Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Thu 8 May 2008

The Return of Stoke City

They say what goes around comes around, and in football that's often the case - especially if you're a Stoke City supporter. As such, you probably won't need me to tell you that The Potters secured promotion back to the top flight in England just a few days ago, thus ending an absence of 23 years. It's an incredible achievement for which SPAOTP sends its heartiest congratulations (apart from Duffman, perhaps, who no doubt wanted his Crystal Palace side to go up instead.)

Anyway, if you're of the same generation as me (i.e. you were born near the start of the 1970's), you may still be clinging onto the fading memory of Stoke City the last time they were in the top flight. Numerous names spring to mind that were in the side back then: Paul Bracewell, Adrian Heath, George Berry, Lee Chapman, Garth Crooks… ah, the heady days of the early 80's.

Except the early years of the 1980's were not the best for Stoke. In the six seasons they spent in Division One, five of them were spent languishing in the bottom half of the table before their final ignominious crash with just 17 points in 1985. It was the lowest points total for any First Division team until the record was broken in 2003 by Sunderland. With only three wins from a possible 42 matches, it was a sign that the club were standing on the verge of a huge precipice.

The thing is, if you're a little bit older than me, you'll have much happier memories of Stoke City. In the early 70's, they were a team on the up and up. Having been given a much needed boost by a soon-to-be-retiring Stanley Matthews a decade earlier, manager Tom Waddington consolidated his club's position by investing in some high profile personnel.

Gordon Banks came from Leicester on the back of his World Cup-winning heroics, swiftly followed by England team-mate Geoff Hurst, talented Chelsea midfielder Alan Hudson and Gordon Banks' successor, Peter Shilton. Together with a well-established and resolute defence, Stoke City were able to push for greater success, and it wasn't long before silverware arrived at the Victoria Ground.

The Football League Cup duly arrived in 1972 and was seen as a well-deserved triumph, especially after a semi-final against West Ham that needed four matches to decide the victors. Stoke prevailed and faced Chelsea in the Final which The Potters won 2-1.

It seemed as though the First Division championship trophy would also end up back at Stoke in 1974/75, but though they were top of the table from November all the way until three games from the end, it was ultimately to elude them. At the end of the season, they lost to Sheffield United and drew against Newcastle and Burnley, allowing Derby County to win the title while Stoke ended the campaign four points behind in fifth place.

Strangely, Stoke couldn't maintain their fine form and just two years later they were relegated to Division Two. The club continued to tread water for a few more years before they returned to Division One in 1980, but it would ultimately prove to be a false dawn.

If you're younger than me (and nowadays that seems to account for most people, the older I get), you'll look upon Stoke as perennial strugglers that have achieved very little of note. The second half of the 1980's saw a continuous spell of mid-table mediocrity prevail, mainly under the player-managership of Mick Mills, but things got even worse when the 1990's arrived.

Despite the best efforts of new manager Alan Ball, Stoke City dropped into the Third Division but their stay was to be relatively brief. In Lou Macari, an old hand at steering faltering clubs back to calmer waters was brought in and by 1993 he'd won them promotion back to the second tier.

Since then, Stoke have failed to keep a firm footing from one season to the next. In 1996, they flirted with promotion to the Premier League but were beaten by Leicester in the play-off semi-finals. By 1998, Lou Macari had left, come back again and left again as Stoke were relegated to the third tier along with Reading and Manchester City (whatever happened to them?)

1998 was also the season that Stoke moved to a new ground, the Britannia Stadium, just prior to a takeover by an Icelandic consortium that ensured The Potters had a strong following over in that particular part of Scandinavia (well somebody had to, let’s face it…)

In 2002, Stoke once again gained promotion to the second tier, this time via a win in the play-off Final, and following an initial struggle, they've ensured a continual presence in what's now known as The Championship. Their manager since June 2006 has been Welshman Tony Pulis and under his guidance, Stoke City have forged a path back to football's promised land - The Premier League.

It's fair to say that few people would have predicted such a turnaround in the club's fortunes at this precise moment in time, but whichever generation you're from, you'll surely agree it's great to see Stoke back in the big time again.

Whether they can match the recent exploits of Reading and Wigan is probably irrelevant, all in all. That's because Stoke are a club that fell a long way - not once, but twice in the last 25 years - and lived to tell the tale. We look forward to seeing them in the top flight again next season.

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