It is the summer of 2008: young football zealots the world over are attempting to strike free-kicks akin to Cristiano Ronaldo, turn and volley as if they are Didier Drogba, and score from as far out as possible before knee sliding in front of a make-believe Kop End to imitate Steven Gerrard ahead of the 2008/09 season. It was a voguish Premier League era.
Little thought was given to the incoming newly-promoted sides – the Championship’s winners, West Bromwich Albion, second-placed Stoke City and the playoff winners, Hull City. It was only natural. The 2007-08 campaign had seen Manchester United and Chelsea meet in the Champions League final, with the former coming out on top in a penalty shootout. Before that, Derby had been relegated after winning only one game and 11 points in their return season to the top flight. The disparity between the Premier League’s gentry and working-class was growing.
The Potters were considered unforeseen promotion winners, ahead of Watford, Wolves and Leicester, because their antiquated manager, Tony Pulis, presided over an equally antediluvian squad, bereft of any adroit quality of serious repute.
“Doing a Derby” became a common cliché – and perturbation amongst bottom-half clubs – which was predicted of Stoke. In their previous top-flight campaign, in 1984/85, they won three of their 42 matches and finished 33 points from safety, which induced that an immediate return to the second tier beckoned.
Pulis was a facsimile of an eager father coaching their child’s amateur side, wearing his club’s tracksuit and cap. He was a rugged defender, who spent a solitary season at Hong Kong-based Happy Valley between spells at Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth, Newport and Gillingham, in a career which lasted from 1975 to 1992.
Harry Redknapp, who managed him at Bournemouth, described him as “the toughest tackler I have ever seen” but continued “he couldn’t actually play, he couldn’t pass it five yards”. It was a typical Redknapp quip, almost certainly, but there was a basal truth to his statement: Pulis was a direct and inviolable archetype of the English game at the time, and he went on to preside over equally robust teams whilst those around him had changed.
But, behind his semblance, there was a studious, sagacious coach. He had earned his UEFA coaching qualifications at the age of 21, and he was renowned for changing his team selections, formations and tactics according to his players’ strengths and the opposition’s weaknesses. Many of his peers, including Liverpool’s Rafael Benítez, whose side typically struggled against opposition that sat deeper, were infamously obstinate.
His style, or ‘Pulisball’ as it became known, consisted of two basal shapes. In a 4-4-2 formation, without the ball he instructed his players to drop deep and form a narrow, rigid structure with little space between the midfield and defensive lines. This restricted players who operated behind a traditional striker of any space to work in. His tactic encouraged the opposition to use their wingers and cross; Pulis believed it was a favourable gamble because of the size of his defenders.
With the ball they were direct, utilising tall, physical strikers. Against teams who notoriously struggled against crosses, he would sometimes field a third forward, who would play as a fourth midfielder when Stoke were without the ball but as a third striker with it. It was not a new system, and it has been continued since, but Stoke had a unique weapon to ameliorate it: Rory Delap’s long throws.
A junior javelin champion, it is important to remember that he had played regularly in the Premier League for Derby, Southampton and Sunderland and internationally for the Republic of Ireland at the turn of the 21st century as a central midfielder or winger, but at Stoke he became, in the eyes of many, a thrower first and a footballer second.
It is true that Pulis’ sides were not pleasing on the eye – but they were efficacious. His Gillingham achieved promotion from the Fourth Division in 1995/96 after scoring 49 goals in 46 games, conceding only 20, and, during his first spell as Stoke manager, the 2004/05 campaign became known as ‘the binary season’: in October 2004, their side tied 1-1 with Leicester, the most goals in a match they would witness in the Championship for four months after series of 0-0s and 1-0s.
After a spending 2005/06 at Plymouth, he returned to the Staffordshire club to a mixed reception. The purists lambasted the football their side played during his first spell, but others reasoned it was necessary to get the best out of the squad. In October 2006, he brought in Delap on loan from Sunderland.
Within a week, he broke his leg and returned to the north-east. Pulis brought him back to the Potteries, though, after his recovery as a permanent signing ready for the 2007/08 campaign, and he played 44 of Stoke’s 46 games as they achieved promotion to the Premier League.
His throw-ins were used sparingly in the Championship because Pulis had discerned that most Football League clubs’ managers and players were accustomed to such deliveries, albeit not in throw-in form. The majority of the Premier League clubs, though, who had moved away from the brawny central defensive pairings associated with the early epochs of the Premiership era, were not, and their defenders were increasingly selected for their speed and composure with the ball at their feet, a reflection of the changing characteristics of their opposing forwards.
Delap’s proclivity was no secret. At Derby, he took long, arced throw-ins from any position on the right-hand side to help pull his team up the pitch. Sometimes, he threw them far enough to allow his team’s strikers, Paulo Wanchope and Malcolm Christie, to move in behind the opposing defence. Pulis, however, enjoined him to use his virtuosity in a different way.
He instructed him to throw the ball with more power, with a lower, flatter trajectory, towards goal. It made them travel a slightly shorter distance – only the 40 yards – but they soon became used as auxiliary crosses which would land anywhere from the goal line to the penalty spot inside the width of the goal. There were many advantages to this: Delap was unopposed, he could throw with an enviable accuracy, and his teammates could not be ruled offside.
He became the Premier League’s idiosyncratic assister, pursuing players were trying to emulate Delap, as well as Ronaldo, Drogba, Gerrard and co.
At first, though, it looked like Stoke’s limited quality with the ball at their feet would make staying in the Premier League, even armed with Delap, unlikely. On their debut, they sunk to a 3-1 defeat to Bolton, who were also renowned for their physical, battle-hardened approach, at the Reebok Stadium. If they could not win the kind of contest they believed would play into their hands, how would they fare against the elite clubs?
The answer was simple: the effect of their home ground, the Britannia Stadium, was underestimated. There, Pulis’ side could base their game around Delap’s throws. In 2008/09, only six teams collected more points at home, whereas only the bottom two, Middlesbrough and West Brom, earned fewer away.
Pulis ordered the Britannia’s pitch to be the narrowest width Premier League rules would allow, largely to help Delap’s throws and restrict their opposition’s wide players. The grass was noticeably longer, which slowed down attacking moves, but it had little impact on Stoke’s direct approach. The ball boys were each equipped with a towel for Delap to dry his hands and the ball on before taking a throw.
The corners of the stadium were open, too. Shrewd supporters could stand on the surrounding hills and see the match for free, but it also meant that many matches there were dominated by the wind. For defenders and goalkeepers, high balls into the wind are difficult to judge.
They earned their maiden victory of the season in their first home game against Aston Villa. They played some excellent football in a thrilling 3-2 victory, which included a Dennis Bergkamp-esque turn and finish by Ricardo Fuller, but their injury-time winner came from a predictable source: Delap’s throw-in was headed in by Mamady Sidibé.
Everton were the next visitors to the Potteries. Stoke lost 3-2, but their two goals came from Delap’s deliveries. Their first was a result of a Tim Howard mistake; attempting to punch Delap’s cross, it went only as far as Seyi Olofinjana, who volleyed home. The second came as a result of the American’s resulting uncertainty – he remained rooted to his line, forcing Phil Jagielka to attempt to head clear, but he could only divert into his own net.
In a 1-0 away win at Portsmouth, his throw was headed home by Fuller via a Dave Kitson flick-on. Against Sunderland, Delap and Fuller again combined for the game’s only goal.
A 2-1 win against Arsenal, though, emphatically evidenced Delap’s aptitude. The Gunners’ defence manifested the changing characteristics of top-level defences over the first two decades of the Premiership era. Defenders of Tony Adams and Martin Keown’s ilk were outmoded, and Wenger had opted for Kolo Touré and Mikaël Silvestre.
They were, unquestionably, excellent defenders who were quick, agile and comfortable on the ball – but they didn’t have the force of Adams and Keown. Against Stoke, coupled with goalkeeper Manuel Almunia’s vacillation, they couldn’t contend with Delap’s throws. Fuller and Olofinjana were the beneficiaries, scoring goals in either half to put their side 2-0 ahead.
A “wet and windy night in Stoke” became a measure of whether a player could handle the robustness of the Premier League – in six meetings against Pulis’ Stoke at the Britannia in all competitions, Arsenal won only once.
Watching how opposing teams attempted to defend from Delap’s throws was fascinating viewing. As Stoke crowded the six-yard box, some sat deep, trusting their goalkeeper and biggest players to clear. Some broke one of defending’s foremost commandments, pushing high, leaving Stoke’s forwards goal side in a desperate attempt to not crowd their goalkeeper. Others simply pushed players forward to stop Stoke overpopulating the penalty area, in fear of being counter-attacked.
Gareth Southgate attempted to ready his Middlesbrough side for Stoke and Delap’s throws by volleying crosses into the six-yard box from the edge of the penalty area as there was nobody who could imitate Delap. Predictably, it didn’t work, and centre-back Ryan Shawcross headed the game’s winning goal from a throw-in. Against Wigan, he managed a throw with such force that it flew into the top corner. It was disallowed, of course.
Phil Brown’s Hull attempted devious tactics. At the then-named KC Stadium, he ordered that the advertising hoardings were placed closer to the pitch, which forced Delap to bend his run-up akin to a high jumper. Substitute Dean Windass warmed up in front of Delap as he prepared to deliver, too. This came after Hull struggled to deal with Delap at the Britannia. Comically, goalkeeper Boaz Myhill was pressured with the ball at his feet in the left-back area and chose to clear for a corner, not a throw-in.
Stoke finished 12th in their debut Premier League campaign in the first of five stable top-flight seasons under Pulis. They even reached the FA Cup final in 2011, before losing 1-0 to Manchester City. Delap was a regular starter until Pulis’ departure at the end of the 2012/13 season, but the influence of his throw-ins began to deteriorate by the time of his move to Burton after a loan spell at Barnsley.
His impact on the Premier League was clear. His ingenuity, dedication and versatility made him one of the league’s supreme providers. Pulis’ role, too, must not go underrated. He adapted Stoke to base elements of their forward play around Delap’s throws. Facing opposition notoriously poor against direct play, like Arsenal, he would subtly shuffle his pack, using a third striker as a wide player. It may be a bitter pill for football romanticists to swallow but Pulis, at the time, was one of the most effective tacticians in the Premier League.
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998