having one of the worst disciplinary records in the country (most red and yellow cards received and most fouls committed by any Premiership team at time of writing), any soul hardy enough to sit through a Potters’ game will notice the vast array of unpunished crimes that Pulis’ side rely upon to secure each and every point. Witness the tactical fouling whereupon Stoke players take turns kicking the opposition’s key players, avoiding the certain yellow card that would be handed out to a solitary offender. Witness too the stamps and elbows missed by the officials, distracted as they are by the ongoing play, such as occurred at Anfield and Craven Cottage this season by Huth and N’Zonzi respectively. Witness the diversionary post-match tactics of their ever-odious manager Pulis as he highlights the white sins of opponents in a bid to deflect attention away from the considerably darker ones of his own players. Having trouble remembering that Huth stamp at Anfield? Ah, you see that’s because Pulis hi-jacked the post-game narrative to focus attention on perceived gamesmanship on the part of Luis Suarez. Clearly the Uruguayan’s occasional propensity to go down easily is worse than the German’s chest perforation services.

Perhaps no weekend has highlighted Stokes lamentable contribution to modern football as the weekend of the Carling Cup Final. In his side’s Premier League game at Craven Cottage N’Zonzi was busy landing more right hooks on Fulham players than the average pugilist manages in twelve rounds. The following day Michael Laudrup’s cannily (not to mention modestly)-assembled band of artisans, SwanseaCity were romping to their first major silverware at Wembley, crushing (an admittedly overwhelmed) BradfordCity, playing with the same vim and panache that characterized the Dane’s own playing career.

Aside from playing wonderfully entertaining football whilst maintaining one of the countries best disciplinary records, Laudrup has built his side around shrewd signings such as Jonathan de Guzmán, Pablo Hernández and signing of the season, Michu, all of whom would have been on the radar of any club with a scouting network stretching beyond the cliffs of Dover – thereby ruling out Stoke. In fact, so consistently insular is Stoke’s scouting remit it’s tempting to wonder if it involves anything more than knocking on local lock-up garages in the hope of stumbling across a bare-knuckle boxing bout or two. Twelve of the clubs last fourteen signings have been from British clubs, with a couple of beanpole Americans completing the list. Whilst there is nothing objectionale about signing exclusively British players (or, indeed, deploying long ball tactics), the suspicion remains that Stokes transfer policy is guided by the belief that when it come to bruisers, it’s best to buy British.

With the Potters currently mid-table it’s probably too much to hope for relegation this season (and besides, what has the Championship done to deserve them?!) so perhaps the best hope of eradicating the cynical ugliness of Stoke comes in the form of the FA. Were the governing body to take it upon themselves to do the job for which they are handsomely paid, they would use video evidence to retrospectively punish Pulis’ side and all their illegal acts. But just as Huth avoided censure for his Anfield stamp, so too has N’Zonzi  astonishingly evaded justice for his assault at Craven Cottage. A more vigilant FA would throw the book at players engaging in these darkest of football ‘arts’ and in doing so remove the pillar of violence upon which Stoke’s entire philosophy rests.

There is no doubt Stoke have left a slew of victims in their wake, from opposing players to any right-minded football fan. But the one man to have suffered more than any other must surely be owner, Coates. Regardless of whether he’s Britain’s 25th wealthiest man, it’s hard not to have sympathy for someone who has invested so many millions on a product he must surely, like the rest of us, find repulsive to look at. Coates must feel like a man who commissioned the Mona Lisa only to be presented with the toilet wall etchings of a cock and two balls. For his part, Pulis will point to five successive seasons in the top flight and proudly claim to manage one of the few teams in world football against whom Lionel Messi would surely draw a blank – impossible as it no doubt would be, to score from the back of an ambulance.



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