The case for and against Stoke City has become increasingly exaggerated since their promotion to the Premier League. They are painted as destroyers of football, or the perfect example of how to establish a less fancied club in the Premier League. I have no strong view on their exploits either way; I would not go out of my way to watch a Stoke match, but I would not dispute that they can be entertaining, or that their fans produce an atmosphere rarely seen or heard in other Premier League stadiums.
There is, however, something increasingly grating about the constant reference to Stoke as the most terrifying challenge that awaits new arrivals to the English game. It is as if performances against Stoke represent some sort of barometer of manliness; emerge victorious and you can enter Valhalla with the other great warriors; fail and you might as well castrate yourself there and then. We’ve all heard the ‘yeah, but can he do it at Stoke’ line trotted out when discussing a foreign player of skill and flair. It has become something of an ironic statement for those wishing to mock the ignorance of others, but it remains a favourite reference point for many fans and pundits.
During Manchester United’s recent match against Tottenham, Mark Lawrenson and the BBC Five Live commentator were discussing David De Gea’s start to life in the Premier League. When the commentator dared to point out that De Gea had won every game he had played in so far, Lawrenson countered without hesitation, “but, when do they play Stoke?” There are already plenty of murmurs that while De Gea might fancy it in Spain, with its pretty, tiki-taka football and pleasant climate, he won’t fancy the rough and tough English league, epitomised by Stoke. Ignoring the fact a free kick is usually awarded if an opposing player so much as sneezes on a Premier League goal keeper, there are wider implications of this view worth considering.
It may just be a harmless cliché, but I can’t help feeling there is an undertone of misplaced pride, an assumption that the English league is hard, where Southern Europe is soft. The concept of ‘hardness’ in professional football has always struck me as bizarre. Football is a non-contact sport; anyone who really fancied themselves as a hard man would probably be a boxer, or a rugby player – anything that allowed them to trade blows with an opponent. The actions that are most likely to cause injury in football – elbows and late tackles – are not hard, they are cowardly, the equivalent of attacking someone when they are defenceless.
Also, when the Stoke reference is applied to De Gea it suggests a staggeringly arrogant assumption that there are no intimidating places to play in Spain. As if playing in front of a vociferous crowd at the Mestalla is nothing. And surely the ultimate test of courage in football in this current era would be to play Barcelona at Camp Nou. In the face of 90,000 Catalans, goading and mocking the opposition, roaring with delight as Barcelona string another 20 passes together. Only those with the most formidable mental strength could endure that and still perform to their maximum ability. Running around like mad men and flying into tackles is likely to see you beaten and humiliated.
In short, the physical aspect of football is more important to England than in some other parts of Europe, and that’s fine. Football is interesting because of variations in style and tactics. This post is not intended as an attack on Stoke. They did not ask to be portrayed as some sort of rights of passage for foreign players. But, for a goal keeper, surely the greatest challenge in England is simply holding on to the first team gloves at Old Trafford. A look at the number of keepers who held them between Peter Schmeichel and Edwin Van der Sar tells you that. The real challenge is being able to cope with the pressure of performing consistently in front of 74,000 fans who expect victory from every fixture. An ordeal that has proved far more horrific for many than defending a Rory Delap throw will ever be.