By Martin Smith
THESE DAYS I find myself torn as the endless war of attrition wages away on our very own Internet forum. As arguments rage backwards and forwards I find myself agreeing with both sides of the divide and siding with one camp, only to desert over to the other when a better and more compelling argument is made.
As anybody who accesses The Oatcake message board will know, the battle is being fought, once again, over the issue of manager Tony Pulis. It is a chasm that just won’t seem to go away.
There are those who speak out on his tactics, team selections and the way we set out to play the game, and they find themselves up against the supporters who want to stick up for the manager.
Those who speak out against TP point out the negative football and what they see as poor team selections, while those who defend him fiercely point to a current top half of the table league position, a trip to an FA Cup final, playing in Europe and our fifth season in the Premier League.
My problem is that I’m like a leaf blowing in the wind. There are times when I am in total agreement with one side and then find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with something said by the other.
I sometimes feel I have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, both of whom are shouting into my ear and trying to get me to join forces with them.
I find myself wholly agreeing with the critics and detractors who complain about the poor standard of football we typically have to endure on our travels and the devil on my shoulders urges me to join in with the tirade against the manager and his methods.
But then the angel has their say and I can see the merits of the counter-argument. We’re safe and solid in the Premier League and until recently we’d lost only three of our first ten league away games of the season. It might not be pretty but it was working.
But then you see the arguments about the wasted transfer millions and the buying of players who don’t fit our system, and then using them at the expense of players who are much better equipped to best enable TP’s own specialised brand of football to work to its fullest effect.
No sooner than am I agreeing with that sentiment than the angel points out to me that ALL managers make transfer deals they later wish they could take back.
Okay, we signed Charlie Adam and Peter Crouch and they’re not the ideal partnership if it means we stick Jon Walters out to the wing. But then it’s not like we’re struggling in the bottom three places and as the angel points out, even Alex Ferguson wasted £19m on David De Gea, while Chelsea pissed £50m up the local pub wall when they signed Fernando Torres. And let’s not even get started on Liverpool and their £35m for Carroll, £20m for Jordan Henderson and £17m for Stewart Downing!
At this point I’m firmly in the happy camp and I can’t even begin to understand why anybody is moaning about anything but that doesn’t last long.
The next argument points out that Tony Pulis is actually a very lucky manager who has been backed in financial terms far more than most of his peers and yet all he can do is plod his team to 45 points every season and a lower mid-table position.
Well, that is true to an extent. We are the third highest ‘net’ spenders over the past couple of seasons and we should have seen a bigger improvement for that sort of outplay.
But then again, what does it matter what the manager has spent? The Coates family were happy to give him the money and they continue to point out that they’re perfectly happy with the job Tony Pulis has down for Stoke City. In six years we’ve gone from being a mid-table Championship side with moderate prospects to a mid-table, respectable, stable and well-run Premier League outfit. In a lot of People’s eyes that’d be money extremely well spent.
And so it goes on, new thread after new thread, reply after reply and argument against counter-argument.
Each side makes great points and yet each side is usually wrong as often as it is right. And that’s why I find myself torn between wishing TP would ‘grow a pair’ or let someone else have a go and then hoping that he stays at the club for the next 20 years and continues to do exactly what he’s been doing up to this point.
A good argument is a good argument and that’s why so many of them are as compelling and persuasive as they are. It’s hard to disagree with so many of the points made.
However, a lot of these arguments are made from an entrenched position which people have bunkered down behind as the debate has grown more and more fierce.
As the arguments have continued some, though not all, have painted themselves into a corner to such a point that to admit that the other side has got any sort of point at all is to fatally weaken your own position.
Ultimately you have to weigh up both sides and try to find a genuine middle ground.
For myself, I love the fact that Stoke City are in the Premier League after being out of it for so long. Some of the memories we have already accumulated over the past five years are ones I shall take to the grave with me. It has also been a delight that my own two sons, after paying their dues in the lower divisions, are seeing a Stoke City playing in the top flight.
I can’t deny though that our style of football often troubles me and that going to away games has become something of a chore. I have always known that we’re going to lose far more away games than we ever win and I’ve travelled all over the country to watch terrible Stoke sides , slumping to one loss after another down the years.
This is different though. This is a collection of very good Stoke players turning out very poor football, and not by accident or lack of talent but by deliberate design. Our approach is to try and strangle the life out of every away game and then try to nick something, often without even really doing any attacking, towards the end.
It’s an approach like that which has seen us win just one of our last 21 league away games and it does make me despair.
Ultimately though, the one thing which really matters to me more than anything is the stability we have at the club right now. After so many years of turmoil and upheaval we now have a club which is stable and, up until now, relatively safe.
The football may not be pretty whenever we venture away from Trentham Lakes but in most other respects we are actually a club which has been on the up and up.
Sometimes in life we’re all guilty of looking more closely at what other people have got than what we ourselves have.
Ten years ago we’d have killed for what we have now and a manager with an annoyingly negative approach to games would have seemed like a small price to pay for everything which has come our way.
We all have an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other and for now I’m listening more to what the angel is saying. Things are not perfect and I do have my grievances but overall I can’t complain.
That so many fans do complain comes more from the depth of passion for the club, rather than a desire to find fault for the sake of it. Their concerns are almost entirely genuine .
And those who so unstintingly back the manager do so from a position of sincere belief that the club is in a good place and under the stewardship of a manager who will keep it there.
It seems though that until such time as we have an event which can unify both sides of the current divide that the war will continue and that people like me shall find themselves being swayed, from one side to the other and then back again.
Such a chasm in supporter opinion though is not a healthy thing to have at any club, regardless of how riveting a read it makes for the message boards.
This article appeared in Issue 532 of The Oatcake