Welcome along everyone to another Fan Focus. We're delighted to welcome back a Fan Focus expert from last season on Roker Report, Mark Holmes.
Mark is our go to guy for all things Stoke City, and rightly so as he knows the club inside out. Mark has been writing for TeamTalk for the last six years about his beloved Stoke City, during which time he's lived the dream, dining with both Managers and Chairmen alike, and getting pally with a few of the first team, and all in a highly successful period for The Potters.
It's fair to say we've got the right man on board here, so let's see what he has to say about Stoke, Sunderland and our clash this weekend...
So the summer transfer window has closed, and I think everyone has been impressed by Stoke’s signings. How’s the mood at the Britannia?
Mark: "For the first time ever, the club is receiving lots of positive press coverage and we don’t really know what to do about it! We’ve enjoyed being the underdogs over the past three years and all of the negative comments about us have helped create a siege mentality, but suddenly there are journalists tipping us to challenge for the top six – or even the top four!
Just as most of the negative comments were unfounded, so are these latest positive ones. We’re still a million miles behind the top six clubs but our three deadline-day signings have given us some much-needed depth to our squad and there’s no reason why we can’t do well in all three cup competitions and challenge for seventh, eighth or ninth in the Premier League.
Certainly in my time as a Stoke fan this is the most optimistic I’ve ever known our support."
The signings of Crouch & Jerome however do little to deter the (unjust) image Stoke have of a long ball team. What’s wrong with having a plan and being good at it?
Mark: "Absolutely nothing! One of the most common things we hear from opposing fans (usually of teams we’ve just beaten) is that they couldn’t watch us every week. I’d like to think that, as Sunderland fans, most of you know what a silly thing to say that is. Winning football is always enjoyable and that’s largely what we’ve been playing under Tony Pulis. I’ve seen us play passing football at times during our spells in the lower divisions and I can safely say I never enjoyed those days as much as these. Trust me, we’re being entertained more than we ever imagined possible.
The first thing to say, as you’ve pointed out, is that the image is slightly unjust. Whilst we do play safety first, percentage football, we also play some good football in the opposition’s half. Anyone that thinks a midfield containing Matthew Etherington, Glenn Whelan and Jermaine Pennant cannot play football is clueless. Hopefully the signing of Peter Crouch will continue our evolution – he may be extremely tall, but he’s also a very capable footballer.
The other thing to say is that, while some of our football is no doubt tough to watch for neutrals, we as supporters would rather us play winning football others moan about than losing football we are praised for. We don’t want to be likeable losers, thank you very much."
Confidence must be high, and after getting into Europe kinda via the back door last season, you must feel there’s a very good possibility of doing it through the league this year?
Mark: "Many people are saying that we’ve got the seventh best squad in the league and you could make a case for that, definitely. However, Pulis is taking the Europa League seriously and will also want to do well in the two domestic cups, so it’d be one hell of an achievement if we were to make the top seven as well.
Our squad is fairly strong now but there are still key players (namely the wingers) we could not afford to do without, hence it’d only take a couple of injuries to derail our season. I’d like to think we can make the top 10 at least, but I’m certainly not getting carried away."
Europe this season too to contend with first though, how far do you think you’ll go?
Mark: "I think it’s really refreshing for a manager of a club like Stoke to take the Europa League so seriously. I never expected it to be honest but Pulis and the chairman Peter Coates realise what a great journey this is for the fans and they want to keep it going for as long as possible.
I am writing this before our game in Kiev so may feel differently in a few days, but I honestly believe we can make the latter stages of the competition. Not many teams will get a result at the Britannia and we’ve already proved against Liverpool and Chelsea that we can keep out top-class strikers. That could be crucial away from home and I genuinely see the final as a realistic target."
Stoke were once upon a time linked to Asamoah Gyan. What do you make of this crazy situation looking from the outside in?
Mark: "It is hard to empathise with Gyan. He was given a big chance by Sunderland and took it to an extent but certainly didn’t do enough to think he was bigger than the club. Which he clearly did. However, I can’t honestly believe he sees the UAE as a step up from the Premier League and you have to suspect this is all down to his agent.
Part of me also questions the role Steve Bruce has played in it all – he doesn’t strike me as the easiest manager to get along with, but I could be wrong."
What do you think are the key battles on Sunday. Where do you think your lot have the edge, and also where do you think we can get at Stoke?
Mark: "It’s going to be an incredibly tough game for us on the back of a long trip to Kiev, and I suspect we’ll play a typically tight game. However, I think we’re good enough at the back to soak up a lot of pressure and we’ve got enough pace to cause you some problems on the break. This is a game for Cameron Jerome, in my opinion.
I suspect Sunderland will have the majority of the ball but I’m not sure you have the pace out wide to trouble us in our weakest area, which is at full-back. I can see the two sides cancelling each other out, to be honest."
Give us a prediction for the game...
Mark: "If there are two goals in the game I’ll be surprised. I doubt it’ll be one for the purists but I’ll predict an optimistic 1-0 win and an avalanche of anti-Stoke feeling from frustrated Mackems after the match!"
Many thanks to Mark for allowing us to put questions to him. If somehow you're not aware of TeamTalk, perhaps you've been living under a rock or something, be sure to check it out here - http://www.teamtalk.com/