Stoke-on-Trent is the home of Stoke City FC. What is Stoke-on-Trent, exactly? Upon hunting for an answer, a litany of bureaucratic phrases like “county borough,” “urban area,” and “unitary authority” assault the eyes. “Federation,” “amalgamation,” and “conurbation” are more words that at some point have described the geographical oddity that is Stoke-on-Trent and are all words that are drier than sandpaper in the Sahara. They portend the industrial, sullen atmosphere that hangs with the clouds in the city. In the early 20th century, Stoke-on-Trent formed from the union of six towns, known collectively colloquially as the Potteries. Situated in the West Midlands, the Potteries are resource rich, abundant in the raw materials (clay, salt and lead for glazing, and coal for firing kilns) which made them the perfect setting for the industrial-scale pottery production capital of England. Comparatively, Stoke City Football Club, nicknamed the Potters (and heretofore referred to as Stoke City), has been about just as fashionable.
Currently a middling Premier League team, Stoke City has had a long tradition of yo-yoing through the upper tiers of English football. This history may be surprising for one of the oldest (allegedly the 2nd oldest) continually extant professional football clubs in all of England. Unfortunately for Stoke City, what they have in longevity, they totally lack in prestige. Stoke City has a grand total of one major trophy, the 1972 Football League Cup.
And so, after spending 23 consecutive years mired in the swamp of non-premier league football, in their 2007/08 season, Stoke City clawed their way to a Premier League promotion, with fearless manager and tracksuit aficionado Tony Pulis at the helm. However, after their glorious ascent to the top, Stoke City soon had few enthusiasts around the Premier League as the scrappy underdogs went a bit overboard on the scrap.
With a playing philosophy that would have been unique to a team of time traveling, lumbering Neanderthals, had Stoke City not beaten them to it, their signature style was an aggressively ugly and highly defensive route one football, as if forged from the sweltering pottery kilns of Staffordshire. Route one football describes the technique of kicking long balls in the general direction of your team’s striker, i.e. “hoofing it,” in the vague hope of scoring goals, which will lead to wins, which will eventually lead to survival, which will finally lead to success. To be blunt, Stoke City played a very depressing game of football.
Yet, like the commodity tea kettle, Stoke City’s strategy was perfectly utilitarian, however defective or imperfect. From 2006 to 2013, Pulis managed this team, seemingly indifferent to the cries of connoisseurs of fine football inside and outside of Stoke-on-Trent, always falling back on the pre-Leicester plausibility that brute force was the only way a lowly outsider team could achieve glory in the Premier League.
As of late, however, a new change has started to sweep under the feet of the men who play for Stoke City. Following the 2012/13 season, Stoke City and Pulis, whose highest finishing position was 11th, mutually agreed to part ways. The sharply figured Mark Hughes took over and has slowly compiled an array of exotic, continental talent. In consecutive seasons, Hughes brought in the Austrian Marko Arnautovic and the Spanish Barcelona FC castaway Bojan Krkić and proceeded to set the club’s transfer record just before the most recent season with the addition of Swiss international hero Xherdan Shaqiri. This offensively-minded trio was largely responsible for the surge in scintillating play completely unexpected from the likes of the team from Stoke. In this past winter transfer window, Stoke City again broke their transfer record by signing the promising Frenchman Giannelli Imbula.
But, offense is not the only facet looking up for Stoke City. Their new starting goalkeeper, Jack Butland, strung together many star performances, such that his stock was quickly encroaching upon that of the England national team’s incumbent goalkeeper Joe Hart. Sadly, an untimely ankle injury during an international game in March shut down Butland for the season.
Injuries were a common theme for Stoke City, striking as if a viral epidemic. Combined with general inconsistencies and seasonal bookends resembling the climbing and falling off of a cliff, Stoke City would finish, for the third time in a row, in 9th place. Yet, this season was all the more disappointing compared to the previous two, considering the accrued potential.
But, in a way, this 9th place finish can be viewed as a success. It is unlikely that injuries will decimate the team next year as much as they did this past year. And by shedding the dreary malaise of the old ways, Stoke City has shown the capacity to continually attract better players. They have consistently shown that a reliance on primal tactics is not the only way to survive and achieve moderate success. Stoke City is currently well positioned for the future.
In my mind, all signs point to them grabbing one of the European slots in the next season or the one after. And though I am still scratching my head trying to figure out what Stoke-on-Trent really is, I can definitively say that it is a team with a strong foundation and the potential to ride their newfound shine to long forgotten heights. Finally, Stoke City has hoofed their way to something good.