Writer: Chris Baldwin
Date:Wednesday May 9 2007
So the rollercoaster ride that is supporting Stoke City is over for another season, and in many ways it will be seen to have ended in disappointment. City miss out on the play-offs on the final day to leave the fans wondering what might have been, and now free and able to make plans for May 28th. But is it failure for a pre-season tip for relegation to get so close to the play-offs? Following on from the second half to the season previous there were not many that would have predicted that Stoke would push it to the final day of this season to try and get a play-off place. In this review I will just be going through the different events that happened at Stoke City that transformed them from relegation tips to promotion outsiders.
The summer saw some major upheaval at Stoke with old Chairman Peter Coates buying back the club from the unsuccessful Icelanders. This was met with widespread cynicism and concern by Stoke supporters, concerns that were not eased by his first big decision. Coates quickly moved to reinstate former manager Tony Pulis, a man thanked by City fans for stabilising the team but not seen as the man to push the club forward. One of the main problems that Pulis faced in his first spell at the club was that he could not attract the calibre of player that he wanted at the football club. This was again the case in the summer with his targets opting for more fashionable clubs than Stoke. Indeed his only signings of any note were a free transfer of striker Vincent Pericard who he had managed at Plymouth and the promising signing of Danny Higgingbottom from Southampton. In fact Pulis` failings in the transfer market could not have been more highlighted than by the very desperate looking loan acquisition of Jeff Whitely from Cardiff.
The season began with a feeling of trepidation rather than anticipation with fans fearing that Pulis` negative tactics and lack of signings would mean a long season of struggle. Indeed an opening day defeat at newly promoted Southend did not do anything to ease those fears. The first home game of the season was against midlands rivals Derby and saw an impressive 2-0 win with new signing Pericard on the score sheet. Derby were at the time however in a similar position to Stoke and were not fancied for much during the season. Stoke did not win again this month and with a defeat in the league cup at the hands of Darlington it looked like the fans pre-season fears were beginning to be realised.
This month went by without a win and the pressure was really beginning to mount on Tony Pulis. Stoke held a two goal half time lead at Barnsley only to see them draw 2-2 and something drastic needed to be done. And something was done as Pulis started to land his targets. First in was the talented forward Ricardo Fuller from Southampton for a surprisingly low fee. He was seen as a very skill full forward with a good eye for goal which was exactly what was needed. Then we started to see the loan signing begin to arrive. First Andy griffin would return to the club where his career started, a first class full back to match any at this level. Then to the surprise of everyone Lee Hendrie, a one time England international and a firmly established Premiership player. Things were really starting to look up and the final game of this month, at home to Preston, saw a much improved Stoke performance with Fuller getting his first Stoke goal in a 1-1 draw.
This was the month that would set the tone for the rest of Stoke`s season and at the start of the month the new faces just kept arriving. Salif Diao was next through the door, the one time £5 million holding midfielder arrived on loan from Liverpool. Along with Diao we acquired Rory Delap a one time £4 million midfielder on loan from Sunderland with a permanent deal in place for January. These signings galvanised Stoke and that could not be shown better than in the first game of this month. Stoke went to Leeds having gone eight games without a win and put on a magnificent performance to win 4-0 with Pulis` new signings running the show. The next game (a home win over Sunderland) saw Rory Delap break his leg and it meant that he would sadly miss the rest of the season. October saw Stoke win three games out of five which included their biggest win of the season, a 5-0 home mauling of Norwich.
This month was the one that would catapult Stoke from relegation fodder just one month before to real Promotion candidates. It also saw another arrival; Liam Lawrence came in from Sunderland following Luke Chadwick`s departure to Norwich. City won all five of their games during this month without conceding a goal which put them into the top six for the first time. With twenty league games gone their first ten had produced just one win, but their next ten produced eight. Darrel Russell was named player of the month after this perfect run of results but Pulis amazingly was not named manger after he was piped by Derby`s Billy Davies whose side were enjoying a similar run. November saw another impressive loan acquisition of Patrik Berger from Aston Villa. It was Lee Hendrie who was grabbing all the headlines though after a string of very impressive displays since arriving in the Potteries.
We entered December with a great deal of optimism and after five wins in November including wins over early pacesetters Cardiff and hotly tipped West Brom there was now a certain degree of expectancy. Whether this group of players could handle this new found pressure was yet to be seen. They had a consistent enough December with their wining streak coming to an end with a goalless draw at Coventry. A 1-0 home victory over QPR meant that Simonsen had set a new Stoke clean sheet record having not conceded in seven games. Stoke finished the year in style with a 3-1 win to complete the double over Leeds which was very pleasing to Stoke`s older generation of supporters.
Stoke entered 2007 with a great deal of excitement as there was a real sense of belief that something special could be achieved this season. Stoke entered the year in 7th place just four points behind Preston in 2nd. However January was a disappointing month with Stoke`s loan players, particularly Hendrie, Griffin, and Diao going back to their clubs and leaving the team looking average again. If Stoke were to push for the play-offs or higher then Tony Pulis had to find a way to convince these players to come back and see the job through. This month saw just one league victory and Stoke let another two goal half time lead slip, this time to lose at promotion rivals Preston. However Pulis did manage the seemingly impossible and convinced loanee`s Griffin, Diao and the inspirational Hendrie to come back to the club. So by the end of January we had THE TEAM back together and things started to look up again. Transfer deadline day saw captain Michael Duberry move to Reading for a more than reasonable £800,000, and was replaced with Premiership experience in the form of Jonathan Fortune from Charlton. Pulis also added versatile veteran Dominic Matteo, and youngsters Lee Martin and Gabriel Zakuani from Manchester United and Fulham respectively. All of this meant that at the end of a somewhat disappointing month for results Stoke were still in touch with the promotion race and had a stronger squad than the one they finished 2006 with.
So hopes were high coming into February, but this was a really disastrous month for Stoke. The loan players took time to get their sharpness back and gel together again, and in a month where we were playing three teams in the bottom six at home; Southend, Luton, and Barnsley, we picked up just two points from these games and just five in total from five games. A marvellous win at promotion pushers Derby was followed by a dismal home defeat to strugglers Barnsley. Griffin, Diao, and Hendrie just did not look the same players that they had during Stoke`s great form at the end of the year, and the other newbee`s were not adding a great deal.
At the start of March mid-table was looking the most likely destination for this Stoke side that was painfully lacking fire power. There was an obvious need for a goal threat that was not addressed for one reason or another in January that was becoming very evident in this team. This was not helped by Ricardo Fuller`s seeming lack of any discipline and a four game ban for his sending off against Luton. Pulis eventually got someone in, but to many supporters` dismay and anger it was not a well known Premiership cast off but an unknown Hull cast off. Jon Parkin came in on loan and was labelled 'The Beast` for his unorthodox diet and fitness regime. A win at home to Southampton and very good performance at the runaway train that was Sunderland reinvigorated hopes of one last final push for the coveted play-offs. And a 4-2 win over Leicester to end the month with THREE Stoke strikers getting on the score sheet left April with all to play for.
April was a crucial month with trip to fellow play-off chasers West Brom and Cardiff. First up was West Brom and in the first half in particular it was Stoke`s best performance of the season. It was 3-0 before half an hour had passed and Ricardo Fuller was at his frightening best. The match finished 3-1 and now it really was game on. The next match saw Parkin and Fuller score again (they had each scored in the previous three) and finally it seemed as though we had a partnership upfront to get excited about. The inevitable then happened though as Jon Parkin was recalled by Hull and Stoke`s frontline looked bare once again. The next two games really settled this season with a trip to Cardiff followed by a home game to struggling Hull. Going into injury time in both games Stoke were one up and going fourth in the league, but injury time equalisers left us eighth and a point off sixth with two to play. A win in their penultimate game meant that Stoke went into the final game in seventh place level on points with Southampton in Sixth and just one point away from fourth.
Just one game in May and it could not have been bigger. A win at QPR with hoards of Stokie's in full voice accompanied by a slip up by one of West Brom, Wolves, or Southampton would mean Stoke would be in the final promotion lottery. Unfortunately however it wasn`t meant to be as Stoke could only draw and the rest did their jobs to leave Stoke fans to wonder what might have been for another season. There does however have to be great credit given to the Stoke players who managed to challenge right down to the final day in spite of being some way off the pace in March and a crippling injury list. Credit too to Tony Pulis who at the start of the season persevered with what he was trying to do under increasing pressure, to give Potters fans a renewed sense of belief in their team. There is great reason for optimism at The Britannia Stadium this summer and if Tony Pulis is backed next season in a similar way to this then there is no reason why Stoke can`t improve on what has to be seen as a successful 2006/07 season.
Date:Wednesday May 9 2007
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