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In the mid-1980s, a long-serving and highly successful Stoke City commercial manager predicted that the club, if relegated that season, would not return to the top flight of English football in his lifetime.

It was a bold, some would say overly pessimistic, comment from such a senior employee, even if Dudley Kernick - himself a former lower-division player - was already in his mid-60s.

Well, Stoke did duly go down that year (1985) and, yes, supporters must have wondered whether they would ever come back.

As the years of exile turned to decades and the First Division to the Premier League, the club moved grounds, got through a dozen managers and had a spell in the third tier. Then came Tony Pulis.

His first spell was largely one of pottering, if you'll pardon the pun, around the middle of the Championship after another relegation had been narrowly avoided. His second, from the summer of 2006, has been one long upward curve.

Stoke are once more among the elite; they have contested an FA Cup final, had a long run in Europe and survived where similar-sized nearby clubs like Birmingham, Wolves, Leicester, Derby and Nottingham Forest have risen and fallen, or not risen at all.

But no longer, it seems, is Premier League respectability acceptable. Much though the manager has given to the Potteries masses, they want more.

There has been booing at recent home games and Pulis, unless we are misreading the signals, is considering his future beyond the end of the season.

So why the signs of breakdown in team-supporter relations at a venue where harmony between the two has been integral to the creation of a special atmosphere at the Britannia Stadium?

Despite their slide since the turn of the year, Stoke seem well set to remain above the danger line and secure a sixth successive season of Premier League football. Not bad for a club who had gone 23 seasons without. It's difficult to think of another traditionally top-flight club who have caught up so well, having spent over a decade and a half on the outside looking in on the rebranded, TV-driven top division.

Stoke have also raised their profile considerably through signing the likes of Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam, Steven Nzonzi and the soon-to-retire Michael Owen. Not since the late Tony Waddington was able to lure the likes of Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greenhoff, Alan Hudson, George Eastham and Peter Shilton have they appeared so magnetic to big names.

And, hand in hand with this considerable squad strengthening, leftover cash has been used to build an impressive new training ground a couple of Rory Delap long throws from the M6.

The club are further forward than at any time in more than 30 years and, clearly, so are fans' expectations. No other explanation springs immediately to mind for the unrest. Let's face it, not even those who find Pulis engaging company would argue that the football he cultivates is a thing of beauty. It has often been tough viewing, not least when those Delap howitzers were such an important part of the team's armoury two or three years ago.

The dissenters were apparently prepared to turn a blind eye to ugly football then while it was winning football - or it was the football of the underdog. Since Boxing Day, though, with consolidation at this level long since achieved, 14 games have brought only two wins and 13 goals and the away form over the same stretch (five defeats, one draw and just two goals from six trips) has been particularly turgid.

A strong finish to the season and the hecklers may well abate - such is the fickleness of the game. But Pulis's mind may be made up.

Ignore that nonsense about him taking the club as far as he can and name the man who can realistically take them further than they already are. Sometimes, staying where you are is a right good result.

At 55, the Newport-born Pulis is young enough to fulfil his ambition of one day managing Wales. In the meantime, though, he may look abroad and has favoured America, where the club have their former striker Adrian Heath heading up an academy, both for pre-season trips and player recruitment in recent times.

Who knows, they may be a friendly face to greet him. Dudley Kernick, who was pictured in the Stoke Sentinel smiling and giving a glad-to-be-proved-wrong thumbs-up when the club won promotion in 2008, is a sprightly ninety-something now living in Florida.


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