When Stoke City were first promoted to the Premier League a decade ago, I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with aMiddlesbrough-supporting colleague about what life in the top flight would be like.
He explained to me that the first few years would be enthralling and exciting, facing the elite of English football, watching your team test themselves in the so-called ‘best league in the world’ and being a regular fixture on Match of the Day.
However, he also warned me that the novelty would soon wear off, the stadium would become a corporate shell without an atmosphere and that the monotony of being stranded in mid-table below a glass ceiling would become frustratingly boring and predictable.
Much of what he said has come to be true.
It may seem somewhat bizarre to other supporters of the 72 Football League clubs that a fan should bemoan his team’s place in the Premier League, but the reality is that Stoke, like a host of other mid-table clubs, are simply there to make up the numbers.
The glass ceiling
Stoke City supporters will look back on this last decade as a golden era in the club’s modern history.
Since achieving promotion in 2008 the Potters have established themselves as a top-flight club and cemented their place as one of the top-teams in the country after securing three consecutive ninth-place finishes. Throw in an appearance in the FA Cup final and one subsequent prolonged Europa League journey and it is clear to see that there has been plenty for supporters to enjoy in recent seasons.
However, the Premier League has well and truly lots its novelty for many fans and this is distinctly demonstrated in the drastic decline in atmosphere at the Bet365 Stadium. During those formative years in the top-flight a visit to the Potteries was an unattractive prospect for opposing teams, with the ground often being turned into a cauldron of noise that was as intimidating as it was inspiring.
That atmosphere is now long gone, barring the add occasion, as the predictability of mid-table mediocrity has set in.
The novelty of the Premier League is now long-gone. The Bet365 Stadium now resembles any other sporting stadium in the country and the lack of atmosphere leaves you longing to stand on the terraces of the old Victoria Ground. Stoke are consistently near the bottom of the table for the number of televised games and regularly feature as little more than a two minute highlight package squeezed in at the end of Match of the Day.
On the pitch the club are stranded in limbo. The financial power of the so-called ‘big six’ clubs means that there is a definitive glass ceiling that mid-table clubs like Stoke cannot move beyond unless significant investment is made in the playing squad.
Leicester City’s title triumph remains a once in a lifetime event whilst Burnley, despite their early season success, will still ultimately finish outside the top six. This simply leaves the vast majority of mid-table clubs prioritising survival over everything else as they desperately attempt to retain their place on the financial gravy train.
Barring a run in one of the domestic cup competitions or the odd upset against one of the ‘big six’, supporters of clubs like Stoke have little to look forward to in the limbo of mid-table.
Stranded in limbo
So is the Premier League really all that it is made out to be?
The answer to that question probably depends upon the club that you support and how long the team have retained their place in the top flight. However, the reality is that the Premier League is not the best league in the world nor is it the most competitive – since its inception in 1992 only six clubs have ever won the title, making each season relatively predictable and the only excitement for many clubs comes when the threat of relegation becomes a reality.
The Championship is everything that the Premier League claims to be, but is not. It is unpredictable, exciting and any one of a large number of clubs have the potential to achieve promotion or reach the play-offs when the season enters its closing stages.
Not that any Stoke supporters would want to see their side demoted to the second tier. Relegation is a long, drawn out and painful experience that results in the departure of good players and club employees losing their jobs. Whilst The Championship may be exciting and unpredictable, there is no guarantee that a club will immediately bounce-back and achieve promotion at the first time at asking whilst the financial rewards are significantly lower.
Top-flight clubs like Stoke are stranded in limbo: fearful of relegation and yet with no realistic possibility of breaking through the glass ceiling. Cup competitions can provide a brief respite, but early exits only enhance the sense of frustration generated by mid-table mediocrity.
My Middlesbrough-supporting colleague was correct in his predictions about life in the top flight, although it remains to be seen whether Stoke have the ambition or finances to make the Premier League experience interesting for their supporters once more.