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The Match

Stoke City's miserable relegation a result of losing their aggressive identity

In some respects the surprise is not that Stoke City have been relegated, the inevitable confirmed by a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, but more that they spent a decade in the Premier League.

Admittedly this has not exactly been the story of romantic paupers, given their not insignificant financial backing from their betting company sponsors, but they are a team who for long spells of their time in the top flight have behaved like outsiders, scrappy insurgents trying to give the big boys a black eye.

But whether it suited their sensibilities or not, they have become a fixture in the Premier League, and it will be strange to no longer have them around. Initially as Tony Pulis' rough-housers, they tried to clean up their image a little and play more attractive football. In the process, though, they lost some of their identity, they stagnated and in the last year or so under Mark Hughes it was tricky to properly describe what sort of team they were.

Hughes should have gone before the January FA Cup defeat by League Two Coventry turned out to be the final straw. That was exacerbated by the identity of his successor, their insistence on having a manager with Premier League experience leading them to Paul Lambert, who in his last two appointments did middling jobs in the Championship. Underwhelming would be one way to describe their choice.

Lambert won his first game, against Huddersfield on Jan. 20, but not another one after that. The defence was tightened, which led to more draws (seven) in his 14 games in charge than they managed in the previous 23 (five).

But those were single points rather than three because of their attack: they have scored only 10 in his tenure, and only found the net more than once in one game. You could easily argue it therefore wasn't Lambert's fault, that a manager is only as good as his strikers, but the best you can say about his time in the Potteries is that he's done a neutral job.

For what it's worth, in a league table comprised only of games since his appointment, Stoke would be third bottom. Still not much use. They can only wonder what might have been if they'd brought in someone with a little more substance.

Lambert seemed keen to emphasise that the damage had already been done before his appointment. "Your season starts in July," he said.

"When you don't get results you sleepwalk into situations you never want to be and we never had enough. What I can say is that since I've been at the club, the players have given absolutely everything and came up short. It's a chance for Stoke to rebuild."

Against Palace, the atmosphere in the stands seemed to be one of aggressive anxiety, the Stoke fans keen to keep up their boisterous, intimidating image, but that seemed like a front. Like the chest-thumping alpha male who secretly has deep insecurities, these were fans trying to distract from the sure knowledge that the jig was very nearly up.

The fans railed against perceived refereeing injustices, as did Lambert on the touchline. A huge, ironic cheer went up when they were given a free-kick, from which they instantly gave away the ball. That provided a handy summary of things: the referees aren't the reason this team are in trouble.

But then, hope. Xherdan Shaqiri fizzed a free kick into the top corner, and anxiety quickly turned into optimism. That's the great thing about football: even if it's for a short amount of time, the implausible can suddenly feel entirely possible, inevitable even. With that swing of Shaqiri's meaty left leg, the Stoke fans present went from nervous despair to belief.

Despair has never been far away this season, though. James McArthur equalised then, in a cruel irony, their stalwart captain Ryan Shawcross, with them since the last time they were in the second tier, turned a poor pass from Wilfried Zaha into an inch-perfect through-ball to Patrick van Aanholt. After he completed the formalities, there looked very little chance of Stoke producing an unlikely recovery.

That's been a theme. Leads have been lost against Burnley, Bournemouth, West Ham and Leicester in recent weeks; points tossed aside carelessly.

"It's people being anxious, worried about what might happen when we've got the lead," said Lambert, and simply with that explanation you see why Stoke have been relegated. If scoring makes a team worried, it's no wonder they're going down.

At the final whistle, Roy Hodgson, whose Palace side confirmed safety with this win, briefly celebrated before turning to commiserate with Lambert. That's not an empty gesture: relegation for a club like Stoke has real consequences: budgets will be cut to reflect the division, and that doesn't just mean on the playing staff.

Many of the home fans had left by the time the Stoke players shuffled mournfully around the pitch, but those who stayed applauded them heartily, more than perhaps their performances this season have deserved. Joe Allen was called over to the touchline by a sheepish official holding a trophy, which was presumably a player of the year award. Allen, politely, wanted little part of it.

"The football club will come back fighting," said Lambert.

But with an imbalanced squad that will inevitably have to be gutted an overhauled in the summer, they will need plenty of fight to come back.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.


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