The Europa League, then; Europe’s 2nd-tier footballing trophy, harshly derided by some as The European Vase. Views like these are unlikely to be held at Stoke City FC, whose progress to the tournament’s group stages was secured with Thursday night’s 4-1 victory over FC Thun continuing the commendable progress made by City under Tony Pulis’ tutelage.
It is doubtless gratifying for Pulis to have turned Stoke into a decent, competitive Premiership side. His first spell at the club was summarily terminated after fractious differences with club hierarchy; his second, a marriage made in the Potteries.
Stokies like battlers and scrappers, as do we all (no one appreciates a lack of effort from their team), and their team’s robust approach has drawn much criticism, usually from opponents who have dropped points against them. Yet Pulis has spent wisely. New arrivals Matt Upson (who opened the scoring yesterday) and Jonathan Woodgate are quality signings, especially the latter if he can stay injury-free, with enough nous and experience to bolster Stoke’s progress, not only in the Premier League but also in Europe.
Much of this is down to the way City are run, along benevolent yet prudent lines and without the recklessness seen in other cases, such as at Portsmouth (one of Pulis’ old clubs). Big signings (e.g. Kenwyne Jones, who chipped in with a brace against FC Thun) have been balanced against loan signings and free agents (such as the aforementioned Upson and Woodgate).
Stoke’s promotion to and stabilisation in the Premier League, their FA Cup run, and now their European endeavours have come as somewhat of a surprise. Not because they don’t deserve it – they do – but because, up until now, Pulis hasn’t had a great deal of joy at any of his former clubs. Now that he and Stoke seem ideal bedfellows is testament to the togetherness that the club looks to foster – and, as a former Matchday employee there, we can readily vouch that the backing the team gets from Stokies is second to none.
Perhaps their overall newness to the European adventure may see them come unstuck as the campaign progresses, seeing the pedigree of some of the sides left in the competition along with City. But their fans will be too busy enjoying the ride to give a stuff about that. The strides they’ve made have given them a quality and endeavour that should let anyone know they’ve been in a game. And they could surprise a few people, quite conceivably – let’s not forget that Fulham’s run to the final in 2010 involved victories against the likes of Juventus and Hamburg.
Internet & radio at the ready for Friday’s group draw then, and woe betide any supposedly more illustrious opponents that underestimate Stoke. You wouldn’t want to do that.
By Alex Hales