Promotion Tales: Stoke City's Premier League Journey
Until the weekend, the bottom three places in this season’s Premier League were occupied by the three promoted clubs from last season and there is little doubt that negotiating the chasm is a perilous business with the financial and sporting learning curve proving too much for many. This week, we present five case studies of teams promoted to the competition after a considerable gap or, in some cases, for the first time ever – and how the writer in question reacted to the experience of promotion and its aftermath on a personal level in each case.
Fortunes have varied – for Bradford City, the experience was initially branded a ‘fairy tale’ before it became clear that the Brothers Grimm at their most warped must surely have been behind it; for Blackpool, the thrill of elevation also endured, albeit more fleetingly; while for Brian McDermott’s Reading, a failure to chalk up a win until November foreshadowed the worst. We’ll also look at the Leicester City of this season, experiencing a torrid autumn after an auspicious start; but first, we’ll take a look at an exception that might just prove the rule. When Stoke City were unexpectedly promoted in 2008, few would have predicted that six years on, the club would be sitting comfortably established in the division with Arsenal blown away on a chilly December afternoon.
The promise from the club’s new owners that a new ‘golden age’ was dawning at Stoke was greeted in summer 2006 with suspicion, scepticism and outright scoffing from many sections of their long-suffering support. Such cynicism was understandable. Every decade in the club’s recent history had seen prophecies of success invariably foreshadowing disaster. The 80s had ended with Mick Mills embarking on an unprecedented spending spree for a Potters manager. Stoke were relegated. Chris Kamara, before finding his niche as the avuncular uncle of football punditry, landed in the Britannia hotseat in the late 90s and vowed to take the club into the Premier League. Stoke were relegated. Exile from the top flight was nearing the quarter-century mark, and during these wilderness years the once-proud name of Stoke City had become synonymous with farce. The half-empty white elephant of a stadium that had replaced the beloved, historic Victoria Ground had played host to 0-7 and 0-8 reverses; cup humiliations at the hands of minnows were commonplace; and managerial slapstick reigned, be it Steve Cotterill’s midnight flit to become Howard Wilkinson’s butler at Sunderland (an exit so hasty, he managed to lock his keys inside his company car) to Johan Boskamp falling out with his assistant and director of football over notes exchanged in the dugout. Was this a football club, or St. Trinians?
The takeover brought back two pariahs, and the idea that they would be the ones to restore Stoke’s glory days was fanciful. The perception of new owner Peter Coates during his first stint as chairman during the 1990s was that of a vampiric asset-stripper. Coates’ choice of manager meanwhile, was one Anthony Richard Pulis, whose previous spell in charge had brought some of the dullest football ever slept through in ST4 – including a ‘binary’ sequence of results (1-0, 0-0 or 0-1) that stretched for five months.
Hopes were not high in August 2007, but a bright enough start to the campaign was made and Pulis’ men were soon hovering around the top six. Fans waited for the customary collapse. Even as Stoke kept winning, the prevailing feeling was that the fall was coming, that the natural way of things would inevitably be restored, that reality – common sense even – would gatecrash the party. Stoke went 3-0 up inside half an hour at Bramall Lane. They demolished champions-to-be West Brom. They went to pre-season title favourites Wolves and put four past them. Yet even as April rolled around it was difficult to shake the feeling that this was all very un-Stoke City. Captain Buzzkill was surely changing in a phonebox, waiting for the call…
In hindsight, that lack of faith did a disservice to Tony Pulis and his team. Despite having a very healthy transfer budget to play with, courtesy of Coates’ Bet 365 ship coming in, Pulis’ secret was to imbue the side with every corny lower league understudy going. Opposing managers and fans chose to focus on the negative side of that coin – the size and physicality, the set piece reliance, the long ball, the long throw – but the real story was that this Stoke team had apparently learned all their lessons from every intelligence-insulting Hollywood sports movie ever made, from Seabiscuit to the Mighty Ducks. It was all about heart, hard work, team spirit, and old stagers coming back for one last shot at the big time.
More often than not, the players Pulis targeted were perceived to be on their way to the scrap heap, but under his care, they became better players than they’d ever been. Ricardo Fuller had flopped on the south coast with Portsmouth and Southampton and reportedly had a knee that would never pass a conventional medical. Pulis rolled the dice and for half a million quid got a magician, a talisman and a focal point who plucked goals from the ether and carried the side’s attacking threat on his shoulders. Liam Lawrence had been bombed out of Sunderland after pursuing an interest in amateur film making with several teammates and a young lady. With Pulis’ backing, he went from poor man’s Ron Jeremy to the Championship’s David Beckham, combining tirelessness and tenacity with consistently immaculate delivery and an eye for the spectacular – and walking off with the division’s player of the season award. Rory Delap arrived on loan and broke his leg on his debut. Stoke honoured their agreement to sign him anyway, and their gesture was rewarded by a savvy old campaigner who kept cool when the pressure kicked in, and possessed an incredible weapon in the long throw that none of his prior employers thought to harness. Within 18 months, he went from Championship reserve to the opening credits of Match of the Day, receiving fan mail from all over the world.
That flinty core of experienced professionals meant that a club with a penchant for on-field cowardice throughout the past decade suddenly had bigger cojones than Andre the Giant. 28 points were salvaged from losing positions, and ‘binary’ Pulis’ men were the Championship’s top scorers, with the centre-backs alone bagging 15 between them.
Naturally, there were wobbles when the first bums began to squeak. The promotion picture was populated by clubs unaccustomed to such dizzying heights – Hull and Bristol City matched Stoke most of the way – and each managed to squander their advantage to cement their spot at the top. Just when the Potters’ challenge looked set to decisively falter however, a pair of miracles got them over the line. The crocked Lawrence’s appearance off the bench at Coventry, with Stoke trailing, appeared no more than a crude ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ moment, propping up the star man and waving his arms around in the hope it would rally the troops. Instead, the man himself popped up to knock in a late winner before bouncing to the disbelieving away end, shirtless, shoulder-strapped and frenzied, Mansfield’s answer to Iggy Pop. A week later in the mother of all six pointers, Bristol City were despatched thanks to a brace from important but non-scoring striker Mama Sidibe (two goals in his previous 30 starts).
On the morning of 4th May 2008, Stoke City required just one point to return to the top flight of English football for the first time since 1985. It’s all hazy now – like Woodstock, if you can remember it, you weren’t there. It was a day of drinking whisky in the pub at 8:30 in the morning to still the nerves, ahead of a jittery, anticlimactic 0-0 that promoted Stoke and relegated Leicester. The afternoon was best summed up by a shambolic, premature pitch invasion, interlopers in fancy dress being effed and very much jeffed at by a frantic Pulis in the longest moments of his life as a forlorn Mr Blobby tried to slink off unnoticed. It was yet more evidence that we just don’t know how to celebrate in this city…but celebrate we did, for most of the summer.
Battered at Bolton in their first Premier League game and written off by pundits and tediously ‘banterous’ bookmakers alike, Stoke instead got stronger. The six seasons of comfortable mid-table finishes that followed, with a cup final and European football thrown in, owed much to Coates’ continued investment, but ultimately what kept Stoke there was what got them there – the Pulis blueprint. It was down to spirit, industry and the dogs’ home transfer policy of rescuing waifs and strays, with Matthew Etherington in particular proving the poster boy for the unwanted, unloved faded force given a new lease of life in red and white stripes.
Ironically, the more money they spent, the less Stoke-like they ultimately became, and it is the expensive players who have tended to disappoint, like Dave Kitson (£5m), Tuncay (£5m), Kenwyne Jones (£8m) and Wilson Palacios (£6m). It was only when Pulis lost sight of the qualities that made his football work that divorce, painful though it was, became necessary.
It’s easy to become blasé seven years on, but though the club occasionally shows worrying signs that some of the league’s stomach-turning excesses have rubbed off (the support shown for Greg Dyke’s B Team idea was horrifying), for the most part its identity and connection with the support remains intact, with year upon year of season ticket freezes and free coach travel laid on for away games.
Your correspondent is of a generation that had resigned itself to never seeing their team play in the top flight. Wembley meant the Auto Windscreens Trophy. Europe meant the Anglo-Italian Cup. The novelty is yet to wear off. For all its sins, the Premier League has given Stoke – as a football club, as a city – its pride back. And we thought it had gone for good.