By Neal Hepworth, writing from Middlesbrough
If Stoke City make it to the FA Cup final this season will it be at the expense of their Premier League status? It’s something i can relate to fully, having watched Middlesbrough make it to both domestic cup finals during the 1996/7 only to be relegated at the end of the season (in an admittedly controversial manner). They sit comfortably near the bottom of the form table with just one win in six and have struggled to arrest a slide which leaves them just 3 points above the relegation spaces in an increasingly tight league.
Realistically, Stoke City’s success in securing their Premier League status should be celebrated, they leave you under no pretensions as to the quality of their play. Their ‘win by any means neccessary’ is what has allowed them to become an established Premier League club on a small budget, and the discipline displayed on the field is something perennial ‘yoyo clubs’ such as Wolves would do well to take note of. Yet this outlook appeared to be on the brink of change at the beginning of the season. Tuncay, Jermaine Pennant and Eidur Gudjohnsen along with ‘franchise player’ Matthew Etherington showed hints of a brand of football far removed from the much maligned Rory Delap era. Their first few seasons of consolidation looked to be moving to a realm of better football, better results and more enjoyment for everyone involved. There were even whispers of Europe League places making their way across the terraces.
By January however Tuncay and Gudjohnsen had been replaced with Kenwyne Jones (an admittedly quality, if injury prone, centre forward) and John Carew, adding to the already one-dimensional attacking front of Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller. All fine players if your tactics are to pump balls into the box in the hope of snatching a goal but equally it’s the kind of play which results in Robert Huth being your top goalscorer for the season. Playing ugly is a fine idea if you’re going to win, but those points are essential to the equation, should your team begin to play ugly and lose it can quickly begin a downward spiral. This kind of freefall is difficult to arrest without the aid of quality, flair players, especially if those same players are now plying their trade for other clubs.
Stoke has struggled to field it’s two wingers, and arguably two best players, on the field at the same time and with no quality on the bench to replace them their game has relied on being more physical than their opponents. A trip to Wembley against a rejuvenated Bolton Wanderers team should help to calm the sections of grumbling fans, yet Owen Coyle’s side should serve as a lesson in the kind of football that can be achieved even with a small budget. The Trotters fans have seen a massive improvement in quality this season, even briefly occupying a Champions league place in the early stages, anathema to the ills of Gary Megson and long-ball tactics. For clubs like Stoke and Carling Cup winners Birmingham City, this balancing act of quality and solidarity is a common one. Which footballing philosophy, wins out remains to be seen.
While the Potters sit in that all too familiar mid-table fans remain in a limbo becoming increasingly common for clubs of their size; desperately wanting their team to push onto that next level whilst looking warily over their shoulder at the threat of relegation. A cup run represents tangible progress, however many fans will be hoping that it doesn’t come at the expense of improved football or their valuable position in the Premier League.