Cloggers' chance to prove they're more than bully-boys
Stoke manager Tony Pulis defends his team's style and says their spirit after the Shawcross incident will help them at Stamford Bridge
Saturday 06 March 2010
Tony Pulis's most illustrious predecessor as manager of Stoke City, the late Tony Waddington, once characterised football as "the working man's ballet", a phrase borrowed for a book title by arguably his greatest ball artist, Alan Hudson. Following Ryan Shawcross' leg-breaking challenge on Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, the club's critics have portrayed the way they play now as more like a clog dance.
After eight days of fallout from the incident, during which time Shawcross was an unused substitute for England against Egypt, Stoke's quest to reach Wembley collectively rather than one at a time takes them to London tomorrow to face another high-spending London club, Chelsea, with a place in the FA Cup semi-finals at stake.
Pulis, seemingly unfazed by the stereotyping of Stoke as long-ball brutalists – Wimbledon's "Crazy Gang" with bells on – points to "the facts" about the approach they will bring to Stamford Bridge. Facts such as the absence of a single yellow card for Stoke in two Premier League meetings and one FA Cup match with Arsenal this season; facts such as the one showing they committed fewer fouls against Arsène Wenger's side this season than any other team.
"We hope we're not pre-judged on Sunday," he says, keen to assert the legitimacy of getting in the faces of opponents as distinct from roughing them up. "What we try to do when we play the big teams is to deny them space. There's no rule that says you can't work hard against them and compete with them. I think we did that last season and we've done it this year too, but we've also improved as a team on the ball."
No less an authority than Wenger endorsed the Welshman's viewpoint about Stoke's development before a split second last Saturday threatened to undo all their good work. Pulis reflects on the fine-tuning he has undertaken since promotion in 2008 – bringing in Matthew Etherington and Tuncay Sanli while giving Glenn Whelan a run in midfield – and suggests the image of a one-dimensional bunch of basketball players and bruisers is increasingly outdated.
"We've played some decent stuff this year and scored some fantastic goals," he says. "It's not for me as manager of a club to tell you what you see, but I'm in a world where gloss is very important." The latter comment is a tacit acknowledgement that Stoke, for all the parochialism of the Britannia Stadium crowd, are not impervious to the perceptions of those outside the Potteries.
Asked whether Chelsea can be bullied, Pulis does not bite. "I think they're top of the table because they've been the best team so far. They've had a fantastic season and now they're coming to the end point, where the great sides stand up to be counted. And this is why Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest manager there's ever been in this country, because Manchester United are stronger and stand up to it at this time of the season."
Chelsea did not stand up to Manchester City particularly well last weekend. John Terry's patchy display highlighted the way external pressures can affect even the most outstanding player – a factor Stoke will monitor closely when Shawcross completes his three-match suspension – and may make him vulnerable tomorrow. Pulis is convinced that the deposed England captain can rehabilitate his reputation much as David Beckham did after being blamed for the 1998 World Cup exit. "We've got a great ability in this country to build people up, enjoy shooting them down and then build them back up. If John has a great end of season with Chelsea and England win the World Cup, there will be a lot of people cheering. But we're in a very privileged position as players and managers at the top level. You have to accept that if you step out of line, you're going to get slapped."
Pressed as to whether Terry can come through his present troubles, his answer has obvious implications for Shawcross, who is less than a year younger than Beckham was when he was cast as public enemy No 1. "Who would have thought Beckham would have been strong enough to get over it at his young age? You grow stronger as you go on. John's a tough character."
In the absence of Petr Cech, whose deputy Hilario looked so unconvincing against a Manchester City side freshly despatched from the Cup by Stoke, Terry may need to be at his most commanding in the air when Rory Delap launches his long throws. "It's funny because at the beginning of the season we weren't getting much joy from Rory's throws," Pulis says. "All of a sudden we've struck a rich vein. A friend asked me the other day how much time we spend on them in training. We don't."
Ironically, Chelsea came from behind to win at Stoke this season with a stoppage-time goal stemming from a long throw by Juliano Belletti, although the Brazilian, like Michael Ballack, is suspended tomorrow. Pulis' men also led until the closing minutes in London a year ago only to lose in time added on, a match preceded by Luiz Felipe Scolari maintaining their set-piece prowess made them "more dangerous than all the teams in England and the world". The club's most recent appearance in the last four of the FA Cup came 38 years ago. The competition has "not been brilliant" for their manager either. His best run, as a Bristol Rovers player in 1978, ended in a fifth-round replay against eventual winners Ipswich.
Far from inhibiting them, the Shawcross-Ramsey controversy is more likely to strengthen Stoke's team spirit. "This is a club that responds well to adversity," says Pulis. "We've proved that. When things go against us, we all pull together." And how can they emulate Waddington's class of '72, who beat Chelsea to win the League Cup? "I'll settle for two nil-nils and beat them on penalties. Fingers crossed we can have a right go."
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