Stoke City - The Only Way is Up

If Arsenal were playing Stoke City on Saturday, who would you back to win? Not easy, is it? Stoke’s status has taken them beyond being cast merely as a clever money bet. These days, a lot of punters would make them favourites.

Yet still many find it hard to believe in Stoke as contenders this season. Not for the Premier League title, obviously, but for that much coveted fourth spot. Nobody would peg Stoke above Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea, but Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur? Why not? FA Cup finalists last season, in the Europa League this year, Stoke’s trajectory under the able stewardship of manager Tony Pulis and chairman Peter Coates would make fourth place the logical target were it not for one thing: they’re Stoke.

And, as we have been taught, clubs like Stoke cannot rise above their station in the Premier League. We ignore Everton’s fourth place in 2005, or that Charlton Athletic were fourth with 10 games to go in 2004. If Tottenham had achieved Stoke’s results this season, a draw with Chelsea, victory over Liverpool, home and away wins against Hajduk Split of Croatia, they would be taken seriously. Why not Stoke?

This is a club who have outspent the traditional dark-horse challengers, such as Everton, and embarrassed those clubs whose boardroom promises have proved empty, like Blackburn Rovers. They have fought off competition from supposed superiors like Aston Villa and Sunderland for England striker Peter Crouch, and are increasingly alone in that rump of mid-table Premier League clubs in aiming high.

Like many efficient clubs beyond the Champions League elite, Stoke’s success is built on strong defence. They have played eight games in all competitions this season and conceded just two goals, one of which was in the 77th minute of a Europa League second-leg tie against FC Thun of Switzerland, with Stoke already leading 5-0 on aggregate.

Placed fifth and travelling to Sunderland at the weekend, they are in impressive form. Having watched the weekend defeat of Liverpool, Gary Neville caused jaws to drop in the living rooms of Britain by comparing Stoke to Barcelona, not in artistry, but the way they press in numbers, even when reduced to 10 men by a temporary injury to Matthew Etherington. Neville said most teams in that situation would sit back and regroup, but Stoke continued chasing Liverpool down, forcing elementary mistakes out of good players.

Right now, everything about Stoke suggests progress. There have been three seasons of consolidation in the Premier League, 12th, 11th and 13th, 45, 47 and 46 points, before the change in emphasis this summer. David Dein, the former Arsenal vice-chairman, said that once established there comes a moment when every club must try to take a step up, and perhaps reaching the FA Cup final was the catalyst for Stoke. Certainly, recent arrivals such as Crouch, Matthew Upson, Jonathan Woodgate and Wilson Palacios suggest a club targeting the next level.

The trip to play Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League would have been unthinkable three years ago. Pulis has done an outstanding job redirecting the careers of players like Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, while Ryan Shawcross is a brave and often uncompromising centre half, and Robert Huth was the joint highest-scoring defender in the Premier League last season (with Brede Hangeland of Fulham).

Like the old Wimbledon side to which they are often compared, there is a lot more talent in Stoke’s ranks than their detractors wish to believe. Stoke’s average gate this season, 27,507, puts them top of the bottom half of the Premier League attendance table, but the numbers do not take into account the raucous passion of the Britannia Stadium. Few opponents enjoy going there and not just because of Rory Delap’s long throws or a back four that invariably includes three bruising centre halves.

In an age when a trip to Old Trafford or the Emirates is ticked off by tourists much like Madame Tussauds or the London Dungeon, the atmosphere at Stoke games is a throwback to the days of local owners and local teams for local people. It can intimidate, but in a good way, reminding that not every new venue has to be a soulless bowl, its inhabitants distant and subdued.

This is an unusual year in English football with so many of the traditional elite in a state of flux. Will the hurried restoration of Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish have time to settle, can Arsene Wenger rebuild spirits at Arsenal, is Tottenham’s investment enough to improve on last season’s fifth place? There are few guarantees, making the fight for the final Champions League spot as open as it has ever been.

And then there are Stoke. Unfancied, unsung, the random factor. They might just do it. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if they did?

Exclusively by Martin Samuel

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