Macari relying on his work ethic

Phil Shaw talks to the Stoke manager preparing his side for tonight's visit by Arsenal
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The Independent Online
The dark satanic kilns which once turned the Potteries skyline black will soon be followed into oblivion by Stoke City's home of 113 years. Lou Macari is confident that the Victoria Ground will not go quietly.

The decibel level tonight, when Macari's team take on Arsenal in the Coca-Cola Cup, promises to be high even by Stoke's vociferous standards. For the London club's new manager, Arsene Wenger, the Boothen End in full cry could be quite a culture shock after the all-seated sophistication of Monaco and Japan.

The Frenchman will experience the partisanship of one of the British game's last great terraces just in time. Next spring, the bulldozers will obliterate whatever is left after the crush barriers and plastic pews have been stripped for souvenirs. Stoke, founded during the Industrial Revolution, will start the following season in a 21st- century citadel half a mile away.

The new stadium, to accommodate 28,000, is rising against a backdrop of controversy in the parochial world of the Six Towns. Will debt-stricken Stoke be able to meet their share of the pounds 16m cost? Should the city council be putting up two-thirds of that sum? (Port Vale fans are adamant it should not). And why is Tony Blair pencilled in to perform the opening ceremony when Sir Stanley Matthews is president of the club and of supporters' hearts?

Macari, in his second spell at Stoke after an ill-starred sojourn with Celtic, is surprisingly low-key about it all. "I doubt it will make much difference to me," the Stoke manager said, "although it might help by attracting more business money to the club.

"My only concern is whether it's going to help the team. I sometimes wonder whether it will because we've got an intimidating little atmosphere at Stoke which I just hope isn't going to be sacrificed by having an all-seater with the spectators further away."

While his chairman, Peter Coates, is often accused of lacking ambition, the rapport between Macari and Stoke's followers is strong. The former Scottish international, now 47, describes them as "a reasonably easy support to please".

"All they ask is value for money from their players," he said. "They want to see them grafting because this is a working-class area. They've got no time for big-time charlies and we haven't really got any."

The opposite was once true of Stoke. The late Tony Waddington, under whom Stoke won their only major trophy (the League Cup 25 seasons ago), called football "the working man's ballet". From the second coming of Matthews through George Eastham to Alan Hudson, he collected artists with dancing feet.

"Most teams had that type of individual in the Sixties, but they're all gone now," Macari said. "Stoke on Trent isn't the place it was either. There's much more unemployment, so people won't pay out their hard-earned cash if they're not convinced that you're giving your all."

Stoke's work ethic is likely to raise knowing smirks at Celtic, where Macari reputedly had the likes of Charlie Nicholas hoofing the ball high before sprinting to head it on the bounce. Yet their capacity to "grind out results", a phrase he uses without qualms, earned them fourth place in the First Division last season.

They lost to Leicester in the play-offs, and Macari admits he feared "big, big trouble" when three out of contract "leader figures" were among six first-teamers who left during the summer. Despite bedding in five newcomers, effectively bought for pounds 30,000, Stoke's presence among the promotion pack had pleasantly surprised him prior to Saturday's freakish 4-0 home defeat by Sheffield United.

"In the past, players we've brought in from other clubs have found it difficult to settle in right away, due to the fact that we like exceptionally hard grafters who are going to fly about for 90 minutes. It's hard to find that kind of player from a club like Tottenham or Chelsea, where they tend to go in to training and say: `Let's knock the ball around'."

Gerry McMahon, a winger from Spurs, and Graham Kavanagh, a midfielder squeezed out at Middlesbrough by Brazilians, have adapted well to a more rigorous regime. Their arrival also belies the idea that Stoke are a one- dimensional team who put a low premium on skill.

However, if any player embodies the benefits of allying work rate to ability it is Mike Sheron. Macari could not understand how a striker who had scored regularly in the Premiership as a "raw kid" with Manchester City was unable to turn greater experience into goals at a lower level for Norwich.

Sheron has scored 25 times in 39 starts since Stoke swapped him for Keith Scott, whose tally for Norwich is three. The transformation is no mystery to his manager: "Mike would be the first to admit he's a lot fitter than when he arrived. When you're in peak condition, it always gives you a start on your opponent."

Although the third-round tie may prove an ear and eye-opener for Wenger, an Arsenal side containing two former Stoke stalwarts, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould, know what to expect. Macari would prefer to be playing "someone with a bit of a soft touch about them", rather than the resilient band lying second in the Premiership, but he draws hope from precedent.

"We beat Manchester United at home in this competition and put out Chelsea last year. Everything went right for us on those occasions, and I do believe that has to happen if we're to bridge the gap. But if we run our socks off, and 19,000 of our fans make life uncomfortable for them, anything could happen."

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