Old hand prompting the Potters

Tonight's derby is special for Mike Pejic, the Stoke City coach. Phil Shaw reports
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Anyone doubting the enduring power of parochialism in football need look no further than Stoke-on-Trent, that cluster of communities in search of a city. Mike Pejic played in a League Cup final, three FA Cup semi-finals, in Europe and for England, yet still regrets that he never appeared in a "proper" Potteries derby.

A quarter of a century has elapsed since Pejic, now 46 and coach to Stoke City, first patrolled the left side of the Potters' defence. At times, they were the length of the league ahead of Port Vale; stylish porcelain to Vale's plain earthenware. But even then, when either dropped in on the neighbours, the crockery flew.

"There was an end-of-season match at Stoke in 1970, but you couldn't call it a friendly," recalled Pejic, whose own tackling could demolish a china shop. "Vale won 3-2 and it was a bit spicy. There were a few stitches flying about that night."

He left Stoke for Everton seven years later, since when the gap between the local rivals has narrowed to the point where they meet regularly. Vale, indeed, have won the last two meetings on enemy soil, although there is more than tribal honour at stake at Vale Park tonight.

Stoke, fourth in the First Division, need the points in their push for the Premiership; Vale, 23rd, need the points to avoid falling perhaps two divisions behind them. Pejic, who ironically did much in tandem with John Rudge to challenge the status quo, will be alongside Lou Macari in the visitors' dug-out. He might well have spent the evening on the other side of the world.

After six years with Vale came to a "sour" end, which he has contested in court with initial success, Pejic had a spell in Kuwait and a stint as manager of impoverished Chester. Last September, he was within days of starting work as director of coaching for the state of Victoria when the call came from the Victoria Ground.

"I'm not saying I wouldn't have turned down Australia for any other club," he said, "but it would have had to be something very special. Stoke had a massive emotional pull for me because I came here from the age of five with my dad. It's in the heart."

Soon after Pejic's homecoming, with Stoke struggling through an opening sequence of three wins in 14 games, the staff were summoned to a meeting. "There were problems with a certain group of players and the atmosphere within the club wasn't right," he said. "Lou asked for our opinions and we gave them.

"He then made major decisions which sorted out the difficult players. One went and the others were isolated. It showed that the staff were united and meant business."

The subsequent upturn has left Stoke better placed to regain their position in the top division than at any time since their dismal departure in 1985. Macari's teams tend to be portrayed as the antithesis of the sublimely skilled veterans who graced the stripes under Tony Waddington. Pejic, the link between the eras, argues that comparisons are ill-conceived.

"The game has changed so much in terms of rules, tactics and systems of play. We had great artists in the '70s side, but sometimes under-achieved. There's a real drive, a sense of purpose about the place now.

"When I played we had a back four of local lads - myself, Jack Marsh, Denis Smith and Alan Bloor - with Gordon Banks behind us organising everything. But in midfield and up front we played it very much off the cuff. It was almost a team of two halves."

That experience, while by no means turning him against flair, prompted Pejic's interest in coaching. Between jobs he has been in demand with the FA and is a devotee of Don Howe, whose dour image he calls "ridiculous". Macari, a kindred spirit, shares his standards on fitness and discipline.

"Lou works the players very hard. His thinking is that if they can't work or run, they're a waste of time. I'd say he did his homework on me in that respect."

It is a mistake, Pejic insists, to confuse their common outlook with an adherence to the long-ball game. As in the case of Howe, he feels public perceptions are simplistic. Macari may like to get the ball forward quickly, but once it is in the final third he prefers small, mobile forwards who are good at creating and exploiting space to big target men.

First there was Mark Stein, then Paul Peschisolido, now Mike Sheron and Simon Sturridge - all players in their manager's image. Sheron came from Norwich before Christmas in exchange for a striker already loaned to a Second Division club. Sturridge is a refugee from Barry Fry's revolving doors at Birmingham, which also provided Stoke's creative hub, Nigel Gleghorn.

Even if Macari wanted to spend, the club are pounds 3m in debt, playing to an average gate of 11,600 in an area ravaged by recession, and planning a new stadium. In the foreseeable future, they have little choice other than to rely on the talent currently available to them.

Premiership status would, of course, make refinancing imperative. As Pejic points out, such thoughts are premature with nearly a third of this season left. Stoke face three other teams in the top six before the end of March, not to mention tonight's confrontation.

As a summariser with BBC Radio Stoke, he was able to "scout" Vale in the FA Cup ties with Everton and Leeds, being impressed if undaunted. While Rudge's men have a Wembley date in the Anglo-Italian Cup final next Sunday, Pejic is sure the pressure and pride will concentrate their minds.

"I was involved with Vale when the derbies started again in '89. The build-up was very exciting and the players were certainly aware of what it meant to the supporters."

Which, according to Pejic, is an unusually localised partisanship. "When I played for Everton against Liverpool in the semi-final, I remember cars with scarves of both teams hanging out. You'd never see that in the Potteries."

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