Stoke City face Bolton Wanderers today in the second FA Cup semi-final of the weekend with the winners going on to face Manchester City in May, and Stoke’s appearance in the Wembley showpiece is the highest profile confirmation of the progress made by the Potters under Tony Pulis in the last few years, a development bookended by two meetings with Owen Coyle’s side.
When Stoke were promoted to the Premier League in 2008 they faced Bolton in their first game, and after a 3-2 defeat at the Reebok Stadium one prominent bookmaker paid out on Stoke to be relegated. Fast forward two-and-a-half years and that same bookmaker can barely separate the two sides. A promotional gimmick it may have been, but it was founded in a prevailing attitude – Stoke did not stand a chance in the Premier League, an opinion held by both Sky
That respectable finish, and last season’s subsequent jump of one place and two points, was brought with a style that the Guardian described ahead of Stoke’s Premier League bow as: “Elephant Man-ugly.” Owen Coyle, manager of today’s opponents, however, has been a vocal supporter of Pulis’ tactics, saying in April 2010: “I think they get tagged with a name that is disrespectful to them. They have attributes and strengths that they play to, but equally they are not adverse to getting the ball down and passing and moving it.” According to one statistics website, Stoke’s outfield players have been successful with 24 long balls, compared to 29 for Coyle’s Bolton. While the definition of a long ball remains unclear – and the difference between a long ball and a long pass is largely subjective – Coyle clearly agrees with Pulis that it is a viable tactic.
After last season’s finish of 11th, Stoke’s presence in the latter stages of the FA Cup is a mark of how far Stoke have come under Pulis. No longer do Stoke begin each season amongst the favourites for relegation – this year, the Guardian tipped Stoke to again finish 11th, and that the odds offered by most betting shops can barely separate Bolton, widely praised under Coyle, and Stoke is another feather in Pulis’ trademark baseball cap. Bolton, the sort of established Premier League side Stoke are aiming to be in the short-term, began their life back in the top flight in much the same way as Pulis’ side – predicted to be relegation fodder and disrespectfully dismissed because of their agricultural style. Instead, Wanderers have been ever-present in the Premier League since promotion in 2001, reaching European competition on more than one occasion and developing into a well-rounded outfit. Stoke’s evolution may not be complete but there is much to be proud of at the Britannia Stadium, and much to look forward to.