Speaking With The Enemy – Stoke City
This weekend we play Stoke in the Premiership at Stamford Bridge – I caught up with a couple of Stoke fans to talk Chelsea City. Mark Holmes (MH) is a Stoke City season ticket holder, and a football journalist for TEAMtalk.com and Skysports.com; follow him on twitter @Homzy
And you can also find @lordplumpton (LP) on Twitter, who is a lifelong Stoke City fan and an owner of the world’s newest community owned club, Lewes FC of the Ryman Premier League
It’s still early in the season, but how do you think Stoke City are looking?
MH – We’re going through a period of transition at the moment as Tony Pulis tries to introduce a slightly new playing style. It’s a work in progress, but most Stoke fans are feeling pretty positive at the moment, particularly after our performance against Manchester City last weekend.
LP – There’s no denying it, we came into this season very worried. We seemed to regress last season, both in style of play and results, despite spending a fair bit of money.
The Britannia was a fortress against the big clubs only and, as I’d always feared, TP was struggling to move on from his preferred underdog status. Given the money we’d spent and the players at our disposal, we were woeful in the second half of last season. However to give him his credit, TP did good business in the transfer market and with the arrival of Adam, N’Zonzi, Kightley, Cameron, Edu and even Owen if we can get him Stoke-fit, we’ve now got some much needed creativity within the midfield that should result in more chances and more goals.
We’ve been handed a tough first two months of fixtures, so don’t be surprised to find us near the bottom come mid-October, but all the signs are there that we’ll play some better football, score some more goals and achieve the summit of our Premier league ambitions – a decent run in the FA Cup & a top ten finish.
Which Stoke player should Chelsea be worried about?
MH – Realistically, Chelsea won’t have much problem dealing with us if both sides play to their ability. However, our centre-half partnership of Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth is one of the strongest in the Premier League, and Peter Crouch can be a handful if he gets the service. Also, keep an eye on Steven N’Zonzi, who really impressed on his debut against City.
LP – All of them. It’s only by all eleven playing as one so the sum is greater than the parts that we’ll have any hope of getting a result.
If you could choose any Chelsea player to join Stoke who would it be?
MH – The one I’d have loved, Didier Drogba, has just left, but we’d give anything for a full-back like Ashley Cole.
LP – That Hazard lad looks like he could develop into a half-decent replacement for Glen Whelan….
Do you think Stoke get an unfair press for their style of play?
MH – Yes, absolutely. When we were first promoted to the Premier League we relied heavily on physicality, simply because we didn’t have good enough players to compete in any other way. However, we started playing more football midway through that first season when Matthew Etherington joined, and we’ve slowly improved ever since. We’re still direct, but we’re certainly not over-physical any more. Unfortunately, stereotypes are hard to shift – people still associate us mainly with Rory Delap’s long-throw, despite the fact he rarely plays any more. In fact, we didn’t take a single long throw in our last game against City.
LP – Yes, in the main – it’s just lazy stereotyping for the most part. However we were arguably more one-dimensional last season than at any time since we were promoted. It is The Curse of Crouch; we bought him to hold the ball up, help keep some more possession and bring the wingers into play, but Matty was off his game for most of the season and Pennant & Pulis fell out, so as always happens to poor old Pete when all else fails, we just resorted to lumping it in the vague direction of his head. For the second half of last season there was little joy to be had watching Stoke other than in the winning, and there wasn’t even much of that.
What would make a successful season for Stoke?
MH – We should have made the top 10 in our last two seasons really so making it this time is the minimum expectation. Aside from that, Stoke fans are fairly realistic, but Pulis is under pressure to improve the style of play. More goals and entertainment are what’s needed – and the early signs have been promising.
LP – Survival. Cup run. Top ten finish. Which is why if I’m honest, I find the Premier League deeply tedious. Our 11/12 season ended in March when Liverpool knocked us out of the FA Cup, which is pretty much the case for everyone outside the top & bottom 6. It’s like 3 leagues in 1, and if like us you’re seemingly stuck in the middle one you start to yearn for a good old relegation battle, or even The Championship where almost every single team is still involved right up to the last day. If the Premiership doesn’t find a way to make itself more competitive throughout the division it will struggle to maintain the crowds in my humble opinion.
What has been the biggest high for you as a Stoke supporter?
MH -Tough question. A game that will live with me forever was the second leg of our Division Two play-off semi-final at Cardiff. We were going out with a minute to go but equalised in stoppage time, won it in extra time and were eventually promoted. The 5-0 FA Cup semi-final win over Bolton a couple of seasons back was a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment, and going to Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League last season was the greatest overall experience I’ve had supporting Stoke. But the biggest high as a whole was our first season in the Premier League: everybody had written us off so every win felt like winning the league. The atmosphere at every game was incredible, and it’s a season I’ll never forget.
LP – It ought to be the FA Cup Final, but we didn’t really turn up for that and in Man City we had the misfortune to be up against a team who wanted it, and indeed needed it, even more desperately than we did.
So it has to be the 5-0 defeat of Bolton in the FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley. It was just the most exhilarating 90 minutes I can ever remember – even better than being 5-0 up at home to Leeds at half-time – and suddenly all those years scrabbling around in the underpants of the Football league made perfect sense as without them, the joy would not have been nearly so exquisite. It was a day I honestly never thought I’d see in my lifetime, and to share it with my 14 year old son just made it perfect. Here’s what I wrote about it after I got home that night:
What’s your opinion of Pulis?
MH – My opinion of him has changed a number of times over the years! I was glad when he was sacked in his first spell in charge and wasn’t happy when he was re-appointed, but most of his second spell has been a dream. Last season, however, was disappointing in terms of entertainment so Pulis’ stock is as low as it has been for a long time. But he’s finally addressed our problem in central midfield so is already starting to win me over again.
LP – There is not enough room on the whole of the internet to accommodate the Great Pulis Debate. He’s an easy man to admire but an almost impossible one to love. Suffice to say I will always be eternally grateful to him for getting us into The Prem, an FA Cup Final and giving me the chance to see us in Europe, but this season is the acid test as to whether he can develop and evolve both our style and our approach away from home. He now has the players with which to do it, so it’s all down to him.
Would you welcome a billionaire take-over at Stoke?
MH – If the next Roman Abramovich wanted to turn us into the one of the best teams in Europe then I wouldn’t complain. Who would?! But I do love the fact that we are owned by a local man and lifelong fan of the club in Peter Coates. I know we will never win anything, but what we have achieved seems so much more special with Coates running the club.
LP – I genuinely, sincerely wouldn’t. I think we are in an enviable position, bankrolled as we are by a family with a local, stable, successful business who are all lifelong fans and whose vision of a more sustainable future is closely aligned with the majority of supporters, hence their hefty investment in the upgrading of the Academy. All of which makes me believe that thanks to The Coates Family, our club is in the best shape it’s ever been – not just now, but for whatever the future holds. I think there’s many fans of Premier League clubs who would envy such long term certainty.
Will you boo John Terry?
MH – I’m not going due to the extortionate ticket price, but I’m sure I would boo Terry. I actually like him – and Chelsea as a club – but anything that helps create an atmosphere and possibly put off the opposition is a good thing in my book. We boo teams just for having the ball at the Britannia…and I love it!
LP – Sadly I won’t be there – I’m writing this from a week’s break in the Algarve – but if were: yes, most definitely. He’s everyone’s favourite pantomime villain as well as a thoroughly reprehensible human being who embodies all the very, very worst of modern football. Which is a shame, as he has been a fantastic player and that most unusual species of modern footballer – a one club man.
Who is your favourite Stoke City player of all time?
MH – Ricardo Fuller without a shadow of a doubt. He’s probably not the best player we’ve had in my lifetime, but he’s definitely the most talented. I’ve never seen any player at any club do some of the things he did on his day, and it’s really, really sad to see him playing for another club.
LP – Without a single shadow of a doubt it has to be Alan Hudson. Still the greatest footballer I’ve ever seen live, and I’ve seen most of the world’s best over the years. I will never, ever be able to thank Chelsea enough for being willing to sell him to us. The man was simply a footballing genius.
How do you predict Stoke will approach the game against Chelsea?
MH – As I say, we’re in a period of transition and nobody is quite sure what to expect from us at the moment. However, I imagine we’ll set up with three in midfield, with Charlie Adam given a bit of freedom and Michael Kightly and Jon Walters playing wide of Crouch. I know Pulis is desperate for us to keep hold of the ball more, but in this game I expect we’ll still be very defensive and rely mainly on set pieces.
LP – As always away from home, as a damage limitation exercise
And finally, what is your score prediction?
MH – My heart says we can pinch a 0-0 or 1-1, but my head says you’ll win fairly comfortably – 2-0 perhaps.
LP – I think we could conceivably draw every single game this season, so I’m going to go for 2-2
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