🕵️‍♂️ Football League Focus: Stoke City

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OneFootball

Alex Mott

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Welcome to our latest series here at OneFootball where we’re shining a light on one Football League club each week.

It’s our chance to go in-depth on sides that don’t normally attract our attention and hold up a magnifying glass to the plethora of brilliant stories outside the Premier League.

So far we have looked at:

This week we ask: can you do it on a wet Wednesday night at Stoke?


Can you tell me a bit about the club?

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A working class club in a working class city, the Potters, one of the founding members of the Football League, had two Golden Ages in their almost 140-year history.

Despite being decidedly anti-glamour, Stoke can lay claim to English football’s original wing wizard, and perhaps – alongside Alfredo di Stefano – the greatest player of his generation, Sir Stanley Matthews.

Trophies may have been thin on the ground in Staffordshire but the stories really haven’t been.


Any great moments from their history?

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Founded in 1868 as the Stoke Ramblers, it wasn’t until the early 1930s that Stoke City, as they eventually became, were anything other than a middling Second Division side.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the arrival of Matthews onto the scene that catapulted the Potters to relative success and ensured that the Midlands became a hotbed of football in England.

Matthews made his debut for his boyhood club in 1932, aged 17 but it was in the next season though, where he established himself as a first team regular as Stoke were crowned  Second Division champions.

His astonishing pace and ability on the ball quickly earned admiring glances from the England selectors, who picked him for a Home International against Wales.


It was only the outbreak of the Second world war that halted Stoke’s progress up the First Division, but when football did resume in 1946, Matthews was perhaps the world’s greatest footballer.

He contributed to 33 of Stoke’s 44 goals in 46/47, as they finished fourth in the league, just two points behind winners Liverpool.

Matthews was 32 at this point, and wondering how long his career would last, eventually moved to Blackpool in order to try and win some silverware.

It worked but his Stoke story wouldn’t end there.

Without their talisman, Stoke would slide down the division and were eventually relegated in 1952 and stayed in the Second Division for just over a decade.

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Astonishingly though, in 1961 at the age of 46, Matthews re-signed for the club and just a year after his second stint at the Victoria Ground, was instrumental as they became Second Division champions once again.

The 1963/64 season was their first back in the top flight for 12 years and with the help of a now knighted Matthews, the Potters finished safely in mid-table and made it to their first ever major cup final.

That Football League Cup final ended in heartbreak for Stoke as they lost 4-3 to Leicester and just a few months later Matthews eventually decided to hang up his boots at the age of 50.

He may have never won a trophy, but Matthews would go down as an English football legend, and eventually watched from the Royal Box at Wembley in 1972 when Stoke finally won their first and only major silverware in the form of the EFL Cup.

Chelsea were the side put to the sword by Waddington’s men, as Terry Conroy and George Eastham netted the goals in a 2-1 win, ending the club’s 109-year wait for a trophy.

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You have to fast forward 36 years though, before Stoke fans had anything of note to shout about.

Pulis was in his second spell as manager when the club were promoted to the Premier League for the first time in 2008.

Many expected the club to struggle with the pace and quality posed by top flight sides. Things couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Under Pulis’ leadership, Stoke established themselves as a Premier League heavyweight, staying in the division for 10 years and turning the Bet365 Stadium into a genuine fortress.

There were famous wins over Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City, while it was the latter of those sides who they faced in their first ever FA Cup final in 2011.

It was defeat for the Potters that day but it did earn them a place in the Europa League the following year, with memorable trips to Besiktas, Dynamo Kyiv and Valencia.

That was the peak of the Pulis years. It has been a slow decline since.


And surely there must be some lows as well?

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The mid-1980s to the early oughts were Stoke’s real nadir, with 1984/85 going down in infamy as the Potters finished the season with just 17 points from 42 games – which equated to just three wins all campaign long and a then league-record of 91 goals conceded.

It was during this time that Stoke fans gained a reputation as one of the worst-behaved in English football, with the Naughty Forty hooligan firm going down as one the most violent in the country.

The BBC, in a 2000 article, described them as “one of the most active and organised football hooligan firms in England” which eventually led to the club introducing an Away Travel ID Scheme for matches – a Football League first.

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Those dark times off the pitch thankfully have disappeared now but the bad days on it have been more recent than supporters would like.

After Pulis departed in 2013, Mark Hughes was supposed to take the Midlands side into a new dawn but instead they botched a number of different signings and eventually were relegated from the Premier League club under Paul Lambert.

Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones have since been in charge, with the latter cutting an extraordinarily exasperated figure during his eight months on the sidelines, eight months that saw Stoke draw a remarkable 22 games.

Northern Irishman Michael O’Neill is in the hot seat now though and looks to have transformed a dejected squad.


Who are the club legends?

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Sir Stanley Matthews was not just Stoke’s greatest but was also, inarguably, one of the top five best players the British Isles have ever produced.

John Ritchie is Stoke’s all-time leading goalscorer and was talismanic in both their 1962 Second Division-winning side and the League Cup triumph a decade later.

Gordon Banks was Stoke’s only other truly world class player whose career was tragically cut short in 1972 when he lost his eye in a car accident.


What about the current squad? Any players to look out for?

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Nick Powell was once thought of as Manchester United and England’s next midfield maestro, and although his move to Old Trafford didn’t quite work out as planned, the former Crewe graduate seems to have found his level in the Championship and has been running things for Michael O’Neill’s side all season long.

One of the youngsters that has emerged this season is winger Jacob Brown. Signed from Barnsley this summer, the 22-year-old has been a fixture in the starting XI and looks like a frightening prospect for any Championship full-back.


Is the manager any good?

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There’s an argument to suggest that O’Neill is one of the most underrated coaches in English football right now.

The 51-year-old did an astonishing job with the Northern Ireland national team during his nine-year tenure and has steadied Stoke’s ship considerably since his appointment last year.

Under his guidance, the Potters finally look to be going places once again.


Finally, how are things looking this season?

Two wins and two draws from their first gives games is a solid return.

Stoke’s upcoming fixture list – Norwich, Reading, Swansea, Huddersfield – looks imposing, but with a fair wind and some luck with injuries by the end of November, O’Neill’s men could well be set fair for a play-off push.