For fans of football clubs all over the world, pre-season almost invariably brings optimism. As a recent advert for “The Sun” aptly noted, “you’re joint top of the league” and “your keeper’s got a clean sheet.” For Stoke City, there was even more positive thinking than most. Under the expedient and expert guidance of chairman Peter Coates and manager Tony Pulis, the Potters seemed to be firmly established in the Premier League after two solid seasons back in the top flight and in six of Pulis’s seven seasons in charge at the Britannia Stadium he has led his players to a higher league finish than the year before. After seeing their side finish eleventh last term, it was understandable therefore for Stoke supporters to be full of dreams of the top ten, or maybe even a push for European qualification.
Kenwyne Jones smiles ruefully after being stretchered off ten minutes into his new career
Imagine the disappointment then around Stoke-on-Trent’s six towns, aside of course from a small corner of Burslem, when on the first day of the season Pulis’s men found themselves 2-0 down at half time to their nearest local rivals in the league, Wolves, having had new club record signing, £8 million striker Kenywne Jones, stretchered off in clear pain after just ten minutes of the game. The second half was little better, though Stoke did pull back a goal through defender Abdoulaye Faye, but on the whole stuttered very unconvincingly to defeat. That summer optimism ebbs away very quickly.
A week later, Champions League Tottenham were the season’s first visitors to the Britannia Stadium, Stoke’s fortress since promotion where the vast majority of the club’s Premier League points have been won. The Potters were desperately unlucky, slipping to defeat again by two goals to one, both of the visitors’ having been scored by Gareth Bale. One was a bizarre fluke, ricocheting in off the winger’s face, the other was a sublime volley and as good a goal as you’ll see all season. Both were just goals though, unlike Stoke’s Jonathan Walters’s late header which, despite being shown by replays to have crossed the line, was not awarded by referee Chris Foy. Stoke were at least as good as Spurs on the day, and well worth a point or more, but the table doesn’t consider these things, and that evening showed the Potters second bottom and pointless.
Chelsea condemned Stoke to a third defeat in as many weeks
The last thing you’d want in such a situation is a trip to rampant champions Chelsea, who had won both of their first two league games 6-0, but that’s what Stoke had to face. Their performance on the day was actually respectable, limiting the freescoring Londoners to just a 2-0 victory, but with three games played and still no points on the board, that pre-season positivity was all but gone.
However, as it can often do, cup football brought a touch of relief for the Potters faithful. Sandwiched between the defeats to Spurs and Chelsea, Pulis’s men had taken on Shrewsbury in the League Cup and eased to a 2-1 win. It’s early days yet, but such results allow Stoke fans to dare to believe that 38 years on from their club’s only major honour, the League Cup could once again bring glory to the Potteries. Tomorrow night’s third round fixture against Fulham could serve to affirm, or completely dispel, this belief. The victory over Shrewsbury also served to highlight a lot of what has been good about Stoke’s season so far. The impressive Walters netted his first goal in red and white after his August move from Ipswich, while last season’s player of the year Matthew Etherington showed that he has carried on where he left off, providing the crosses that produced both of Stoke’s goals.
Jermaine Pennant looks a gem of a signing for Stoke
The end of August brings the end of the transfer window, a time that can make or break a club’s season. Though it’s still early to tell, it seems that Pulis may have played a blinder. On the final day of the window he made a fine triple swoop, bringing classy midfielder Marc Wilson, cultured winger Jermaine Pennant, and a Champions League winner in former Barcelona and Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen to the club. The Stoke fans were understandably delighted, but it was more than two weeks before they had the chance to see their new heroes in action, when Aston Villa visited the Britannia Stadium.
The official programme ran the tagline “our season starts tonight,” but when Villa took a first half lead and began to boss proceedings it looked a false dawn. Enter Pulis. After the death of his mother earlier in the day he was due to stay away from the match. However, he went far beyond the call of duty, arriving at half time and clearly lifting the crowd and his players. Two goals in the last ten minutes from Jones and Robert Huth turned the game on its head, 24,000 Stokies went mental, and that first win had finally arrived.
Pride and passion for the Stoke players
West Ham were the next to come to Stoke just five days later. They took a surprise lead, but the hosts soon hit back through a classic Jones header from a superb Pennant cross. The Potters were well on top in the second half, hitting the woodwork three times, but ultimately had to settle for a draw that will have suited the struggling Hammers far better. Nonetheless, it was another point gained and took Stoke outside the bottom three for the first time in a month.
The new signings look good, last season’s key men look as sharp as ever, spirit in the camp is clearly high after the sale of alleged troublemakers in the summer, and the next two fixtures look attractive, a trip to newly promoted Newcastle and a home clash against bad travellers Blackburn. Though the first month of the season has been a difficult one at the Britannia Stadium, the early storm seems to have been weathered, and it seems likely Pulis’s players will soon drag themselves back up the Premier league table.