Stoke City: From Cliché To Culture Capital

Ever since Andy Gray made the rather ridiculous comment, “But can he do it on a cold, rainy day in Stoke”, in reference to Lionel Messi, the phrase has now become footballing cliché.

A few years earlier, on the final day of the 2007-2008 season Stoke clinched promotion to the Premiership and almost instantly were listed by bookmakers as one of the frontrunners for a swift return back to the Championship. An opening day defeat to Bolton Wanderers reaffirmed the suspicions of both bookmakers and football aficionados, Paddy Power electing to pay out on the Potters to be sent packing to the division they had just come from.

Over the coming months, Tony Pulis instilled a resilience and a strength of character into Stoke that over the season became synonymous with their name – turning the Britannia into a fortress, eventually finishing their maiden Premiership season in 12th position, a league placing that made a mockery of the squads perceived ability. Over the coming years Pulis, a defender himself in his playing days, helped consolidate Stoke’s Premier League position, even guiding them to their first Fa Cup Final in 2011 which resulted into Stoke’s first foray into the Europa League.

Unfortunately for Pulis he soon became a victim of his own success.

The barometer for success not only amongst Stoke supporters, but also their chairman had been raised. The next few seasons saw a period of stagnation, and when Pulis eventually departed it was quite clear that despite the official club line of “mutual consent” he was in fact pushed overboard by ambitious Chariman Peter Coates. After a brief selection process in came current manager Mark Hughes, assigned with the uneviable task of transforming Stoke’s reputation of being a dogged, aggressive team into a more fluid, attractive outfit. Fast forward to today and it’s quite clear that Hughes has tried his best to change the footballing culture of the North Staffordshire side.

As many would argue is for the better, the prominence of the smartphone has lead to the death of the pub quiz, however if such a thing still exists in the future, a likely question for the Sports section would be, “In the 2015-2016 season which Premiership side had 5 Champions League winners in their books”. Ask this question and one’s mind instantaneously thinks towards the might of powerhouses such as United and Chelsea, however in Marko Arnautovic, Ibrahim Affelay, Bojan Krkic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Marc Muniesa, Stoke possess an array of talent that one could never have dreamed of. The abundance of attacking quality they have is all the more impressive especially when you think back to a few years previous when one of their greatest attacking weapons was the famous Rory Delap throw-in! The signings of mercurial talents such as the 12 million pound Shaqiri highlights the strength of progression and the change in ambition that Hughes has helped bring to the club.

With an almost fully fit squad currently at his disposal it will be a tricky balancing act for Hughes to not only keep the egos of his players in check, but also to find the correct balance between his players being able to express themselves creatively, and also maintaining the levels of defensive stability that has helped make them become a name that is very rarely uttered these days when thinking about potential relegation candidates. Unfortunately for the clubs supporters, as things stand Stoke stand in 17th, their solitary league win so far this season coming courtesy of a late Mame Biram Diouf winner at home to Bournemouth.

Prior to last weekend, Stoke’s season thus far has been most memorable for the home debacles against West Bromwich Albion and against Leicester City, one game seeing them go down to 9 men before the first half was out, the other seeing them blow a two goal lead. There’s an argument that despite their below par start there are still many reasons for optimism. Stoke were unlucky to fall 1-0 at home to Liverpool in the opening day of the season, with the following week seeing them rescue a point at White Hart Lane in a comeback that Hughes predecessor would have been proud of. Jack Butland’s performances have not only seen him become a serious contender to be England’s number 2 and probable long-term successor to Joe Hart, it has also lessened the blow of losing Asmir Begovic to Chelsea. With Shaqiri, Bojan , Afellay, Walters and Arnautovic, Stoke are a genuine threat going forward, each player not only possessing a versatility to play in a wide range of positions, but each of them are more than capable of getting themselves on the scoresheet.

It’s hard to know exactly what constitutes as success for Stoke these days, an outfit a little too good to be worried about the prospect of relegation, the peak of their ambition probably being the poisoned chalice that is Europa League qualification. In an era of football that now sees the likes of Palace, Southampton and the likes of Stoke able to spend in the region of £12-15 million on one player the middle of the table is going to be more competitive than ever, however it’s testament to the progression of Stoke that they’re slowly but surely removing themselves from the negative stigma that the club has tried so hard to shake off.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by jad99

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