If Stoke City’s 2007/08 season, with Tony Pulis’s unfancied side winning promotion to the Premier League, was a surprise to much of the English football establishment, their 2008/09 campaign was a veritable shock, as despite being the bookies’ favourites for relegation they stayed up comfortably amongst the big boys. Still, a year ago, many fans and pundits were tipping the Potters for the drop, sure the dreaded “second season syndrome” would strike. It didn’t and Stoke survived in even better health than they had twelve months before, easing to a mid-table finish. It’s safe to say that, as much as some opponents of their rugged style would like to see it, relegation after the 2010/11 season looks unlikely for the Staffordshire outfit, who are fast becoming a solidly established top flight club. Stoke fans, who have greatly enjoyed the last three years, will be eager to see their club further push on from now until May and perhaps achieve their first top ten finish since 1975.
From promotion in 2008 to survival in 2009 and 2010, the Stoke supporters have developed a taste for success
With the quality of players now at Pulis’s disposal, an assault on the top half of the Premier League table does not seem beyond the realms of imagination. Home fans at the Britannia Stadium are used to seeing a very firm defence, with England hopeful Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth and Abdoulaye Faye forming three quarters of a backline that often proves a match for the world’s best forwards, while with last season’s player of the year Matthew Etherington on the wing and the likes of Ricardo Fuller and Tuncay up front, the Stoke side also possesses a degree of attacking menace. Tuncay in particular will be interesting to watch in the coming months, as many people view the entertaining but enigmatic Turk as the key to the Potters producing a more aesthetically pleasing brand of football, something which if achieved after the reliance of the last two seasons on the route one game and Rory Delap’s magnificent long throws, would truly announce Stoke as a top class club.
Under the stewardship of venerable chairman Peter Coates, the Potters also have the financial muscle needed to move towards the top ten in 2010/11. Despite Stoke being one of the very few Premier League clubs currently not in debt, Pulis and Coates have taken a rather slow, considered approach to this summer’s transfer market. However, the one major splash they have made, the £8 million capture of Sunderland’s highly rated striker Kenwyne Jones, speaks volumes for the ambition behind the scenes, not least as it is the fourth instance of the club’s transfer record being broken in the last two and a half years. With money there to be spent and three weeks of the transfer window left, it’s likely that Pulis’s squad will look stronger still when August becomes September.
It’s not just Jones’s hair that has grown since he was last at Stoke, his reputation has too
However, while players’ ability has an undoubted impact on their side’s fortunes, their attitude and temperament can be equally important. In Stoke’s first season back in the top flight, the spirit shown by the squad allowed them to add up to much more than the sum of their parts, spirit that was especially evident during stunning results such as the home victory over Arsenal and the away draw at Liverpool. Last term, however, this spirit seemed to fray and there were a number of unsavoury incidents with Pulis falling out with players including forwards James Beattie and Dave Kitson. Both of these players have been linked with moves away from the Britannia Stadium though, with Beattie on the verge of joining Rangers and Bristol City said to be interested in Kitson. With these two moved along, harmony in the ranks should be restored, allowing the players to concentrate solely on football, which should benefit them on the pitch.
If a side is to mount a sustained challenge on the upper reaches of the league, it’s important that both their home and away form is consistently good. For Stoke, the 2009 survival was almost all down to home results. The Potters won a very impressive ten of their nineteen league games at the famously atmospheric Britannia Stadium, but failed to win away until April. Last year the home record was rather less eye-catching, but performances on the road were greatly improved, with excellent victories gained at the likes of Tottenham and Fulham. If Pulis’s men can reproduce their home successes of two years ago and continue with last season’s away form, it will surely be a recipe for high attainment.
Tony Pulis will look to drive his players on to further success
Perhaps everything will come together for Stoke in 2010/11. Perhaps the Jones will find the goals to propel his new team up the table, perhaps the players will find better spirit and togetherness than ever before, perhaps the home and away form will come together at the same time, all driving the Potters into the top ten. There will be 25,000 home fans at the Britannia Stadium for every home game hoping that that will be the case. Whatever happens, however, for the 11,000 or so of them that were the hardcore ten years ago, watching Stoke struggle against the likes of Cambridge United and Wrexham, just to see their side playing and competing in the Premier League in 2010/11 will be a joy and a privilege.