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Sep 10, 2009

Pulis ready to challenge Stoke stereotype

Stereotypes can stick to a football club. Tottenham and West Ham are endlessly portrayed as purists. Likewise Celtic, with Rangers, are associated with physicality rather than flair. Aston Villa reputedly have class, Birmingham City a chip on their shoulder; and for some it will always be "Dirty Leeds".

As for Stoke City - well, they're easy to characterise. Tony Pulis' team are all about the long ball and long throw, aren't they? Not forgetting the raw-meat defenders, minimalist midfielders and high-rise strikers. According to one visiting manager, even the ball boys at the Britannia Stadium are 6ft 4in.

But things are changing at Stoke. When Chelsea hit the Potteries after the international break - the Londoners having been the only visitors to win comfortably in that sound trap of red and white aggression last season - the home fans will still deliver a deafening 'Delilah' and Pulis will carry on sporting his trademark tracksuit and baseball cap as he wears out the technical area with his pacing. Yet glib assumptions about the way Stoke play may be about to be challenged.

As their manager put it, unwittingly conjuring a memorable image to explain some intriguing deals before the transfer window closed: "If you stand still, you'll fall on your backside."

The final spate of summer signings - Robert Huth and Tuncay Sanli from Middlesbrough, Danny Collins from Sunderland and Diego Arismendi from Nacional of Uruguay - did not affect the size of Stoke's squad in one sense. It remains, on average, the tallest in the Premier League (fascinatingly, champions Manchester United have the smallest). In terms of numbers and options, however, Pulis now has a bigger selection at his disposal than at any time since he returned from Plymouth in 2006 - and two of his new recruits point to an understanding of the need to make Stoke less predictable.

If Huth and Collins could be categorised as typical Stoke buys, Tuncay, the 27-year-old Turkey captain who cost £5m, offers versatility and virtuosity; he can operate as a conventional striker, ghost around in the 'hole', play out wide or in midfield. His flamboyant touches and creative spark make him something of a throwback for Stoke.

Under Tony Waddington's management during the 1960s and 70s, the club specialised in what were then called schemers and ball-artists, with Stanley Matthews' homecoming paving the way for a succession of silky stars in stripes from Jimmy McIlroy, Denis Viollet and Peter Dobing through to Alan Hudson, Jimmy Greenhoff and Terry Conroy.

During the two decades following Waddington's departure, Stoke not only slipped out of the top flight - seemingly for good - but underwent a fundamental change of footballing philosophy. Lou Macari, who had two spells as manager, frequently expounded his theory that people who toiled in the Michelin car plant all day, or in the pottery industry or the pits, wanted to see players putting in a shift like them (whereas Waddington had seen it as his duty to give the workers some fantasy).

The Scot's teams were long on graft, if short on guile, although significantly the fans lionised the conspicuous exception to his modus operandi, the gifted striker Mark Stein, as "the Golden One".

Whether Tuncay would pass the Macari work-rate test remains to be seen. His skills are sometimes fitfully applied and could not prevent Middlesbrough suffering the relegation that the majority of pundits had predicted for newly-promoted Stoke in 2008-09. But he unquestionably possesses the talent to help take his new club to a new level.

It is the capture of Arismendi, though, which really raised eyebrows in North Staffordshire. Stoke are no strangers to importing foreigners, having had exotic talents such as Peter Hoekstra and countless workmanlike Icelanders in the ranks over the past decade. But the 21-year-old midfielder, who cost £2.75m, represents the first foray into the South American market since Dave Kemp switched from being Pulis' assistant to heading their scouting operation on that continent.

Stoke, typically, threw Arismendi straight into the fray. Within 36 hours of leaving Montevideo he found himself pitched in against Wolves reserves. Afterwards, Pulis purred about the "potential" of this "investment for the future", a statement calculated not to burden him with instant expectations. His new No. 2, Peter Reid, claimed the player had "a bit of everything" in that he specialised as a holding midfielder, but could get from box to box and showed vision in his passing.

Tuncay and Arismendi, then, bring something different to Stoke's quest to avoid the second-season syndrome that claimed its most recent victim in Reading 18 months ago. Pulis, shrewdness personified, is aware it could be hard for a Turk and a Uruguayan to settle in the Six Towns but has clearly calculated that their introduction will not weaken Stoke's striking dressing-room spirit.

Another statement of the Potters' ambitions - bankrolled by chairman Peter Coates, a lifelong fan whose Bet365 business has made him the 25th richest person in British football - was the fact that they did not cash in on their most coveted player during the transfer window.

Ryan Shawcross had attracted interest from several Premier League rivals, all of whom, judging by the deals involving Richard Dunne, James Collins and Michael Turner, seemed intent on stocking up on centre-backs. Coates is old enough to remember Stoke selling their most prized assets and paying the price; even the late, venerated Waddington did it unsuccessfully with John Ritchie when they were vying for the league leadership in the 1960s (though he later bought him back and Ritchie is still the all-time record scorer).

Holding on to Shawcross was another signal of Stoke's aspirations to re-establish themselves among the elite. Yes, they could still go the way of Reading, but having survived with relative comfort in the spring they are arguably just as likely to push Villa, from whom they prised four points last season, for the distinction of finishing as the Midlands' top team.

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