Anyone who witnessed Stoke City’s narrow defeat to Tottenham last Saturday could not have failed to notice the impact of Tuncay when he was introduced from the bench around the hour mark. The Turk injected hitherto unseen invention into the Potters’ display, creating chances out of thin air for himself and others and all but single-handedly turning a team that was running out of ideas into one that was unlucky not to claim at least a point.
Tony Pulis, however, is not “anyone”, and preferred to play down Tuncay’s influence, focusing instead on his glaring close range miss and making the bizarre claim that Stoke were already on top before his introduction – an assessment that few spectators would have shared. The Potters’ boss has sent out decidedly mixed messages about the Turkish captain’s future in the Potteries of late. A strong, goal-laden pre-season earned plaudits from Pulis, and suggested that the erstwhile Middlesbrough man might finally put a turbulent first season behind him and make a real impact this time around. However, in spite of his impressive form, Tuncay once again found himself among the substitutes when the Potters kicked off their season against Wolves, while £11m was spent on two new forwards, with the manager less than shy about his intentions to bring in another before the window closes. Rumours of a move refuse to go away, with Pulis conceding that last summer’s £5m signing could join the exodus from the Britannia Stadium.
Tuncay’s arrival in the Potteries in August 2009 looked to be a real coup, but things seemed to go awry fairly quickly. It was almost five months before he was given a start in the league, and he struggled to hold down a regular place. Concerns expressed in some quarters about how he would fit into Stoke’s rigid formation appeared well-founded. Tuncay’s favoured positions were well-known to be in the hole behind the strikers, where he operated for Middlesbrough, or on the left of a fluid front three, where he is deployed for the Turkish national side. Yet wide players in a Pulis system are not granted the same freedom in which he thrives for his country, while the player in the hole at Stoke is the target man, expected to win the long balls in the air – hardly the strongest suit of the 5”11 Turk.
It is important not to overstate the player’s influence of course. So far, Tuncay’s deification by a large percentage of the Potters’ faithful is not commensurate with performances that have often seen him flatter to deceive. It is fair to say that he is not blameless for his relative lack of success at Stoke so far, while equally the manager can hardly be blamed for not wanting to abandon a system that has seen the club enjoy its most successful spell in 30 years.
Yet Tuncay has shown enough, even without his stellar pre-Stoke reputation, to warrant a fairer crack of the whip. It is ironic that the arrival of two strikers that has seemingly pushed him closer to the exit may between them hold the key to getting the best from him. Kenwyne Jones’s pace and power, as well as his ability to lead the line, might finally allow Tuncay to be used as the skilful support striker, sparking the long-awaited evolution in style. Jon Walters meanwhile, has already shown the makings of an understanding with the ex-Middlesbrough man in the pitch time they have shared so far, and the Ireland B international’s presence on the right wing, where he frequently played for Ipswich, would still provide a target for the team’s trademark direct, diagonal punts, while perhaps enabling a more subtle front two – such as Tuncay and Ricardo Fuller – to run riot.
There is still a missing piece of the jigsaw somewhere regarding the Tuncay puzzle. Numerous questions hang over his continued exclusion. Is it his attitude? Is there a rift with Pulis? Is it down to some complicated contract clause? Moreover, why was the considerable sum of £5m spent on a player that didn’t obviously fit into the team’s style of play?
Just 12 months in, Tuncay is already at the crossroads of his Stoke career. It is not too late for him to shine in a Stoke shirt – he has been in fine form of late, and he has earned the manager’s praise, as well as his ire, in recent weeks. Yet it seems just as likely that he will depart, and on some level, that would be an understandable decision for both parties – the Turk may end up somewhere where his abilities are better utilised and appreciated, while Stoke might profit better by replacing him with a player more at home in their system. A parting of ways, nevertheless, would be tinged with sadness, because players possessing his gifts and guile are rare in Stoke-On-Trent.