Sunday 26 May 2013

The Last Days Of Tone.

Often those nearest to a situation are the first to realise that something is wrong and few visitors to the Britannia Stadium in 2013 could fail to sense that Tony Pulis, perennial runner up behind Sir Alex Ferguson in the "most secure manager" stakes, was a dead man walking.

The purchase of a footballing, "pass first and pass often" midfielder in Steven N'Zonzi had merely whetted the appetite for a more pleasing and less risk averse football of the type often displayed by visiting teams to the Potteries, but hardly ever from the hosts. The heady "all in it together" days of 2008, when news of newly promoted Stoke's "relegation" reached me while watching county cricket at Derby after a mere 45 minutes of the season had elapsed were long forgotten as Pulis struggled to implement the long promised change in footballing direction.

0-3 to Bolton at halftime at the Reebok, was sufficient evidence for Irish bookmaker Paddy Power to pay out on Stoke's certain demise. Once in real money and once in mint flavoured ice cream by way of apology as City comfortably avoided the drop by finishing above their opening day conquerors.

The methods Pulis used have been well chronicled here. Super efficient, (by virtue of their shot origin) but relatively rare finishing and a team committed to defence, (mostly without the ball) was a small price to pay for keeping a mid table Championship side, at best in the top flight. Suddenly, "long throw" no longer immediately conjured up long forgotten footage of Ian Hutchinson's windmill arms.

If cloth was initially cut accordingly, the promise of a three (later four) year plan to play more expansive football was mooted. Team's with limited resources, aims and ultimately achievements often gather most of their points in low scoring encounters, whereas those of grander ambitions display a more rounded ability by gathering greater proportions of their points in higher scoring contests. And as such Stoke's first, memorable taste of home Premiership football was a sham. A 3-2 win over Villa contained typical Potteries goals, one from a set piece (a penalty), one from Ricardo Fuller's rare individualism and an injury time winner via a six yard header from a long throw. But winning points in high scoring affairs was never part of the initial game plan.

Stoke's points gathering profile was stuck firmly in the typical rut of a team destined perennially for the bottom five places, although it was testament to Pulis' implementation of his extreme brand of football, that he never once finished as low as this. Only once, in 2010/11 and including a run to the cup final, did Stoke's exciting, dual wing play lift their points scoring profile closer to the midtable levels that they were actually achieving. A seasonal quest for safety now came with a few pleasing extras.

 Adam and Crouch prepare to Implement Plan A one last time.
However, the source of Pulis' initial success proved the downfall of his greater ambitions. The Premiership is unforgiving especially outside the top six, where random fortune can see almost any side relegated. It is not an arena where change, especially dramatic change can be easily applied. The purchase of more quality and the change to a more pass orientated style, showed willingness, but Pulis is rightfully proud of a record that has never seen his sides relegated and ultimately, when points became hard to come by, the cage won out over the more elegant pass and go.

N'zonzi passed like a "normal" Premiership midfielder ( see Devin's Opta post), was voted Stoke's young player of the year and promptly asked to leave. Tony Pulis, however, beat him to the door, but not before maintaining his record of keeping sides afloat in their chosen division. Fittingly, the random element in football favoured the Welshman in this last difficult season as Charlie Adam, an upgrade with no real role, scored a paltry three goals, but scored each one in 1-0 home wins. Three became nine and Stoke survived in 13th, but with the points gathering profile of a bottom five side. Back to the beginning.

The parting of the ways was both amicable (in public at least) and inevitable and Tony Pulis will remain a major figure in Stoke's 150+ year history. Stoke are currently without a manager, but more importantly, a side with the rump of two distinct and seemingly incompatible styles. Sorting out the latter will prove much more urgent and difficult than resolving the former.....Although "Hughes Out" banners have already been moved on from the west car park, in anticipation of any imminent announcement.

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