“All we want is parity. We want the same as other football clubs and I don’t think at times we get that.” Tony Pulis, February 2009
The post-match sight of Tony Pulis railing against refereeing decisions is becoming an increasingly familiar one. Mike Dean once again felt the wrath of the Stoke City manager after sending off his third Potters player of the season. Dean Whitehead’s dismissal was the Potteries club’s fifth red card, equalling the number which saw them anchored to the bottom of the Premier League fair play table last term. Pulis and the Potters’ chairman, Peter Coates, have long maintained Stoke’s reputation as a ‘physical’ side precedes them and referees have pre-judged them based on this idea. The Welshman’s decision to contact Professional Game Match Officials manager Mike Riley, in an attempt to have another referee assigned prior to Saturday’s game with Tottenham, was not the first time the club’s hierarchy have protested about their treatment from officials. In the wake of last season’s high-profile spat with Arsene Wenger, Pulis contacted Keith Hackett, Riley’s predecessor, to seek assurances that the Potters would be treated fairly by referees, saying: “perception is a massive thing in football…I expect referees to act on what they see and not what they hear.” Coates’ frustrations at the perceived inconsistencies of top flight officials, who he felt favoured the big clubs, led him to send a DVD to the FA of Chelsea’s players being allowed to harangue the referee unpunished during September’s 2-1 defeat to the Blues.
So is there a conspiracy against Stoke City? The Potters have been awarded the least number of fouls in the Premier League this season, and by a distance. It is also true that the Midlanders have experienced bad luck with officials. All of the sendings off overseen by Dean were for fairly innocuous fouls – both managers, in the wake of Saturday’s defeat to Tottenham, agreed the second yellow received by Whitehead was harsh. Andy Wilkinson’s dismissal at Fratton Park by Dean followed a second booking for an infringement which was subsequently shown not even to be a foul, while Stoke fans will forever curse the name of Mike Riley for failing to send off Patrick Vieira in February’s bad-tempered draw with Manchester City, before disallowing Ryan Shawcross’ perfectly legitimate injury time winner. Yet to some extent, perhaps the Potters have to look in the mirror and accept a portion of the responsibility. It is all very well complaining that the club’s reputation is influencing officials, but at times Stoke seem only too happy to revel in their notoriety. Ricardo Fuller’s talk before Stoke’s FA Cup fourth round victory over Arsenal of “roughing up” the Gunners was hardly an attempt to distance the club from existing perceptions. It is safe to say that the Aaron Ramsey incident didn’t help either. Regardless of whether the Potters’ reputation is deserved or otherwise, 11 red cards in two seasons is unacceptable and has proven costly. A rash of dismissals last February threatened to plunge the club into the relegation zone, while suspensions for Faye, Shawcross and Wilkinson saw Pulis struggle to field a defence last month – with midfield dynamo Whitehead having to operate as an emergency right-back on one occasion.
Moreover, both teams suffered from Dean’s officiating at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday. The Whitehead dismissal was harsh, and the referee was draconian in dishing out cautions to Stoke players. Yet Spurs might feel aggrieved that Robert Huth’s flattening of Gareth Bale at the far post went unpunished, especially since Dean theatrically pointed to the spot to award the Potters a penalty for an identical incident moments later. Similarly, Fuller – already booked for a late tackle on Bale – could easily have earned a second yellow for an embarrassing second half dive. While the protestations of titans in the Ferguson and Wenger mould undoubtedly have an impact on refereeing decisions – as Coates was right to highlight – Stoke are simply not prestigious enough a side to make their voice heard in the same way. The frequent complaints from the club’s management might actually prove counter-productive, by making enemies of officials and keeping a spotlight rather than giving it a chance to fade away. To some extent the Potters are well within their rights to feel frustrated with officialdom as they continue to get to grips with life amongst the elite. In the long run however, Stoke City might profit from choosing their battles more carefully, and knowing when to maintain a dignified silence.