Stoke's best run since 19th century not good enough for Pulis' critics
The Weekend Dossier: There is a feeling Pulis may walk away if he feels the fans are not as supportive
Last season Nigel Adkins and Brian McDermott won promotion to the Premier League while Paul Sturrock, a year after taking over a relegated club with just enough players to field a five-a-side team, lost in the promotion play-offs. This season all three have been sacked. As many a manager has found, the problem with success is that raised expectations become impossible to meet.
The two men in the dugouts at Goodison Park tomorrow know the feeling. David Moyes is on course to steer Everton to their ninth top-eight finish in 11 years at the helm but there is increasing discontent among supporters at the team's inability to take the next step and win a trophy. Tony Pulis is facing the flak, too, despite overseeing Stoke's most successful period since Tony Waddington reigned at the Victoria Ground four decades ago.
Even Waddington, who led Stoke to their only trophy with the League Cup in 1972, did not finish among the top 14 clubs in the country four seasons in succession, as they have done since Pulis lifted them into the Premier League. The last time that happened was in the 19th century.
"Fans' expectations are growing all the time," said Pulis recently. "It's not just this club, that's the way the world's going. If you're given steak and chips every day, steak and chips becomes the norm."
Not so long ago it was tripe being served up in the Potteries. City were in the third tier as recently as 11 seasons ago. Prior to the current regime they had not been in the top flight since 1985 – when they were ignominiously relegated with 17 points from 42 matches.
The response from some fans is that it is horsemeat masquerading as steak which is being served up now, with Robert Huth hoofing the ball. It is true that Stoke play a more direct game than most in the Premier League, and their games are generally low-scoring, but few at the Britannia minded when Stoke were first promoted. Indeed, there was a defiant defence of their style with supporters singing the rugby anthem "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" when Arsenal visited, in response to Arsène Wenger's description of them as a "rugby team".
In fact, by historic standards they are a short-passing team. Never mind the 1980s, when the far more direct football of Wimbledon and Watford reigned, as recently as 2007 most teams played a higher percentage of long passes than Stoke this season.
What has changed is fans' perception of how a team should play, a mood shift led by Barcelona and Spain. So while Stoke do pass the ball sideways at times – "We had spells when we couldn't get the ball off them," said Crystal Palace manager Ian Holloway of the club's recent FA Cup tie – they play longer than is fashionable. Plus Stoke fans now want more than mere survival in the Premier League, they want entertainment and goals too. Who can blame them at Premier League admission prices (even at Stoke where adult tickets are a reasonable £25-35)?
"The supporters of this football club will be supporters all their lives and you have to accept criticism," said Pulis. "If they pay their money, you have to accept they have the right to say what they think, whether you think it's right or wrong."
What has sparked the current wave of criticism is not, however, the quality of football but the quality of results. Eighth at the turn of the year, when they came from 3-1 and a man down to draw with Southampton, Stoke have since taken five points from 10 games, scoring six goals in the process. Pulis has made personnel changes in this run to little avail. It has been suggested that opponents have "worked Stoke out" and that they miss Rory Delap's long throws, but they are not so one-dimensional for either factor to be crucial.
Pulis has suggested the problem is simply a loss of confidence and lack of service to the strikers. A team that finds goals as hard to come by as Stoke is always vulnerable when self-belief dips but it may need arresting soon. They are seven points clear of the drop but have a tricky run-in.
City fans with long memories know how quickly a club can slide. Tony Waddington's golden team, featuring Alan Hudson, Peter Shilton, Geoff Hurst, Jimmy Greenhoff, Mike Pejic and Denis Smith finished fifth two years on the trot and came close to winning the title in 1975, but had to sell to fund repairs after the stand roof blew down and were relegated in 1977.
The playing budget is again a factor. Pulis's expertise has been readily backed in transfer fees and wages sanctioned by chairman Peter Coates, but as there is a limited amount that can be squeezed from an economically depressed area this has required subsidies from the gambling tycoon, not least because Pulis tends to sign experienced players with low resale value and, in some cases, high wages.
Coates wants to reduce the club's reliance on his largesse, and backed the Premier League's recent move to restrain wages. A Potteries native, he is keen to bring young players through the club's academy but that may take time. Of the current squad, only Ryan Shotton (24) and Andy Wilkinson (28) have come from the youth ranks and while Stoke's academy has Category One status, the Under-21s are struggling in the new set-up: losing 16 and winning two of 19 matches this season.
There is a feeling that Pulis, who has commuted from the family home in Bournemouth throughout seven years at Stoke, may walk away at the end of the season if he feels the club and fans are not as supportive as they were, though today he insisted he would stay and "fight my corner". If he does quit, the 55-year-old will be a hard act to replace. Waddington is a legend in the Potteries but Stoke's average top-flight finishing position under him was 13th, the same as under Pulis.
As he said of recent criticism: "People look at Sir Alf Ramsey now as probably the best England manager ever. But at the time he was doing the job, even he was getting dog's abuse."
That was, of course, after Sir Alf had won the World Cup thereby raising expectations to a level neither he nor any of his successors have been able to match.
Who from NextGen side will make Chelsea's first-team?
Chelsea's Under-19s looked impressive as they defeated Arsenal yesterday to reach Monday's NextGen Series final, but how many of those bright young men will become first team regulars? Prior to kick-off Josh McEachran, who was Chelsea's next big thing himself at 17 but, three years later, is on loan at Middlesbrough, pointed out that the club's ludicrous turnover of managers was detrimental to the development of players. Granted the standard required is extremely high, but the progress of Johnny Evans, Tom Cleverly and Danny Welbeck at Old Trafford shows players can be brought through in the right environment.
Country always wins over club, except in England
Roberto Mancini's anger at Belgium for playing Vincent Kompany is understandable, but Premier League managers must have realised by now that is one of the risks inherent in signing foreign players. History shows the only manager who can be bullied into resting players is England's – whatever his identity.
It's a team game – unless you happen to be Pope
At Sunday's Football League Awards Tom Pope was asked, after winning League Two Player of the Year, why Port Vale's promotion challenge had stuttered. "Because I've dried up," he said without pause. Pope's sense of perspective doubtless helped him as he grabbed a hat-trick yesterday to get Vale back on track.
Young Player Ince is a real chip off the old block
The Football League's Young Player of the Year was Blackpool's Tom Ince. Afterwards he spoke eloquently about sharing a house with and following in the footsteps of his boss/father Paul, coming across as a very impressive young man, and a credit to his family regardless of his ability. He should go far.
Women Gunners deserve a share of the limelight
Congratulations to Arsenal Ladies, who moved into the last four of the Champions League in midweek. They now play Wolfsburg of Germany, with the home leg on 13 April. This will probably be at their usual home, Ryman League Borehamwood. The same day Arsenal men play Norwich City at the Emirates. Arsenal Under-19s played on the first-team pitch on Monday, so why not put the Ladies on after that match to give them the setting, and support, they deserve?
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