Martin O’Neill’s current links to Stoke City come after a turbulent time for a club celebrating a decade in the Premier League.
The Potters have enjoyed consecutive seasons in the Premier League including stints where they were among the favourites for relegation. Tony Pulis established the side as a regular top flight fixture with a direct style of football played out by a team consisting of players that brought the club up in 2008 or signed for relatively low fees compared to the current market.
Some of the feature of this old school but effective approach included long balls, robust central midfielders and centre half’s, old-fashioned drop the head and run wingers and Rory Delap’s trademark long throw ins. These traits along with Pulis’ clever ploy of slightly widening the Britannia’s (now bet365 Stadium) pitch brought the challenge of getting a result ‘on a wet night in Stoke’.
Their lowest finish under Pulis was 14th, an extremely respectful placing for a club on limited resources. However, despite thriving without overwhelming, Stoke fans wanted their club to make the next step up, quite possibly European football. Pulis was sacked with Mark Hughes taking the club a little further with three consecutive 9th place finishes. Last seasons 13th place finish after spending big was a disappointment with their current standing of 18th spelling the end of the ‘Sparky’s’ tenure.
Stoke were never challengers for Champions League football but their maintenance within the league given their initially humble resources was impressive. The difference this season could be put down to a number of factors but two particular ones possibly stand out in the minds of many, especially in the eyes of Irish fans.
Glenn Whelan joined Stoke’s promotion push in 2008 after catching the eye as a youthful captain of Sheffield Wednesday. Although he initially struggled for games following promotion, Whelan went on to make 273 top-flight appearances for the club. A player often criticised by his international fans, Whelan was a mainstay in the Stoke midfield until he departed for Aston Villa in the summer.
Whelan’s presence in the side epitomised what Stoke were all about. Hard work, leadership and determination. Whelan had the novelty of playing with decent midfield partners, Steven N’Zonzi possibly the pick of the bunch. This allowed Whelan to sit back and act as a quarterback for Stoke. His ability to break up play was combined with an ability to switch the play from deep, something he has rarely been seen to do in an Ireland shirt to much effect.
The simplicity yet professionalism and integrity within Whelan’s game made him a fan favourite among Stoke supporters. Despite his inconsistency for his country, his leadership and confidence in a Stoke shirt saw both him and the club thrive. Any fan who has watched Whelan domestically would agree with this and the fact that he was at times an unrecognisable player in a Stoke shirt compared to wearing green. His discipline and lack of avoidable injuries saw him rarely miss a game and he went about his business quietly but effectively.
He was possibly the glue that held Stoke together. His influence off the pitch was also said to be highly influential. The Dubliner captained the club on many occasions and was part of the side that lost the FA Cup final in 2011.
That FA Cup final loss to Manchester City marked the end of a debut season for another recent Stoke departee, Jon Walters. Signed in 2010, two years after Whelan, the then Ipswich Town captain arrived at Stoke as a winger-come-centre forward. With 30 goals in 136 games for the Tractor Boys, he was hardly prolific but fitted Pulis’ Stoke ethos perfectly.
A hard-working and powerful player, Walters had worked his way up through England’s lower leagues having been released by Bolton in 2004. Walters suited Stoke given his unflattering but tremendous ability to run tremendously at full backs and whip in tidy deliveries. The added bonus was that he could also do a job as an awkward striker, capable from the ariel threat Stoke posed.
Like Whelan, Walters eclipsed the 200 appearance mark for Stoke and was probably quicker to establish himself as a fan favourite than the former. Having managed to keep players like Bojan out of the Stoke starting XI during his time at the club, Walters managed 43 league goals and 62 in all competitions. This places him as one of Ireland’s all-time leading scorers in the Premier League. In 2015, he became only the third Irish player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League, netting three times against QPR.
Like Whelan, Walters was not the flashiest of players to ever grace the Premier League but certainly one of Stoke’s most effective ever. His departure to Burnley always seemed on the cards given his age and the fact Hughes was trying to further develop a new brand of football at the club. However, what this brand has evidently lacked this season is leadership.
Leadership, commitment, and passion are traits both Whelan and Walters have in abundance. Ryan Shawcross, Darren Fletcher, and Joe Allen are possibly others in the current Stoke team but all have failed to demonstrate these qualities this season for various individual reasons. Despite their advancing ages, Whelan and Walters’ departures showed the influence that they had on Stoke City for the guts of a decade. Their presence at times was subtly effective but their absence could potentially have an everlasting effect should the Potters be relegated.
Stoke seemed to have sold their soul in the inevitable scenario of seeking a new way of playing despite the old way establishing themselves as a Premier League side. Whelan and Walters have left a gaping hole in the identity of what could be a sinking club.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena