There is no question that last season our home form was nothing short of spectacular. We won ten of our nineteen home fixtures in our debut Premier League season, a feat bettered only by Fulham, Manchester City and the top four, while our 35 points racked up at the Britannia Stadium were more than relegated Newcastle (it’s still great to say that) managed all season, home and away. For a newly promoted club, a home record like that is something special, and there’s little doubt in my mind that it is the main reason that we are now preparing for a second season in the top flight, rather than planning for the Championship once again.
The question for the 2009/10 season is; will we be able to repeat it? I suspect not. Last season, we fared best at home when teams came to Stoke keen to attack us and go for the jugular themselves, with Aston Villa, Tottenham and Arsenal being prime examples of this. With our sturdy backline we were able to repel most of their advances, and further up the field find away through their defences, often left exposed by their movements forward. When teams came to Stoke content to defend, and see out the game for a draw or try to nick a win, it proved a lot harder to break them down. Fulham showed this perfectly. Though they offered little going forward, their defence stood very firm and we were unable to break through, ultimately playing out a dour goalless draw. Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Blackburn tried similar tactics, with success for almost all the match. Thankfully on those occasions we were able to find late winners, but were certainly made to work hard for them.
As we become more established as a Premier League side, and our reputation as a very hard side to beat at home goes before us, teams are far more likely to take the second approach, and come to the Brit to defend. We’ll have lost the element of surprise. Managers will know what to expect and set their sides up accordingly, which should make breaking them down a lot harder. We’ve also lost any surprise factor with our not so secret weapon, the Rory Delap long throw, which ultimately led to the breakthrough in those victories over Sunderland and Middlesbrough and on many more occasions. Already we’ve seen teams get better at defending it. In the early part of last season it caused havoc, and seemed to be good for a goal almost every home match. After Christmas its effect waned, and it brought about less joy. It’ll probably still bring us a goal or two along the way, but as teams know what to expect, and Delap, now 33, begins to play a lesser role, we will have to adapt to life without the long throw if we are to maintain our superb home record.
Another factor in our success at home was the support. The Stoke fans officially the loudest in the Premier League, and the club announcing that fact at least three times on every matchday, there were many occasions when the vocal support of the clichéd twelfth man visibly lifted the Stoke players on to a result. Who can forget that eightieth minute roar against Manchester City when an exhausted ten man Stoke side were driven to repel their opposition’s relentless attacks and hold on for all three points. With the novelty of Premier League life beginning to wear off, it will be hard for the support to stay so universally behind the players, but if we are to keep them so motivated at home then it must stay just as vociferous.
But will we even need to maintain our home form? Surely our record on the road will improve. We finally seemed to be getting to grips with away trips towards the end of the season, winning on two of our final four, and with a stronger squad we should definitely eclipse the meagre ten points managed away from home last term. With a few victories on the road we should be able to afford a slight slackening of home form to reach a similar points total. If our goal is simply survival, that may well be enough. If, however, we aim for something more, to push on and further establish ourselves as a mid-table side at least, we will need every point we can muster both at home and on the road. Though many Stoke fans, me included would be delighted simply to see us stay up again, with a good chairman, able manager and solid fanbase, ultimately our goal must be to move on to more than just survival. That’s why our home form will have to be every bit as last year’s once again.
by Alec Vjestica