Stoke are on track for a highest-placed finish in the Premier League. Tony Dawber speaks to Oatcake fanzine spokesman Martin Smith about life under Mark Hughes – and survival under Tony Pulis.
Slap bang in the middle of the table.
That’s Stoke City, and even a win at Newcastle on Sunday is unlikely to move them up a place.
So why are Potters fans buying up tickets in record numbers, many are regarding the current campaign as a high-water mark in the club’s history?
Martin Smith, spokesman for City’s premier fanzine and website, the near legendary Oatcake, explains.
‘The great majority of Stoke fans appreciate what previous manager Tony Pulis did – but we felt the club were ready to take a step on. We think current manager Mark Hughes is doing just that,’ he said.
Pulis established in the Premier League a side that had been in 2002, no mean feat, but it’s clear that in the eyes of most of the Potters faithful, his departure was a blessing.
Though a fighter, Pulis never attained hero status among fans. Some even refused to chant his name throughout his seven-year reign, so disgruntled were they with the dour football on offer.
‘Our first game back in the Premier League was at Bolton. When we lost 3-1, the bookmaker Paddy Power paid out on us being relegated. Given that, Pulis deserves great credit for establishing us in the top tier,’ said Smith.
‘But we felt that under him, we couldn’t kick on to the next stage.’
Smith pointed out that few outsiders realise how much Pulis spent in the later years of his reign, with the likes of Cameron Jerome and Wilson Palacios commanding big fees and £10m record signing Peter Crouch topping the lot.
‘He had money to spend but we were still grinding out results and away from home, we were relentlessly negative. Pulis always had a tendency to talk us down and talk the opposition up.’
When Hughes arrived, it was like the proverbial breath of fresh air.
The proof’s in the pudding, as they say, and Hughes led the Potters to ninth spot last term, their highest finish in the Premier League. A win at St James’ Park on Sunday will put City on course for topping that.
And next week, there’s the small matter of a last 16 FA Cup clash at Blackburn to consider.
The fact that Stoke have sold out their 4,269 allocation and are after another 2,000 tickets is perhaps indicative of the euphoria and unity surrounding the Britannia Stadium at present.
On the downside, the police have frustrated both clubs involved in next week’s tie by demanding a switch of kick-off time as a condition of allowing that extra allocation, torpedoing the already laid travel plans of many travelling Potters.
In addition, Bojan Krkic is out after a season-ending injury against Rochdale in the last round.
But if anything typifies the sea change at Stoke from dour Pulis fightball to the vibrant Hughes era, it’s this mercurial little Spaniard. Given time by his manager to adapt to the English game, Krkic rewarded Hughes with real sparkle in front of goal. Would Pulis have been so forgiving?
‘Mark Hughes is so positive,’ says Smith. ‘Whoever we play, even when we are away to the likes of Manchester United, he has the attitude that we can go there and win. And the football we play is infinitely more palatable.’