Sam Wallace: It is not unreasonable for Stoke fans to expect to see progress under Pulis
The old theory that the smaller Premier League clubs had to adopt a much more basic style of play has been debunked
When Tony Pulis said on Friday that success for Stoke City was staying in the Premier League and that anything else should be treated as a bonus, he will have known that for a part of the club's support his words will have been viewed as provocative. Stoke are virtually assured of a sixth straight season in the Premier League but not everyone is happy.
They play Sunderland tonight, a club that has a higher wage bill than them (£64m compared to £53m); considerably more debt (£84m to £14m) and, arguably most important at this critical juncture, three fewer points. With three games including this one to play, neither are mathematically safe, but Stoke are currently a lot safer.
Nevertheless, the discontent springs from Stoke fans who have tired of Pulis' conservative philosophy, his unwillingness to adapt a very rudimentary approach in pursuit of a more attractive, watchable style. As he made clear on Friday, Pulis views Stoke's Premier League life in two very distinct ways: his way or a future that has no certainties.
There is more than one way to survive in the Premier League and the pertinent question that is being posed gets to the heart of Pulis' theory: what is the point of survival if it is done on such stark terms?
At this point, dissenting Stoke fans tend to get patronised within an inch of their lives. Be careful what you wish for. Look at Charlton Athletic post-Alan Curbishley and, more recently, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Be grateful for what you have.
But neither of those examples fit the story of Stoke exactly. They have established themselves as a top-flight football club. They have attributes to be admired, not least the spirit and intensity that has earned them results against much bigger clubs. But what is the point of, for instance, being defensive away from home when it yields so little anyway (11 away goals is the joint lowest tally in the division with West Ham)?
It is not unreasonable to ask for them to evolve. It is natural, not greedy, for supporters to hope to see progress. It might seem unfair to a manager who has dragged the club up from the lower reaches of the Championship, but it can hardly be regarded as a surprise.
As for Pulis, he may well feel like Winston Churchill in July 1945, the warrior leader who having prevailed in the greatest battle of his life finds that instead of receiving the thanks of a grateful electorate the people are tired of war. They want houses in the suburbs and the NHS, and midfielders like Leon Britton and Jonathan de Guzman.
From the outside, it is a stand-off that has the potential to become more entrenched. For all the uncertainty, the received wisdom is that Pulis will stay next season with the backing of the Coates family, who feel a great deal of loyalty and gratitude to the man that restored their club to the top flight. He will do things the way he has always done them and those critics of his on the militant end of the spectrum, will become ever more outraged.
Can he change? The question is whether he wants to. There have been glimmers of it in the recent victories over Queen's Park Rangers and Norwich, two of only three league wins since Boxing Day. Charlie Adam started both of those games and Peter Crouch has pushed up to partner Cameron Jerome in attack rather than playing much deeper. In mitigation, Matt Etherington's season has been hit by injuries and Jermaine Pennant has plain disappeared.
Both those wingers gave Stoke a lot more going forward last season. Steven N'Zonzi is a player who could thrive higher up the Premier League but there are also many players, the dogs of war in that Stoke side, who are in the division because they serve the way that Pulis' team plays.
The modern Premier League is such a diverse place, and we have the likes of Swansea, West Bromwich Albion and even Wigan Athletic and Southampton to thank for that. The old theory that the smaller clubs had to adopt a much more basic style to survive has been debunked. There is room for all sorts. It is not unrealistic for a Stoke supporter to expect to watch their team play decent football.
When he looks at the plaudits lavished on Roberto Martinez, whose Wigan team still occupy the final relegation place, Pulis must shake his head in disbelief. Since the summer of 2009, when Martinez was appointed, Pulis' Stoke have finished above Wigan every time: a margin of five places and 11 points that first season, three places and four points in 2010-2011 and one place and two points last season.
Yet Martinez's teams play the more interesting, if less successful, football and it is Martinez who is invited to be a pundit on Match of the Day and approached for the Liverpool job. All the same, managers like Pulis were brought up to believe that it is a results business.
The hard-as-nails son of a South Wales steelworker, Pulis once, in arguably his most revealing interview, outlined the philosophy that has shaped his career. When he left Newport as a 16-year-old to take an apprenticeship at Bristol Rovers he said, "I told myself then that I was never going back to that life.
"I just thought this is my chance and I wanted to take it," he added. "And after playing I was lucky enough to be guided into coaching. My attitude has always been to make the most of it, and I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world. Every day is Christmas Day."
In many respects that kind of approach, admirable though it is, was fitting for the start of Stoke's story in the Premier League. But convincing supporters to regard survival as the fulfilment of a dream every season becomes a harder and harder sell. They want to see progress.
That is not unreasonable. That is just the way people are.
New scarf an example of half-hearted fan support
It is not yet an epidemic but at Old Trafford they may need to call in the doctors soon. The half-and-half scarf, AKA the "friendship scarf" brigade are growing by the game. I first noticed the number of them – scarves split in the colours of the two teams playing that day – before the Manchester derby. They were out in force yesterday. It is a grim indictment of the new breed of football fan.
The word on the lips of all managers? Paranoia
The current practice of managers talking behind their hands to players and staff is thought to have begun because television networks in Italy were employing lip-readers. Anyone who attended the trial of John Terry on race abuse charges in June will know that lip-reading is so inexact that there is no professional standard or qualifications. In fact, you would be hard pushed to prove anything, definitively. But don't let that stop the paranoia.
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