Last week Dean Smith, manager of Walsall, attended a fans' forum where he was asked his ambition for next season. "To win the League," he replied. This bold claim was greeted with incredulity; Walsall, after all, avoided relegation to League Two by a single point.
"Why be in a competition if you don't try and win it?" asked Smith, before arguing clubs such as Bournemouth and Exeter had shown it was possible to challenge for promotion on limited resources.
If only this was as arguable in the top flight. As West Ham stared into the black hole of relegation, managers such as Tony Pulis, Roy Hodgson and Owen Coyle justifiably congratulated themselves on successful seasons – success being defined by the fact that they have ensured their continued participation in the Premier League.
Like the amateur Olympic Games, it is the taking part that counts, but unlike the old Olympics the motivation is not primarily pride – though this should not be underestimated especially in places like the Potteries where being on the Premier League map has lifted a battered region.
The real reason is cash. Making the Champions League places is beyond conception for clubs with the resources of Stoke, West Bromwich and Bolton, never mind winning the Premier League. But being in the league provides the finance to develop a club's playing and infrastructure to the point where they can begin to feel themselves established, and have a sally at cup silverware. Hodgson did so with Fulham in the Uefa Cup last season, Pulis and Coyle in the FA Cup this season.
Sadly, as the FA Cup teams put out by many a mid-range Premier League club indicate, too few attempt this. Looking at the way Birmingham's season has lost focus since their Carling Cup victory that is understandable. Post-Wembley Alex McLeish's team have taken nine points from 11 games. Steering the club to their first major honour since 1963 will provide the Scot with scant job-protection if Birmingham are relegated.
One of Pulis's many achievements this season has been to keep driving his team on – they have taken eight points from four matches since reaching the final. Striker Jon Walters made the point that Pulis was not the "the kind who would tolerate the team taking their eye off the League", but it has come at a price. Injuries, notably the one that left Matt Etherington hamstrung, handicapped Stoke in the final against a side that could afford to leave James Milner and Edin Dzeko, £53m worth of talent, on the bench.
It will be a long time before a Stoke manager enjoys such a luxury. The club's first £1m footballer did not arrive until 2008, when Ryan Shawcross joined. Premier League income has enabled a sharp acceleration – the record fee is Kenwyne Jones' £8m – but there will be no gambling by the club's chairman and owner, Peter Coates. He leaves that to the punters who have provided his fortune.
Stoke are currently being cited as a role model to Premier League newbies but Coates is aware that it can go wrong very quickly. Previous role models Ipswich Town and Charlton plummeted into administration and League One respectively, Ipswich ballooning the wage bill, Charlton making poor management choices.
"We can't afford to throw fortunes at it," said Pulis. "We have to stay financially stable. If we got relegated tomorrow the club would be in a good position to keep all our players and for them to stay even for two or three years in the Championship."
The next step is to strengthen and upgrade the squad so it can compete on two fronts for it would be a pity if Stoke, having reached Europe for the first time in 37 years, put out a sacrificial side as Bolton and Villa have done in recent years. Saturday's exposure will help, as would a cap for Jermaine Pennant, their sole outfielder to impress the watching Fabio Capello. The belatedly maturing 28-year-old would become Stoke's first England cap since another winger, Mark Chamberlain, in 1984.
These are heady days indeed in the Potteries, notwithstanding Saturday's anti-climax.Reuse content