It is our pleasure this week to talk to James Whittaker, who is a prominent Stoke City blogger and currently runs the excellent Stoke blog on ESPN FC. Everton travel to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday.
RBM - One of the founders of the original Football League, Stoke City have fallen on leaner times in recent years. Stoke have done decently enough in the cups but after finishes between 11-14th in the last four years, what were expectations coming into this season?
JW - I think most were expecting us to push on to the top half of the table this season (without the distraction of Europe) and have a decent stab at one of the cup competitions. Aside from league position, many fans were also hoping that we would start to see some evolution in our play and see us pose more of an attacking threat which hasn’t really happened as yet.
RBM - Stoke and Everton are two of the smaller clubs who have had managers that have been around for a while. How is Tony Pulis perceived of at Stoke? Is he the right man to lead the team to greater glories?
JW - Pulis is a divisive figure. A lot of fans were against bringing him back and there are still a significant amount who want him out, which to an outsider must seem mad given what he has achieved in Promotion/Cup Final/Europe. He’s very much a manager who can fight against the odds and whilst that was great in our first couple of seasons, he’s been given considerable funds yet doesn’t seem to be able to bring in the right players in the right positions to move us on. His negative tactics will never see us relegated but if we genuinely have aspirations to finish comfortably in the top ten these next few years, I’m not sure that’s something Pulis is capable of personally.
RBM - Owner Peter Coates, being a local-born and bred lad, can probably do no wrong in the fans eyes. How is the relationship between Pulis and Coates? Has Coates given Pulis the support he needs to build a successful team, especially in financial terms?
JW - Coates is a wealthy man now but he was far from loved in his first spell when there wasn’t any money, in fact more fans were against him coming back than they were Pulis! What he has done since his return though is unbelievable and every fans dream, he knows Pulis won’t see us relegated and is more than happy to give him the cash he needs to make sure that stays the case. Pulis is also very grateful to the Chairman (as well he should be) and is aware that much of the funds made available to him are from the family coffers and given we’re the third highest net spenders in the last few years that support has been very generous. Where things will get interesting is that the Chairman is very keen on bringing through local lads and as such has ploughed millions into the Academy, this is most at odds with Pulis though who refuses to trust youth.
RBM - How do the fans feel about the Potters performance this season? Are they happy with the 9th position in the table? Will they be able to make it to Europe next season?
JW - I think we’re more than happy with ninth. I’m not sure we are with the negative approach we seem to take though or our continued lack of pace/threat going forward. As I said, we’ve spent a hell of a lot of money yet Pulis still insists on playing so many players out of position and at times have rode our luck so Europe will be a big ask until the approach/personnel is addressed.
RBM - The defence has been absolutely amazing, leading the League with fewest goals conceded. What is the secret, and why are the other clubs unable to solve the mystery?
JW - Fewest goals conceded and most clean sheets in Europe apart from Bayern Munich and Juventus I believe! Our defence has been immense but then clean sheets are easier to keep when you have 10 players defending every game! It’s entirely commendable but the worry is that if we concede, we don’t pose enough of a threat going forward to get back into the game so the margins are very fine. What’s important now is that we build on the great form of Asmir Begovic, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth and get more of a balance from the midfield and attack.
RBM - The busy Xmas period is upon us, and then we'll have the winter transfer window open. What do you see Pulis doing? Who are the players Stoke have been linked with so far?
JW - What the fans would like and what the manager will do are two different things. I think we will see a left fullback and maybe winger come in (perhaps on loan). Martin Olsson of Blackburn is a long time target and given he is comfortable at left back and left wing, he will make a great defensively disciplined winger for Pulis. We’re well stocked in centre midfield and up front and no-one will shift our goalie or centre backs so it really is just the full backs and wingers that need attention.
RBM - Finally, a score prediction for Saturday? What are you expecting from the two teams, and who do you think will be playing key roles?
JW - I’m going to predict a 1-1 draw which I’ll be happy with given our respective successes this season. A lot will depend on the lone striker we select, I fully expect Peter Crouch to (wrongly) replace Kenwyne Jones which will mean your defence will be able to push up with no threat of pace which in turn will push us back. The key men for you will be Marouane Fellaini (obviously) and the guile of Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar. For us, keep an eye on Steven Nzonzi who has been player of the season so far, he runs our midfield so it should be an interesting match up. If we’re as deep as I anticipate, set pieces will play a big part so I hope that Charlie Adam’s radar is up and running and that we have a strong ref as I imagine there will be plenty of tugging/grappling from both sides.