The view Tony Pulis had on the final whistle was of banks of empty seats with barely a quorum left to boo his team off.
The Britannia Stadium, Stoke City’s great fortress, the club’s insurance against relegation, was deserted. Before a game that he knew would be critical, the manager talked of the need for a “kind of national service”. Now, with a solitary Premier League win in 2013, he will have to mobilise for a fight to save the club he has transformed.
Aston Villa, who began the weekend as the more likely of these two Midlands sides to go down, should not have had to rely on one of the goals of the season from Matthew Lowton, the full-back, for their 3-1 victory. The margin of their superiority was sometimes ridiculous.
Stoke are the polar opposite of Wigan. Their season seems to stop in January and the previous two have seen them drift down from eighth at the turn of the year to 14th. They were 14th when Mark Clattenburg’s whistle sounded and may go lower.
Pulis accepted that Stoke are now clear candidates for relegation. He said he had his opinion on why Stoke keep faltering once a season goes into its second half but “now was not the time for excuses”. However, he admitted there was a lack of confidence seized his side once Villa scored. Thereafter, Stoke were something they have never been under Pulis. They were incompetent.
Both Stoke’s results – one clean sheet in almost four months – and a fixture list – they finish with games against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – are causes for concern. “The league table does not look too good,” said Stoke’s keeper, Asmir Begovic.
“We realise we are in a dogfight. We have been in this position before and, hopefully, the spirit of the club will take us through. But it is going to be difficult. We have six tough games to go and nobody will give us anything. That is the way it is. People always panic and look for the worst but in our dressing room and, more importantly, in our manager we have good characters who are going to stand up and fight.”
There are many who think that after 11 years in the Potteries, separated by the forgettable interregnum of Johan Boskamp, the end of the season would be a natural time for Pulis to take his leave.
His disciplined, physical brand of football now looks exhausted. But Pulis has known worse times, not least his first season when dragging Stoke clear of the old Third Division. He has carried them a long way and this is no time to be letting go.
Bookings: Stoke Shotton, Shawcross, Adam. Villa Agbonlahor.
Man of the match Lowton.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Stoke 46%. Villa 54%.
Attempts on target: Stoke 3. Villa 6.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne and Wear).
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