For years Stoke City fans achieved relative success under Tony Pulis, but they also knew that their team had attracted a reputation. For some they were a tough, battling, intriguing side, but for others they were a harsh, unattractive, and one-dimensional outfit. The Potters knew how to win, but they didn’t necessarily know how to win well – or how to not win ugly.
Now, though, ever since the appointment of Mark Hughes as their manager in May 2013, the style of play at the Britannia has been changing, the calibre of player has altered slightly, and the quality of ‘good looking football’ has improved. The home fans are happy because their side still earns enough points to get into the top half of the Premier League; the away fans are happy because they aren’t in constant fear of season-ending injuries to their best players.
But is there a replacement team in the top flight anymore? Has anybody taken up the Stoke City mantle? It might make most sense to first look at Crystal Palace, the team now managed by the mastermind of Stoke’s previous muscle, Tony Pulis. There has been a grit and determination instilled into the Eagles play, and their soaring clear of relegation last year was down to that, but they have maintained a reputation for entertaining football as well. The late comeback to deny Liverpool their title challenge last year was perhaps one of the most incredible moments in the entirety of last season.
So if not Palace, then who? West Ham and Sam Allardyce fell under pressure from their home fans last year, but not so much from football fans in general. The Upton Park crowd have exceptionally high expectations, and they will let the management know when things aren’t right. For everyone else, however, the Hammers looked like an underperforming side, but not a particularly ugly one. Jose Mourinho branded the club as ’19th Century football’, but it wouldn’t be exactly unlike the Portuguese tactician to hyperbolise… Kevin Nolan might be a bit of a bruiser, but the likes of Ricardo Vaz Te and Stewart Downing provide a degree of flair to their frontline – even Andy Carroll has a unique grace about him. Arguably.
Looking further up the table, the cynics of the top 4 might look towards Jose’s own Chelsea as the least entertaining of the Marquee sides, but it is surely impossible to taint the Blues as an especially ugly outfit. Eden Hazard is the league’s best young player, and Oscar and Ramires bring Brazilian flair to the weekend’s fixtures. Mourinho himself, with all of his personal character, ensures that the Stamford Bridge side could never be deemed ‘boring’.
The newly promoted sides will have to show physical toughness in order to succeed next year, but it is difficult to imagine the previously free-scoring Leicester or Burnley becoming especially one dimensional, or QPRs squad of relatively household names forgetting how to play attractive football. In recent seasons the Premier League new boys have consistently tried to prove that they can play a ‘beautiful game’ – some to good effect, and others not so. Where Norwich City or Blackpool have fallen short, Southampton and Swansea have greatly impressed.
Maybe West Brom? But Alan Irvine looks likely to shake the Baggies up so they’ll be bouncing once again next year. Maybe Aston Villa? But, if anything, Paul Lambert is lacking physicality in his side, rather than overflowing with too much of it. So, if Stoke aren’t ‘doing a Stoke’ anymore, and nobody else looks like they’re about to assume that particular Premier League reputation, then it must have left the English top flight for a while… And, ironically, that might be considered a real shame.