Looking back, signings, and 'pushing on`
What an amazing year our football club has had, a magical season which saw us come painfully close to achieving glory; it`s safe to say that Pulis is succeeding in his continuing quest of making Stoke City great again.
I remember walking away from Stoke vs Rotherham around six years ago a broken child, rain-drenched and fighting back the tears after a last-gasp Gifton Noel Williams own goal all but destroyed our play-off hopes, only six years ago Pulis was under-fire and I, along with more or less every other Stoke fan had never even heard of the now legendary Fuller and our captain Shawcross was more familiar with his school homework than facing the likes of Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie every week . Six years on, and well, it feels like a dream which is too good to be true, a dream which never seemed possible and a dream which has not only reignited Stoke as a football club, but the whole aura of the city. Stoke have battered the Chelseas, the Liverpools and the Arsenals in recent years and now we`re in Europe, we`ll fear no one(Apart from if Barcelona get knocked out of the Champions League, but we`ll cross that bridge if we come to it). Our progress has been phenomenal, four years ago I lay awake at night praying for an official text to confirm that Glenn Whelan had signed for us and it was only around this time last year when we welcomed an 8 million pound striker into the Potteries and a former Barcelona and Chelsea legend who couldn`t even get a game. Eidur Gudjohnsen struggling for playing time at Stoke? Wow. Although his cameo away at Newcastle when he lay face down on the floor on top of the ball wasted valuable time in helping us gain a rare away win and will never be forgotten.
However, we all know Pulis isn`t one to live in the past, just as we know our manager is always concentrating on the next game, our attentions as supporters have firmly shifted towards next season. Much has been said about the ambiguous 'three year plan`, it`s presumably to stay up for three seasons and then introduce younger players into the squad to ensure our long term future, however, just what is 'pushing on`? Is it improving the results? Is it improving the brand of football? Or is it continuing to improve our reputation as a club and sign players of a higher profile?
Essentially, it`s all three, but crikey it will be tough. It promises to be a more or less impossible task to improve the results and league standings we`ve achieved in the last three years. You look at the top 8 and they`re all established premiership teams with big fan bases and big pulling power and we`ll do well to even think about dislodging them. As for our playing style, I believe Stoke have two styles, there`s the hugely-effective and swashbuckling football which consists of feeding our terrific wingers and swinging the ball into the area from good positions, coupled with high pressure and smart play around the oppositions area. Unfortunately, as most notably seen against West Brom, Blackpool and Wigan at home last season, we`re still prone to the odd game where a lump up field is all that we can muster, but we`ve clearly moved on in that respect and Pennant`s been nothing short of a revelation in helping to retain the ball in the final third. Tactically, will we ever break free from 'The Cage` of two holding central midfield players? Even Real Madrid use it, and it`s done the job so far, but they do have marauding full backs and that`s certainly a position we need to strengthen if we`re to keep 'The Cage` well and truly locked up in the middle of the park.
Ideally, we`d be in the position to add 5,000 fans to the gates but sadly, that may always be beyond us. I`ve seen articles saying we`re not ready to expand, I think we are. We should ride on last year`s success for the 'floating supporter` before it fades and I`m positive that against the top 6 teams in the league (Not forgetting the midland derbys) we`d fill a 33,000 all-seater stadium as the away fans would take a whole end and it wouldn`t be completely improbable to see 28,000 Stoke fans roaring us on from three sides of the Brit. Furthermore, a cut in ticket prices for the 'smaller` games and everyone`s a winner, if only it was that easy. Naturally, staying up every year is the absolute priority, but if anyone can disrupt the top 8 then it`s Stoke, we`ve got a bit of form in upsetting the applecart, haven`t we?
It`s clear to many that we need a left back, cover for centre half, a good central midfielder and (ideally) an exciting striker along with an alternative to Jon Walters, (you get the feeling that you could apply that aspiration to every fan of every team in the country, at the moment!). As evolution opposed to revolution seems to be the way forward, an upgrade on what we currently have would perhaps be more sensible given the stage of where we are at in our development. We`d all love a Danny Sturridge, a Jermaine Defoe or a Wilson Palacios to be donning the red and white next year but realistically, we`ll be settling for a Cameron Jerome and a Craig Gardner calibre of player and whilst it`s not 'rock the city` material, a few sensible signings and we`ll be well on our way to giving ourselves the platform to compete again next year. Liam Ridgewell, Matt Mills and Carlton Cole have all been linked with the club and would be good signings. Ridgewell has experience whilst still being young and would fit into our unit perfectly, Mills seems to have a great presence on a football pitch and would arguably be happy to play second fiddle and Cole is a handful for anyone and would be a smart buy, depending on the fee. Amidst the furore of the transfer window, just keeping Huth, Shawcross and Begovic would represent progress, we`ve seen many mid- table clubs give up their prized assets but, fingers crossed, we`ll be okay in that department. It`s nice to see that Shawcross has come out in the last couple of days and at least allayed any fears that he`ll be heading for a big money move elsewhere, but it won`t stop the paranoia, for me anyway!
Silly season is well under way, but a Daily Mirror article on the possibility of Asamoah Gyan moving to Stoke for 10 million somehow forces my mind into a situation where I try and convince myself that a move to the Britannia would be a perfectly reasonable and viable option for him. Stranger things have happened; we did win 5-0 in an FA Cup semi-final only a few months ago and it was only this week that Lyon Manager Remi Garde spoke of his desire to install Stoke-esque attributes into his team of superstars, but it seems unlikely to say the least that we`ll be able to entice such a player.
These are hard times for many folk, but extraordinary times for Stoke City, it`s destined to be a rollercoaster season next year and we`ll ride along with the rough and the smooth, but we`re used to that and Stoke fans all around the world are embracing a period where we are set to embark on a long-awaited European adventure and look to firmly cement ourselves as a serious Premier league outfit. Not a bad opening fixture either, 'awkward` is a nice choice of word, Mr Villas Boas.
By Tom Mckeon
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