Whenever I watch Stoke play, I can’t help but kicking my TV set to ensure I’m not watching St Mirren – Aberdeen or Motherwell – Kilmarnock. There’s no one thing I can put my finger on, it’s a mixture of different things. Stoke play like the teams I watch every weekend, whether it be in the SPL, Irn Bru Scottish Third Division, or the Highland league. Only Dundee United and Celtic, in recent times, have bucked the stereotypical Scottish style of football. But it works, Stoke are solid at the back, and though they have a problem up front, stamping out 1-0 wins still gives you as many points as 6-0 wins.
To be a Scottish team, you need a pleasantly inconsistent backup goalkeeper. Ryan Esson, Lionel Letizi, Jesper Christiansen, Stewart Kerr, Javier Sanchez Broto, Roddie McKenzie and my personal favourite, Theo Snelders have all be the weak link in one form or another for one, if not several, SPL teams in their times. Stoke have Thomas Sorenson. Ousted by Bergovic, he played in only 10 games, leaking on average 1.6 goals per game. Okay, maybe not AS inconsistent as I would have liked, but he’ll have to do.
Big, lumbering defenders. We love them up here – Weir, Anderson, Dailly, Balde, Stensaas, Whyte and McManus to name but a few. They’ve also got to love a headed goal or two, so what better mix than Huth and Shawcross? Both players who wouldn’t have a problem in the SPL, and I’m saying that in the belief that Rio Ferdinand wouldn’t last 45 minutes against Darren Mackie or Michael Higdon.
During the nineties Scottish Football was full of wingers. Mark Walters, Alexi Mikhailichenko and Brian Laudrup have all had a huge impact on Scottish football. Tony Pulis has two wingers capable of great things under, and indeed on, his wing – Etherington and Pennant. Etherington has been linked in several windows to Rangers, and would be a decent player in the Rangers squad, but probably wouldn’t be assured of a starting place under Ally McCoist. Pennant on the other hand, would seriously struggle in the SPL. They all say true skill shows through, but only a certain number of truly skilled players have shone during the past 10 years in Scotland – Larsson and Davis being the most prominent, and I can’t believe that Pennant is anywhere near the level of those two.
In attack, it needs to be the big man up front. Kris Boyd, Mark Hateley, Lee Miller, Dado Prso, John Hartson, Darren Jackson – Kenwyne Jones? Well if he adds a couple more goals per season, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be included in that list. He has the strength, aerial ability and the nous to be a tough player that is essential in the SPL.
Stoke are a tough team, with a suitable mixture the skilful, the tough, and the downright nasty that SPL teams need. But to be controversial, they wouldn’t walk the SPL. They would challenge the old firm, sure, but to say any team outside the top 4 of the EPL would walk into the SPL and win it first time round is an insult. So maybe Stoke are the most Scottish of the English teams, but I wouldn’t fancy them on a cold November night, rain coming down horizontally with a cold pie and Bovril at Pittodrie, or Easter Road, or Fir Park, or East End Park.