Stoke form just one part of Premier League’s patchwork
“There is never a right way or a wrong way to play football. It is somebody’s opinion about how they want to play the game.”
Not my words, but those of Norwich City boss Paul Lambert as he looked ahead – one hesitates to say “looked forward” – to last week’s trip to the Britannia Stadium.
Just for good measure, Lambert made the same comment after the Canaries’ 1-0 defeat by Stoke City, unwilling to be drawn into publicly criticising the style of play adopted by the Potters under manager Tony Pulis.
Stoke have become the football purists’ favourite target over the past few seasons, frowned upon for being a big, physical side with an over-reliance on the aerial route and the long throw into a packed penalty area – though it must be said that Ryan Shotton is no Rory Delap when it comes to the trademark catapult delivery.
True, it is not very pleasing on the eye, and the long throws became rather tedious last Saturday, not least because City dealt with them pretty well.
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Many Canary fans making their way home, while disappointed with the result, made the point that they were relieved they did not have to watch a side playing in this fashion every week.
They are grateful that Lambert’s team – or teams, given the way the squad has evolved in 2� years – have regained their place among the elite and more than held their own there by playing attractive football.
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Stoke, by contrast, are no one’s idea of great entertainers - but there is a danger we can get a bit too holier than thou over their way of doing things.
Look at it from a Stoke fan’s point of view. The club spent 23 years out of the top flight, floating between the second and third tiers, before Pulis took them back to the top flight in 2008 as Championship runners-up.
Last season, they enjoyed two trips to Wembley, scoring five goals in an FA Cup semi-final against Bolton and reaching the final for the first time in their history before losing 1-0 to Manchester City.
That achievement booked them a place in Europe for the first time in 37 years and after some creditable results in the Europa League, they are sitting ninth in the Premier League.
Their supporters should not have to feel guilty for enjoying the fact that they are once again watching a successful team, and can be forgiven for not losing any sleep over the manner in which that success has been achieved.
The same criticisms were levelled at Watford and Wimbledon in the 1980s, when both clubs reached previously unprecedented heights.
Graham Taylor’s Watford were runners-up in Division One in 1982-83, qualifying for Europe, and reached their first FA Cup final in 1984.
Dave Bassett took Wimbledon from Division Four to the top flight with three promotions in four seasons and, when Bobby Gould took over as manager, the Dons won the FA Cup in 1988 and would have been playing in the European Cup Winners’ Cup but for the ban still in force following the Heysel disaster.
Both clubs were unloved and their success was to a great extent resented by the connoisseurs, especially in the case of Wimbledon, who had the disadvantage of having Sam Hammam rather than the colourful Elton John as chairman. The popular view was summed up when John Motson referred to the Dons’ Wembley win over Liverpool as the Crazy Gang beating the Culture Club.
Stoke, part of the more glamorous world of the Premier League, where everything has to be promoted as wonderful, and superior to the old order, have not had to endure the same condemnation as the Dons but they are probably few people’s choice as their second favourite team.
And it won’t bother them in the slightest. When the Canaries went to the Britannia Stadium for a Championship fixture late in 2007, much was made of the “bumper” gate of more than 19,000 on a day when the local newspaper ran an offer for cut-price admission.
Now Stoke have a record number of 22,000 season ticket-holders – their “Early Bird” renewal scheme and fifth successive price freeze were announced this week – and they boast average home gates of more than 27,000.
It all has a familiar ring to it – well, apart from the price freeze bit – and if the Potters have reached this elevated position in a less aesthetically pleasing fashion than most of their rivals, so be it.
I’m sure most of us would rather watch Norwich, or Arsenal or Tottenham, but it takes all sorts to make a world.