Stoke are changing, and it's profoundly disconcerting


You know, there was a part of me that mourned for Manchester City, the old, calamitous Manchester City, when Sergio Aguero hit that title-clinching winner.

Just when it seemed that old, calamitous City still existed somewhere underneath all of that money, like Anakin Skywalker wheezing away inside Darth Vader, it was ruthlessly snuffed out in injury time. 

I liked Old City. I rooted for them in the same way that I rooted for Frank Spencer, knowing that whatever they tried, it would somehow end with Alan Ball careering down a hill in rollerskates clutching a terrified Georgie Kinkladze to his sweaty breast. But Old City are no more.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, now Old Stoke City have been taken from me too. Last weekend, for the first time in recent years. Stoke played a game and they were not the most thuddingly dull football team on the pitch. That honour belonged to West Ham. Stoke, by contrast, passed the ball. They passed it on the floor. They prodded and probed, looking for gaps, stretching West Ham’s formidable backline. Steven Nzonzi kept stroking the ball like Xabi Alonso. Geoff Cameron kept dinking it like Cesc Fabregas. I won’t lie to you, it was profoundly disconcerting.

I liked Old Stoke. I’d always defended their right to play like a team of rock trolls, even if several of those rock trolls went in for simple 50-50 challenges as if they’d just been sent naked pictures of their wife in an unfamiliar bedroom. Why should there be an obligation to play what some will call ‘proper’ football? That would only play into the hands of the elite few clubs whose earning potential far exceeds the likes of Stoke, thanks to the Champions League cash cartel. Clubs like Stoke, historic, proud clubs, do not have a duty to roll over and offer up their tummies for tickling. As long as they stay within the rules. they’re entitled to play however they like. 

The problem was that this functional, prosaic style of football was only supposed to be a means to an end, a sweaty lunge for consolidation before they transformed into something more palatable. Unfortunately, despite spending famine-ending sums of money on transfer fees and wages, Stoke never really improved. By the end of last season, even those supporters who had so valiantly defended the honour of Tony Pulis were daring to dream of a life with the occasional shot on target. It was easy enough to warn them to be careful what they wished for, but when you’re spending the bulk of your disposable income following your team around the country, you’re entitled to hope for a goal or two. 

Now Stoke are playing nice football. They’ve even signed Steven Ireland, a man who can cut through a defence like a laser when he isn’t buying tiny pink sports cars or claiming that his relatives have died. The future looks bright. Alright, they’re not quite Barcelona, but at least now they might have a pass completion total that gets into triple figures every now and then. I understand all of that, I get all of that, but it doesn’t make me any happier. 

Old Stoke were one of the character teams of the Premier League and, like Old City, I think I’m going to miss them.


Read more from Iain Macintosh here.