Why aren’t Stoke scoring more goals? Do fans still like Tony Pulis? Has Alex Neil got a restraining order? Do Norwich supporters always take photos of opposition fans in pubs? Stoke fan Anthony Bunn, editor of DUCK magazine, tells Dan Brigham all there is to know ahead of tonight’s game
Dan: Hi Anthony. Bit of an odd season so far for Stoke, isn't it? You've beaten Chelsea, Manchester City, Man United, Everton and reached the semis of the League Cup, but have struggled to get results against sides in the bottom half of the table. Why do you think that is?
Anthony: It’s been a funny season, but one that has followed a similar pattern to the last two. We’ve been a second-half-of-the-season team since Mark Hughes took over two-and-a-half years ago, and if that is replicated in the next five months or so then we will have had another cracking campaign.
Off the pitch, you always lift your game a level for the bigger clubs – and don’t forget, most of the perceived big clubs are under an hour or so from us, so relatively local. On the pitch, we didn’t just beat, we hammered both Manchester clubs, with the Citeh performance possibly the best in my four decades watching Stoke.
Where we’ve fallen short is against teams who play a bit like the Stoke of old. Teams who sit deep, and are physical… and also when teams press our defence we struggle a bit as we have very little up front that we can play long too. While Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautović and Bojan have all the talent in the world, none are target men.
The next two weeks makes or breaks our season. Two home games in the league, a huge second leg at Anfield – which would be a monumental effort to pull off – and the fourth round of the FA Cup , which is a pig of a draw at Palace.
Dan: With Shaqiri, Arnautović and Bojan the assumption would be that Stoke have shit-loads of goals in them. But your 21 goals is more than only four teams in the division. Has Hughes struggled to get the most out of them? Or are you missing a proper goalscorer to take advantage of their creativity? Or are they inconsistent?
Anthony: The aforementioned three players are simply outstanding. There is no denying their ability. The problem is fitting them all in to a system that utilises their undoubted strengths. That’s not easy. It’s not to say they don’t put a shift in, they all do. It’s that if they all play then it usually means we go without a ‘proper’ striker. When we play well, we’re breathtaking. When we don’t, we can look very average.
That’s why managers get paid the big bucks – Sparky has signed them, it’s up to him to get the best out of them.
Personally, I’d play all three. It’s a bit like watching the Harlem Globetrotters at times. They didn’t win any cups, but they entertained and you saw things you never thought you’d see. I’d go with a striker up top, those three behind, two holding midfielders, the back four, and the best goalkeeper in the country.
I wobble my head every time I think that Bojan cost 1/56th of a Marouane Fellaini. The bloke is simply a joy to watch when he’s on form He was born to have a football under his control. Arnie is mard, temperamental, part-genius. When he’s on it, he’s unstoppable. When he’s not, you’ll know by the shoulders. Shaqiri is Shaqiri. Capable of beating the same player five ties in a row, but still to really hit top gear at The Brit.
Dan: In the game at Carrow Road earlier in the season Butland was so good that I found myself applauding one of his saves. I wasn't even aware I was doing it. I just looked down and my hands were clapping. He was outstanding, and it seems he has been all season. How close do you think he is – or should be – to truly challenging Joe Hart as England's No.1?
Anthony: That’s a relatively easy one to answer. On current for he is the England No.1. No question about that. That’s not to say I think a) he should start or b) it makes any difference with that clown Hodgson in charge.
Butland and Hart will probably be the modern day equivalent of Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence. At 22 years old, Butland’s potential is staggering. Lovely lad, too.
Dan: Now there's a bit of distance between Stoke and the Tony Pulis era, what's it like watching his teams as a neutral? West Brom have done the double over Stoke this season, but is Pulis still a legend in Stoke or do fans wish he'd just piss off and leave the Premier League alone like most neutral fans seem to think?
Anthony: TP got us promoted, kept us up, won 5-0 in an FA Cup semi at Wembley, reached our first FA Cup final, and got us into Europe. I don’t give a toss what people think about his football. They’re just football snobs who probably have forgotten (or weren’t around) when their own club played like that. We loved watching Stoke kick footballing sand in the faces of the big boys when they came to ST4. And if people were truthful, I reckon quite a few others did, too.
Do you really think I’ll slate the bloke who did all of the above, just because we had a bloke who could throw it miles and we got stuck in?
By the way, have you done a poll of what most neutral Premier League fans think of Tony Pulis?
Dan: I hate the guy, and hate his football, but would almost certainly have loved it if he’d done for Norwich what he did for Stoke. He can still piss off though.
Despite being 10th, you're only five points off Man United in 5th. Is Europe still a realistic ambition this season and, after the signings you've made, would it be a disappointment if you miss out? Is it annoying to see teams like Leicester, Palace and West Ham ahead of you?
Anthony: Firstly, I’m never disappointed by who is in front of us in the table. Why would I be? Indeed, it would be ace if a Leicester or Norwich ever won it if we couldn’t.
We did the Europa in 2011-12 and it was mint. Stoke travelled further in the group stages than any UK team has ever done before – Kiev, Istanbul and Tel Aviv – and also had ace away-days in Split, Thun, and Valencia. Around 8,000 Stokies went to Valencia (with 2,500 tickets!): who wouldn’t want the chance to sing “Stoke is a shithole, I’d rather stay here” in the middle of the cathedral square in Valencia again?
Will we do it? I don’t think we score enough to be honest. We will, football-wise, murder a few teams this year, but we’ll also be a soft-ish touch in other games too. We’ll finish around 9th where we did last season. We can finish 4th bottom for me if it meant another day out at Wembley.
Dan: How's your home form been this season, and how does Hughes normally set the team up at the Britannia?
Anthony: Home form has been erratic. As you alluded to: beat the bigger clubs, struggle against others. It could be anything tonight, and I think he’ll give Joselu a go up-front and possibly go with the set-up I’ve mentioned before. I hope he does.
If your set-pieces are half-decent, that’s an area we struggle with. Imagine saying that three years ago – Stoke City struggling with set-pieces! We don’t mard about it though, like the rest of the country did when we were the protagonists.
Dan: Have you seen much of Norwich this season? What do you make of them under Alex Neil?
Anthony: I love Norwich as a city. We had a great weekend down there a few years back. Ace pubs and ended up in Karma Kafe – they played New Order, James, Stone Roses, Joy Division etc all night. Bit like taking our own cd collection into a decent club with ace locals who randomly came up to us, thanked us for visiting their city, and wanted pictures for some reason. Seriously, is this the norm?
I hope you stay up, just so we get the chance to do that again. Buy us a few beers next time, yeah?
Oh, and you have an area of your city called Tombland! That is just absolutely ace! Tombland, mint name that.
As for Alex Neil. I know little about him but he sees sound. Bit miserable and serious, mind. Looks like he’s the sort who’d either get chucked out of a pub if it was Happy Hour or needs to fill in a risk assessment for before kissing someone. He’s not acted the mard about refs, and sees like the decent sort who lies that he’s happy with the Linx giftset that he got for Chrimbo.
Dan: Yeh, getting photos of visiting fans enjoying the city is pretty normal... we're so used to people assuming the city is a provincial dump that we go a bit mad when people stick around and love it.
Finally, what's your score prediction?
Anthony: I think we’ll sneak it 2-1. Your goal, a 35-yard piece of mis-control by Cameron Jerome! <inserts winky>
Dan: Cheers. I wasn’t all that confident, but we’re good at set-pieces and press the defence high, so I’m going 1-1 now.
Anthony Bunn is editor of DUCK magazine, which is monthly, glossy, A5, and ace. It’s full of Stoke, Stoke City, Music, Nightlife, Clothes, Weirdos on trains, Life, Love, and Hope. It can be bought from www.duckstoke.co.uk. Follow them at @DUCKmagstoke