As a Liverpool fan I am very privileged to have the majority of my team’s games live on TV and more often than not we are allocated a substantial slot on Match of the Day. This got me thinking, what must it be like supporting a team who are never on TV and who are subjected to 3 minutes of highlights on a Saturday night.
The quality of punditry in this country is very low and the so-called experts more often than not don’t know (and don’t wish to know) anything about players outside the ‘big teams’. It’s no surprise then that this attitude spills over to your casual football fan, who begin to pick up the stereotypes and lazy assumptions that the likes of Shearer, Gray and Hansen spurt out week after week.
The team in question and the subject of this blog are Stoke City football club. Tony Pulis’ side were promoted to the Premier League in 2008 and as with any new top flight team they were patronised by the media. “We don’t know a lot about them but they’ll work hard and make it difficult for the opposition” is the type of sentence you will hear regularly in relation to the likes of Wigan, Bolton and of course Stoke. The media’s attitude towards them is very much ‘we don’t know them and we don’t want to know them’.
It’s often said that staying in the Premier League is one of the toughest tasks in football, so you’d expect that the Potters would receive tremendous amounts of praise after they exceeded expectations by finishing comfortably in 12th in 08/09. Stoke never got that ‘well done’ though and by the end of their first season they had developed a reputation for being a long ball side whose only attacking weapon was the long throw of Rory Delap. Quite how pundits came to this conclusion I do not know, as their only experience of Stoke is through heavily edited 3 minute clips which are impossible to judge a team’s performance from.
Stoke are often labelled ‘anti-football’ which implies that there is a right and a wrong way to play the game. Although Barcelona and Arsenal play a beautiful passing game, I would not say that this idealistic interpretation of football should be adopted by every team. Part of the intrigue of the game is the difference in styles of different sides and clashes between them. Sadly, the Sky era means that there has to be a story behind every game, a favourite, and an underdog. Teams such as Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have obvious identities and the media do not need to make false stereotypes at their expense.
Unfashionable sides are different story though and it’s far easier for fans, Sky and the BBC to watch 5 minutes of Stoke before labelling them ‘dirty’ and packaging them as the team everybody hates to play due to their ‘physical approach’ than to actually watch their games.
In reality, Stoke are actually a decent team whose squad is packed full of very capable players such as Matthew Ethrington, Sanli Tuncay, Ricardo Fuller, Jermaine Pennant and Glen Whelan. Tony Pulis likes to play to his team’s strengths, namely their towering centre backs and the aerial prowess of Kenwyne Jones but there’s nothing wrong with that and why should he set his team out to play tiki-taka if he does not have the personnel to do so? That doesn’t make them a dirty side though; stats show that Stoke play well within the rules. They do not have a player in the top 10 for fouls or yellow cards (unlike Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) and last season there were 5 teams below them in the fair play table. One statistic that may shock fans is that the Potters lie 14th in this season’s fair play standings with Arsenal one place below them (what a surprise that would be to the media!) in 15th.
Teams who believe what the media say about Stoke get a great shock when they realise that the Staffordshire side can actually knock the ball about, are more organised than dirty and are very capable of outplaying a side rather than bullying them. They may use the Delapidator whenever they can but what team wouldn’t take advantage of such a weapon?
Stoke are now in their third season in the top flight and look set for their best finish yet with the team sitting high in 10th. Maybe they will start to get more respect when fans and media realise than the Potters are not one-dimensional and they are here to stay, I wouldn’t count on it though.