I've developed a grudging respect for Stoke City, even if they do cause me to giggle. A few curious thoughts on the latest chapter in their recent history...
As I was walking to work this morning, the absurdity of Stoke City's new-found abilities in the transfer market – the most recent of which being the ability to successfully sign Peter Crouch – was churning around in my head.
How had Stoke City - STOKE CITY - managed to sign a player with such an excellent international goalscoring record? A player who acquitted himself very well in the Champions League last season. For twelve million actual English poundlings. How had this come to be?
I can only assume that some sort of kidnap-style siege took place, with Crouch told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to be enjoying Abbey Clancy's wobbly bits again any time soon, he'd better chuffing well sign the bit of paper.
As I lost myself in these stupid thoughts, I wondered what Pulis might have said to Crouch the moment the ink was dry. I imagine it was something along the lines of "Aha! There's no going back now, lad. It's too late. You're mine, all mine."
I don't know what was on my Cornflakes this morning, but I ended up picturing Pulis as the sinister, wife-collecting circus master Pappa Lazarou from The League of Gentlemen. A disturbing image and one you'll doubtless not want to visualise if you can help it...
|Peter Crouch pictured at his unveiling with Stoke boss Tony Pulis|
(That's the Photoshopper Of The Year 2011 award in the bag, I'd say)
I genuinely laughed out loud when I saw the news of Crouch's signing. I don't know why it tickled me so, but it did. There's just something very funny about Stoke and when they sign really famous players, as they seem to be doing with increasing regularity, it provokes an involuntary response from me along the lines of "Haha, him? Stoke? Really? What's he doing joining them, the silly clot!"
But then this is Stoke's fourth season in the Premier League. Those multiple millions in TV rights start to stack up after a while, until eventually a chairman realises – to quote the Blur song – "Whoops, I've got a lot of money" and starts wondering how he might spend it. (Everton fans, I know you're scratching your heads at this juncture. We don't quite understand it either.)
So having stockpiled cash for a while, suddenly Stoke have splurged on Crouch, Wilson Palacios, Cameron Jerome, Matthew Upson and Jonathan Woodgate. All of a sudden, a squad already containing some very good players starts to look something of a menace. Add in the Premier League's noisiest fans, gleefully singing themselves hoarse to the tune of 'Delilah' for reasons unknown, and you've got one heck of a tricky away day on your hands.
You sense Pulis has long fantasised at the prospect of having someone as tall as Crouch for Rory Delap to aim his Exocet long-throws towards. How many teams will crumble as Delap launches repeated missiles towards Crouch, Kenwyne Jones, Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross? How high could Stoke finish in the Premier League this season? Fourth? It is a terrifying prospect. Yet, if they managed it, I'd fall about laughing. It's just funny.
Since Stoke qualified for the Europa League by reaching the FA Cup final, a lot of the cynicism towards them has turned into good will. It's as if people are thinking, "Well, I don't like what you do, but I have to take my hat off and admire what you've been able to achieve."
Even I've softened. I've never had any beef with the club, but I've spent two-thirds of my life not being able to stand Tony Pulis. He was a pretty terrible manager of my team (Bournemouth) in the 1990s and tried to get us playing physical, long ball football too. As a team with strong passing traditions, we never took to it and were glad when he was gone. But he's built on his philosophy as he's gone along, learning from his mistakes and turning Stoke into a formidable opponent for any team. Perhaps the most commonly cited cliché in football last season was the one that goes "Yeah, Messi's good, but could he do it on a wet Wednesday night at the Brittannia?" The humour's worn thin now but, still, praise indeed.
I have to admit that I have a certain amount of admiration for Tony Pulis now. I'll never entirely like him, but I can't help but admire him a bit. Lots of us support sides that play pretty football, but would we swap it all for the season those noisy boys at the Britannia will enjoy this season with the squad they've assembled? Not all of us would, but there'd certainly be a good few takers.