Football Features

Guinness World Records, angry voicemails from Pulis: What happened to the Stoke City side that made the Europa League knockouts?

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 16:45, 4 July 2020

During their decade-long Premier League stay Stoke City became somewhat of a frustrating challenge for sides up and down the land.

Under the leadership of Tony Pulis, no team embraced a direct style of play more and it ultimately led them to average a 13th-place finish.

Nothing spectacular, but he did establish them as a top-flight mainstay before West Brom lured him away. Such was their panache for the ‘dark arts’, performing well on the road against Stoke became a barometer from which players’ mettle were tested.

The phrase ‘wet Tuesday night at Stoke’ was initially coined by former Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray in response to Lionel Messi’s brilliance; unless the Barcelona playmaker was to move to England, such a proposition would never be put to the test. However there was a second – albeit improbable – scenario: Stoke qualifying for the Champions League.

That has never quite happened, though Pulis’ men did have the opportunity to play European football, the result of finishing runners-up in the 2011 FA Cup final; victors Manchester City had qualified for Uefa’s premier club competition via their third-place finish, so the spot went to Stoke.

Having long intimidated the best in English football’s top division, was Europe ready for the Potters? They impressively reached the Round of 32 after coming through qualifying and ending up second in their group between Beşiktaş and Ukranian powerhouse Dynamo Kyiv.

Stoke’s reward was a date with former champions Valencia. They would eventually fall to a 2-0 aggregate defeat, after Pulis fielded a weakened team in the second leg so as to ensure an eventual 14th-place finish was consolidated (classic). But what of the more recognisable side that started the first leg?

Goalkeeper: Asmir Begovic

  • Career path since: Chelsea (2015-17) > Bournemouth (2017-present)

During his tenure with Stoke, Asmir Begovic achieved his proudest moment: representing his native Bosnia and Herzegovina at the 2014 World Cup finals. It was there in Brazil he met Messi, who scored the winner in a narrow 2-1 win for the eventual finalists. A final season in Staffordshire would follow.

Since leaving, he’s been Chelsea’s reserve ‘keeper – winning a Premier League title in 2017 – and Bournemouth’s number one until this season. Now he is plying his trade on loan at AC Milan (after a season at Azerbaijan outfit Qarabağ), where he’s again spending more time on the bench.

Right Back: Andy Wilkinson

  • Career path since: Retired

A graduate of Stoke’s academy, Wilkinson spent the majority of his 15-year playing career at the Britannia Stadium bar a few loan spells, notably with Partick Thistle and Millwall.

The 2011/12 campaign was his most productive in terms of appearances, 36 across all competitions, which is two more he’d muster in his final three seasons combined.

Centre Back: Ryan Shawcross

  • Career path since: N/A

Breaking into Manchester United’s first-team never looked a possibility. Even Gerard Pique had to leave. So, after a “disagreement” with Sir Alex Ferguson, former Old Trafford academy star Shawcross would eventually make Stoke his home. And he’s not looked back since. Still at the club, the one-time England international has amassed 450 appearances. He even captained the Potters against Valencia, a role he still maintains today.

One thing that has changed, though, is his relationship with Pulis. Years later, while managing West Brom, the Welshman left his former skipper a voicemail in which he called him a “loser” after a 1-0 defeat to the Baggies. Or, at least, that was the account was given to the media by Mark Hughes, then coaching Stoke; Pulis himself accused Hughes of spinning the incident.

Pulis told the press after the 2017 incident: “It has been spun in a horrible way and I have to say, Stoke‑on‑Trent, forget about the football club, or the people at the football club, and the supporters, Stoke-on-Trent is a wonderful place … I’ve actually carried the Olympic torch through Stoke. I took them from the Championship to the Premiership. I took them to an FA Cup final and to Europe. Do you think I’m going to criticise that area and those people?

“It’s absolutely disgraceful whoever has put that out. I don’t usually respond to bait and things like that, but I am really, really disgusted.”

Centre Back: Robert Huth

  • Career path since: Leicester City (2015-18)

Another who never truly established himself at one of English football’s ‘super clubs’. Although Huth managed 40+ league appearances for Chelsea, he was fighting a losing battle for game time against the likes of John Terry, William Gallas and Ricardo Carvalho. So he moved to Middlesbrough and later joined Stoke.

In Stoke, he quickly established an impressive partnership with Shawcross, but no one could have foreseen a third Premier League winners medal with Leicester City, whom he signed permanently as soon as his former Blues boss Claudio Ranieri was put in charge.

Left Back: Marc Wilson

  • Career path since: Bournemouth (2016-17) > Sunderland (2017-18) > Bolton Wanderers (2018-19)

Wilson, like teammate Huth, spent much of his youth days at Man United before joining Portsmouth, where he broke through as a professional. A string of loan spells would follow before settling at Stoke City where Pulis converted him into a left-back. After leaving, Wilson – a 25-time capped Republic of Ireland international – returned to Bournemouth, before turning out for Sunderland and Bolton.

Right Wing: Jermaine Pennant

  • Career path since: Pune City (2014) > Wigan Athletic (2015) > Tampines Rovers (2016) > Bury (2017) > Billericay Town (2017)

European football was no stranger to Jermaine Pennant, who featured in the 2007 Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool. But he couldn’t make his experience count when Valencia rocked up. Somewhat of a journeyman, his final years as a pro were spent in India and Singapore prior to a swansong with Billericay Town.

Centre Midfield: Rory Delap

  • Career path since: Burton Albion (2013)

A fan favourite and cult hero. It will shock approximately no one to learn that Delap was a gifted javelin-thrower in his youth. He was even forced to play down suggestions he could represent the Republic of Ireland in the sport for the 2012 Olympic games.

The midfielder was of course Stoke’s not-so-secret weapon, in that his throw-ins were so deadly teams would rather concede a corner than see a Delap run-up with the ball in hand.

“It causes so many problems [for the opposition],” Pulis once explained. “I think it’s because they’re so flat. They’re not lofted into the air, he throws it pretty flat and it’s very difficult for defenders to pick up the flight.”

A six-year stay at Stoke ended in 2013 and Burton Albion would become the former Southampton and Stoke midfielder’s final club.

Centre Midfield: Wilson Palacios

  • Career path since: Miami FC (2016-17) > Olimpia (2018-19) > Real Sociedad (2019-present)

Wilson Palacios was a favourite under Harry Redknapp at Tottenham, but his stay at White Hart Lane was restricted to two seasons. The same couldn’t be said for his time at Stoke, as it doubled that length of time. An industrious defensive midfielder, he’s now retired after plying his trade at Real Sociedad, though wouldn’t play a single game, following spells at Miami FC and Honduran giants Olimpia, where his career began.

Left Wing: Matthew Etherington

  • Career path since: Retired

A dependable and consistent winger Matthew Etherington, a former Peterborough United graduate, had turned out for Spurs and West Ham before making Stoke City his final club. He’d finish having bagged 16 goals and 38 assists in 177 appearances.

Striker: Jonathan Walters

  • Career path since: Burnley (2017-19)

No one epitomised Stoke’s hustle more than Jonathan Walters, whose tireless energy kept opposition defenders on their toes. He was not the most prolific goalscorer (62 goals in 271 games) but it didn’t matter as he made up for it in relentless work ethic.

Several years after Valencia, Walters went through a talismanic phase in another Uefa competition. He scored four important goals to help the Republic of Ireland national team qualify for Euro 2016 and was named Senior International Player of the Year for the men’s national team by the FAI.

Striker: Peter Crouch

  • Career path since: Burnley (2019)

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Peter Crouch has become a media personality, having his own podcast and regularly doing punditry work, when you consider his affable nature. Stoke proved to be his final stand as he’d retire soon after leaving for Burnley – reuniting with Walters in the process – in 2019. Before doing so, however, he would enter the Guinness World Records book after the breaking the record for headed goals in the Premier League.

Which doesn’t sound like a world record to us, but anyone who takes a goalscoring record from Alan Shearer can rest assured they’ve achieved something pretty special.