The word is already out: the Championship is such a poor division that whichever teams are promoted, next season's Premier League could have three Derby Countys instead of one.
West Bromwich Albion, it is grudgingly admitted, did reach the FA Cup semi-finals and do try to play football; but Stoke City have never been accused of that. The Potters, who need only a point from their final game at home to Leicester this afternoon to go up, are widely regarded as a long-ball team from the land of the giants who would be so badly outclassed by more sophisticated opposition that they would struggle to match the 17 points achieved from 42 games the last time they played at that exalted level, in 1985.
To Stoke's manager, Tony Pulis, it is all water off the back of a Wedgwood china duck. Well versed in the vicissitudes of football after managing at six different clubs before his 50th birthday– three of them for less than a year – he knows that points are awarded for winning and drawing matches, not for artistic impression. Then there is the financial reality of competing against clubs who receive £11m a season for dropping out of the Premier League and others regularly attracting more than twice the 11,147 who turned up to watch one game last autumn at the Britannia Stadium (capacity 28,000).
"We haven't got [the money] Charlton or West Brom or Watford or Sheffield United have got," Pulis said on Friday. "And I think we're 14th in the League this year with our crowds. So we have to do it a different way, we have to be cleverer, we have to be cuter, we have to do it withina wage structure that suits this football club. I would love to go out and do what Tony Mowbray's done [at West Bromwich Albion]. Tony came and pinched one of our best players because they could pay him a lot more than we could, and we had to go and find a player who would play for the wages we could pay him. You've got to accept that and the parameters you're working with."
Those parameters have improved since the veteran chairman, Peter Coates, resumed control from the Icelandic consortium which ran Stoke in the days when foreign ownership was a novelty. For the first time at any of his clubs, Pulis says, he is able to spend most of the transfer money he brings in.
Nevertheless, he has made such use of the increasingly discredited loan system that Stoke have often seemed to be fielding more of other clubs' players than their own.
In doing his homework and his miles on the road to find those players, he is emulating his mentor from Bournemouth days, Harry Redknapp: "Harry used to say, 'It's about good players, Tone. It doesn't matter how hard you work, good players make the right decisions at the right time when the heat is on'. You could open up a Rothmans while you were travelling up and down the country with him and name a player and he could tell you who he played for. It's not a coincidence that he's been successful because he knows his product, and the product of this industry is players."
Pulis's current crop includes Ricardo Fuller, a big strongstriker, Mamady Sidibe, a big strong striker and Shola Ameobi, a big strong striker. (Is a pattern emerging here?)
Rory Delap, the Republic of Ireland international, hurls long throws towards them. Then there is goalkeeper Carlo Nash, on loan from Wigan; Chris Riggott, on loan from Middlesbrough; Stephen Pearson, on loan from Derby; Jay Bothroyd, on loan from Wolves; and Paul Gallagher, on loan from Blackburn. Another pattern?
"There's a loophole in the system that can be exploited and we exploited it," the manager admits without shame. "I think last year, when we took Lee Hendrie and Patrik Berger on loan, that freshened the whole football club up. Something had to be done because it was just drifting along, and I think that turned it last year."
A year ago this weekend, Stoke could only draw their final match, at Queens Park Rangers, and missed out on the play-offs. They would be thrilled to miss them again this time and will do so unless they lose to Leicester and Hull City win at Ipswich Town. It is an unlikely combination, even in a division as unpredictable as this one.
Ups and downs
Stoke City and Hull City are battling for the right to join West Bromwich Albion for automatic promotion to the Premier League, with Stoke needing a point to deny the Tigers. Stoke, Hull and Bristol City are guaranteed at least a play-off place. Watford, Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Ipswich Town and Sheffield United have a chance of making the play-offs. Colchester United and Scunthorpe United are down. Blackpool, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City and Southampton are battling to avoid the drop – the Saints are in that awful 22nd position.
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