Much like Christmas, Stoke City’s involvement in the FA Cup tends to come but once a year.
The Potters have progressed beyond the third round stage just once in the last five years, and Tony Pulis has made no secret of the fact that the league will always remain his chief concern. This prioritising of Premier League survival over cup success will be reflected in the team Pulis selects for the visit of non-league York City in Saturday’s third-round tie. The Stoke manager is certain to afford his second string the opportunity to put themselves in the shop window to teams who can offer what Pulis cannot – the promise of regular first team football. The Welshman has intimated in the media recently that any much-needed strengthening during the January transfer window must be funded by money generated from player sales. It is fair to say that the club’s attempts last season to adjust to life as a Premier League outfit were marked by a trial and error transfer policy. While the likes of Thomas Sorensen and Abdoulaye Faye, and later James Beattie and Matthew Etherington, were huge successes, there is currently around £15m worth of misfit arrivals from last term who must be removed from the books. In addition to these expensive flops, such as Dave Kitson, Ibrahima Sonko and Tom Soares, there are also some long-serving players who played a large role in Stoke’s promotion season who have now become surplus to requirements and deserve the chance to find regular football elsewhere.
The FA Cup allows Tony Pulis to continue his efforts to clear out the deadwood from his squad. This process has already started with the £500,000 deal with Sheffield United which will see Richard Cresswell complete a permanent move to the Blades in January. Michael Tonge is set to follow him out of the Britannia Stadium, probably for a fee of around £1m, in finalising his move to Preston, where he has been on loan for the last few months. The York game should give the likes of Andy Griffin, Leon Cort and Andrew Davies the chance to advertise themselves to Championship clubs.
The James Beattie conundrum will also rear its head this weekend. It seems increasingly likely that the Lancashire born striker will make his exit this January. While Pulis could showcase him to fellow suitors by fielding him against the Minstermen, hoping he drives his value up by scoring a hatful, it seems more likely that the Potters boss will avoid cup-tying Beattie for his future employers. Most will be aware of what the former Southampton man, with 91 Premier League goals to his name, is capable of, and with interest from fellow Premier League clubs a distinct possibility, a cup-tied Beattie may be worth less than an available one.
Although the necessity of using the FA Cup to draw attention to players who could generate much-needed transfer revenue for the club is apparent, this writer believes that Tony Pulis should also use the occasion to blood some youngsters. Pulis has often been accused of neglecting the long-term future of the club with his tendency to favour experience over youth, but the York match provides a chance for the Welshman to prove his detractors wrong while giving some hotly-tipped prospects a taste of first team action. Diego Arismendi arrived in the summer for around £3 million from Nacional with a burgeoning reputation in South American football. The 21 year old, holding midfielder, who already has a Uruguayan championship medal, a Copa Libertadores semi-final appearance and 2 Uruguay caps to his name, will surely continue his English football education against the Yorkshiremen from Kit Kat Crescent.
Up front, local lad Louis Moult is the kind of strong, industrious striker admired by the Stoke City manager, and rather than risking Beattie or a still unfit-looking Mama Sidibe, Pulis could opt to give Moult his chance as a foil for Ricardo Fuller. With the Potteries’ side still undecided on a permanent first-choice strike duo, this could be Moult’s opportunity to force his way into contention.
Some Stoke fans may be disappointed with the club’s steadfast refusal to take the cup competitions seriously, given that they offer perhaps the only realistic chance of silverware for a club of the Potters’ stature. However, with Stoke currently just four points away from the relegation zone, and allegedly needing to sell before they can buy, Tony Pulis is right to focus all energies and resources on preserving the Midlands side’s Premier League status. With no disrespect to York City, Stoke’s fringe players should be more than capable of defeating a conference side.
Nevertheless, as Stoke City’s long-suffering supporters will know only too well, if any Premier League club should be ‘scalped’ this weekend, one can probably bank on it being Stoke City, regardless of which team the manager decides to put out. With embarrassing results over the last two decades against such minnows as Telford, Bath City, Nuneaton and Tamworth, FA Cup humiliation has become one of the Potters’ more hideous traditions.