Unexpected rivalries 4: Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion
The top two teams in the Midlands meet on Saturday.
That in itself should mean a game with plenty of seasonal spice – only there are other reasons why matches between West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City have a particularly feisty edge.
It’s partly down to the astonishing hoodoo one team has over the other; their 20-year league record reads: Played 26, Stoke wins 18, draws 8, West Brom wins 2 (and one of those in the last meeting, in January).
It’s also down to the two clubs’ very contrasting styles of play: Albion fans ridicule Stoke’s physical football; the Potters feel the Baggies have high-minded and unrealistic ideals about how the game should be played, dubbing them ‘West Brazil’.
Close geographical proximity and healthy away followings have also added atmosphere to the fixture, not to mention the two clubs frequently finding themselves in the same division, either fighting for promotion or against relegation.
But the roots of this rivalry lie two decades ago, when both West Brom and Stoke were at the lowest ebb in their history, languishing in the old third division, a far cry from their present day status.
Third rate football
When clubs who are accustomed to life in the top tier find themselves in the third, strange things can happen to their support.
Crowds often rise with the novelty of a promotion challenge. Similarly, away followings swell, helped by the novelty of occasionally outnumbering home fans.
And matches against similar fallen giants take on exaggerated importance – crucial in the promotion race, but also a rare chance to see the away end filled and experience a decent atmosphere.
The atmosphere can often get a little too heady for some. After West Brom’s relegation to the third division in 1991, they found themselves up against Stoke and Birmingham City in the promotion mix, and matches between the three were invariably incendiary.
Only Blues went up though, and it was during the following season, 1992/93, that the Albion-Stoke rivalry became defined.
Stoke manager Lou Macari had built a robust and direct team which looked well equipped for the rough and tumble of the English third tier.
Albion had tried a similar approach under Bobby Gould, but his tactics had appalled supporters, and he was sacked in the summer of 1992. His replacement, Argentine World Cup winner Osvaldo Ardiles, had a footballing philosophy that was the polar opposite of Macari’s.
Purist versus pragmatist
Playing elegant, attacking football, Ardiles’ men blew away their opposition during the first five weeks of the season, recording six wins and a draw from their opening seven games. It put them top, and 12 points clear of main promotion rivals Stoke, their next opponents, at the Victoria Ground.
In a thrilling game, the lead changing hands three times, but two goals in the last 10 minutes won it for the Potters 4-3.
It kick-started their season. So much so that when the two teams next met in January, Stoke were clear at the top of the table, seven points ahead of West Brom.
The game at The Hawthorns was watched by almost 30,000 fans, the biggest third division crowd since the 1970s.
As with the previous game, Albion looked good with the ball on the floor, and scored the game’s best goal through Bob Taylor, but two set piece goals from Nigel Gleghorn and Mark Stein won it for Stoke.
To complete the Baggies’ misery, they lost a third time to the Potters that season in an Autoglass Trophy tie at the Victoria Ground, the injury time winner coming from Stein again.
In the event, both teams were promoted in May – Stoke as champions, Albion via the play-offs – but the two would experience little further joy in the 1990s.
Stoke were relegated back to the third tier in 1998, but with their 10-year unbeaten league record against the Baggies intact.
Albion nearly followed them through the trapdoor two years later, in a season that would be a turning point in the club’s fortunes. A new chairman had arrived in Paul Thompson, and one of his acts was to appoint ex-Stoke boss Gary Megson as new manager.
The noughties revival
Megson’s miraculous turnaround of Albion has been charted elsewhere on this site.
But a couple of points are worth mentioning.
First, Megson’s approach to the beautiful game was closer to Lou Macari than to Ossie Ardiles.
Second, during 2003/04, after Albion had dropped back into the second tier, they would record what is, at the time of writing, their only home league win over the Potters in 24 years.
Stoke fans have, with no little glee, been quick to point out that this anomaly occurred while the Baggies were managed by a man with a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to football.
By the second half of the nougties, flush with new investment and managed by another manager from the Macari school in Tony Pulis, a revival was underway at Stoke. They ended their 23-year top-flight absence in May 2008, finishing runners up in the Championship behind West Brom.
Again there was a marked contrast between the styles of the two teams, with Albion managed by the purist ideals of Tony Mowbray. Unfortunately, while Mogga’s brand of tikka-takka could be pretty to watch, there was little end product. Albion finished bottom of the Premier League the next season, doubled by Stoke, who scared the hell out of the whole league with their team of giants and Rory Delap’s siege gun throw.
The two clubs now find themselves in the unaccustomed position of being relatively well-established the top flight.
But will the rivarly endure?
For Stoke fans, it still seems to have an edge. Perhaps it’s not surprising with Port Vale seemingly doomed to the lower divisions. Recent seasons have seen the emergence of the West Brazil nickname, boisterous behaviour on visits to The Hawthorns, and a t-shirt celebrating the long running hoodoo.
But the hoodoo would end – the away hoodoo anyway. In January, Graham Dorrans’ late free-kick gave the Baggies their first win at Stoke in nearly three decades.
Another win on Saturday, and some of the heat may start to drain out of the rivalry, from an Albion perspective. Particularly as old enemies Aston Villa are back in the Baggies’ sights.
One thing’s for sure. With 20 internationals on the pitch, an all seater stadium, and highlights on Match of the Day, the game this weekend will seem a long way away from those games in the third division that began the rivalry, two decades ago.
Author’s note: Thanks to everyone who has corrected me on the Stoke goal scorers in the January 1993 game: Gleghorn and Stein, not Cranson and Russell as indicated originally. Also, the Stoke winner in the Autoglass tie was from a cross not a set piece. Apologies – the memory isn’t what it was.