What is it about this West Midlands club that defies the odds year after year?
For one, it is has become a stingy team. The 17 goals conceded in the current campaign is the league’s lowest. And the three losses—equal to that of both Manchester United and Chelsea—also leads the league.
It is also a sensible club. After a feasible study to add 3,000 more seats to their new 27,000-seat Britannia Stadium in 2009, it waited three years to agree to move forward for fear of watering down the sold-out atmosphere.
The club’s chairman, Peter Coates, is also vocal about a league-wide fiscal responsibility, which really is not surprising for a club that erected a new stadium for less than £15 million. Sensible and successful, these potters fashion wares according to their means. And this is something that Tony Pulis does better than most.
The Welshman’s transfer market acumen is akin to a seasoned merchant prowling the streets of the bazaar. But it’s not about the bargain. Rather than just buy low and use it till it breaks, he possesses an innate ability to match his meager means with his pressing needs. The low-brimmed cap is the perfect metaphor for Pulis, disguising both his guile and his prowess.
In a BBC Radio interview, Coates dubbed Tony Pulis “Stoke’s best ever manager.” Now six years into his second stint in charge of the Potters, Pulis has enjoyed what is in short supply in the modern game: longevity.
Six years is a short time relative to the age of the oldest club in the EPL; but in an age where managers now rush to cash their checks every Friday, this represents an epoch.
Tony Pulis may lack the silvery tongue or podium presence of some of his counterparts, but his honesty is born out of one who has taken the muck of yeoman’s work and molded it into something that sits alongside the finest China in world football.
Stoke City’s team ethos mimics the brow of its manager—always intense and always closely knit. Hunting in packs and preying on the wary pass, the team’s dogged determination is viewed as a little over-exuberant at times in its attention to opposing players.
Stoke is widely regarded as one of the EPL’s most unattractive teams to watch, with detractors pointing to its outdated style of Route 1 football where the brutish approach adopted in shunting opposing players off the ball and all around the park is better suited to those wearing wellies than tailored boots.
It is also probably why the handle of Stoke City Rugby Club is one that has stuck. In its first four seasons in the EPL, Stoke has averaged 66 yellow cards and three reds. In its first season back in the EPL, Stoke racked up 73 yellows and five reds, ranking it last in ESPN’s Fair Play index, casting Stoke as a team of cudgel-toting thugs. Stoke, however, also finished that same season in 12th.
In the 2011/12 season, Stoke recorded its worst finish in the EPL (14th) on the back of their cleanest disciplinary record (60 yellows and two reds). They are currently in eighth with three red cards and 42 yellows at the season’s midpoint.
Danny Murphy’s criticism of the effects of “pumped up” players, calling Tony Pulis’ dressing room methodology into question, has its own merit. As do Pulis’ assertions about larger clubs' players dodging scrutiny for similar infractions.
Say what you must about the style or approach, but it works. Stoke continues to confound teams by sticking to a script that keeps them on one of the world’s biggest football stages. And that is cause for some begrudging respect.
There is a certain beauty and symmetry to watching a hammer being wielded well. And it is that deftly wielded, blunt instrument that keeps the Stoke City F.C. fixture one that opposing players and fans alike just love to hate. Winning ugly always beats losing pretty. And Stoke City F.C. doesn’t waste much time looking in the mirror.