Stoke City’s shrinking pitch, how Arsene Wenger fought to get it changed and a noise like a jet engine

A few paragraphs at the bottom of the Sentinel’s back page on August 1, 2008 that could pretty much be the subject for a PHD. It certainly set the tone for a few months that would sit proudly in Stoke City history.

“Stoke City,” wrote Martin Spinks, “have confirmed that the Britannia Stadium playing surface will be narrowed and shortened on the manager’s instructions for next season.”

This was all part of a plan.

It was – at 100m by 64m – the minimum dimensions allowed unless restricted by a stadium. The players’ tunnel was also re-directed so they did not emerge right next to visiting supporters.

The idea was to contract play, helping Tony Pulis’s newly-promoted side maintain their in-your-face approach for 90 minutes, and heighten the pressure at set pieces and Rory Delap long throws. It had been 23 long years outside the top flight and they were doing everything possible to stay up.

The Delap throws became lethal weapons on home turf.

Stoke scored from his missiles at the Britannia against Aston Villa, Everton (twice), Arsenal (twice), Sunderland, Bolton and Middlesbrough, with each preceded by a war cry from the stands as defenders quivered and one goalkeeper cried. Away it was only successful at Portsmouth, who had the second smallest pitch in the league.

Rory Delap launches a trademark long throw in during Stoke City’s first year back in the top flight.

Fans were recorded making an AVERAGE noise of 101.8 decibels. To put that into context, when the Sentinel started taking sound readings during the 2017/18 relegation scrap it was only approaching that level after a goal had been scored.

Stoke had been favourites for the drop – Paddy Power paid out on that after they lost their opening game – but they won 10 of 19 games at home, with Aston Villa, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City among the victims.

Fans gather outside the Britannia Stadium to try to sneak a free view of Stoke City's first season after promotion.
Fans gather outside the Britannia Stadium to try to sneak a free view of Stoke City’s first season after promotion.

“We have played to the beat of a drum and that beat has been set by the supporters,” said Pulis.

A few clubs would appreciate Stoke’s battle plan and Wolves were one to follow suit when they won promotion under Mick McCarthy.

But a few didn’t like it. Arsene Wenger really didn’t like it and he was spotted striding out along the by-line taking measurements before one game.

So at the end of that campaign, there was an attempt to try to force the Potters to make a change.

There was a backlash at the Premier League chairmen’s conference in Leicestershire and rival clubs tried to force through a proposal that all the division’s pitches should be the same size.

Delap said: “I think the majority of clubs didn’t want us in the Premier League, so this sounds like the same old story. We aren’t breaking any rules, so I don’t see what the fuss is about.”

He added: “It also means I don’t have to run far to take the throws-ins.”

Stoke chairman Peter Coates and chief executive Tony Scholes won the day when the proposal failed to get the two-thirds majority required.

Scholes said: “We were determined to fight our corner on this. We argued that the rules have been in place for many years and, for many years, clubs have decided on their own pitch size to best suit their playing methods.

“It wasn’t just one club in favour of this proposal, but we put our case very strongly and spoke to a number of clubs beforehand.

“Every club has to play to its own strengths and it is perfectly reasonable to decide the size of your own pitch, within the rules of the game.”

The defeated proposal would have forced all clubs to have a 105m x 68m playing surface, the size which has to be used in the Champions League.

John Smith’s Stand regular Rob Ledgar told the Sentinel: “Tony Pulis knew how games were going to be won and was very clever with the pitch size. I know our pitch won’t do for the Champions League but let’s get the players in first and then worry about that.”

Stoke did have to worry about European football, however, just two years later after qualifying for the Europa League.

Matty Etherington flying down the wing, in typical fashion, this time against Split in the Europa League
Matty Etherington flying down the wing, in typical fashion, this time against Split in the Europa League

They had to widen the pitch to meet Uefa’s regulations and briefly had two separate sets of markings visible throughout games. Ryan Shotton once took a quick throw from the wrong touchline.

Pulis wasn’t happy.

He said: “When Everton play in Europe they don’t extend their pitch and when Liverpool play in Europe they don’t extend theirs either, but we take notice of Europe and we have to do that.

“(For the next league game) we will have the pitch the same size as we’ve had it for the last three years in the Premier League. It’s a size that suits us as it lets us to play close together as a team, particularly for the wide players.”

The following summer, Wenger et al forced through a new minimum size. Stoke’s dimensions were left out of that year’s Premier League handbook but ultimately it did increase to 100m x 66m.

Mark Hughes nudged it out another two metres and lengthened it by five metres in 2017. So 105m x 68m then, fit for the Champions League and headed for the Championship.

There’s always next year.

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