The term Stoke City DNA has been used, overused and, in recent years, hunted like it’s Indiana Jones and his dad trying to find the holy grail.
But what exactly is it?
Tony Pulis started to talk about it back more than a decade ago when he was trying to improve the ability of the hard-working squad which won promotion to the Premier League without losing any of its character.
“Better quality, same DNA,” was how he ended an interview or two.
He expanded on the theme a couple of times.
After surviving in the top flight that first season back, he said: “I’ve been planning for next season for a long time and you hope and pray that those plans can be put in place. But you’ve got to do it first.
“I’ve always been honest. My teams have always been honest, but sometimes that honest commitment has been misguided. People think we’re too aggressive, but I don’t think we have been. We’ll keep the same DNA next season.”
It was a job carefully managed because a hard-working Stoke team with better quality went and reached the FA Cup final within a couple of years.
The week before that final, they beat Arsenal 3-1 with a swashbuckling performance that held nothing back.
“The biggest compliment I can pay our players is to say that with a cup final only days away, their performance and attitude to win a game of football was first class,” said Pulis.
“We have played one of the best teams in the country that competes against the Barcelonas, Real Madrids and other great teams in Europe – and we have beaten them quite comprehensively.
“They are all desperate to play in that game next weekend – and rightly so.
“What we have done gradually is get better, but we have kept that DNA, which is hard work and a good team spirit, throughout.”
It also went on a bit of a tangent as his greatest Stoke side had Jermaine Pennant flying down one wing and Matthew Etherington tearing down the other.
“We are a little bit old-fashioned,” he said at that time.
“We play two out-and-out wingers because the crowd like to see players running down the pitch and getting crosses in, but they also like to see them working hard.
“That’s almost the DNA of this football club. We’ve got a working-class crowd and they want to see wingers taking on full-backs in the Matthews tradition here.”
So what kind of player ticked the box for Pulis as embodying Stoke DNA?
There were Andy Wilkinson and Ryan Shawcross, obviously, and he floated the idea of Rory Delap and Danny Higginbotham sticking around when they hung up their boots because “they understood the DNA of the club” as well as predicting they would be excellent coaches.
There was Salif Diao, too.
Back in the summer of 2012, Pulis said: .“He was an absolute dream to work with and when he first came to us he really raised the bar.
“You were not just acquiring a really good player, you were also signing someone who would raise eyebrows outside of Stoke-on-Trent.
“He was a statement of intent, if you like, and over the years showed himself to be more than just an experienced player with plenty of calibre.
“He is also the kind of person you want around the place to keep the club in good hands and moving forward.
“That is just the kind of player we will be looking to sign again if we can, someone with the right DNA for Stoke City. It won’t be easy, but you never stop looking for such players.”
He added: “You want players like Salif, Danny Higginbotham and Rory Delap to remain involved with the club. It would be nice to do what other clubs abroad have done, like Ajax, and that’s integrate those players who have a role to play, perhaps in the Academy, after they have retired.”
In the end, Pulis moved on to – and Mark Hughes introduced a new aspect to the Stoke team he inherited to guide the club on a trio of top 10 finishes.
There were wallopings of some of the biggest clubs in Europe as the balance was just right.
By the summer of 2017, however, Hughes had to field questions about whether Stoke were “losing their DNA” in how they were losing or replacing players including Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan.
“I’ve no worries whatsoever about leadership within the dressing room – that’s as strong as it has ever been,” he said.
“From my point of view, there’s talk about a Stoke DNA, but in recent times people come to the conclusion that it’s about long balls and fighting for challenges, and that’s what it was.
“But if you look further back than that, Stoke’s DNA was Sir Stanley Matthews and flair players such as Alan Hudson and the like. So maybe we’re just trying to get back to that rather than what people have seen in recent times.”
Alas, Stoke were relegated.
Stoke’s old head of sports science Damian Roden said: “We had the most hard-working and honest group of players I’d ever encountered in those first few seasons at Stoke.
“Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan, Charlie Adam, Peter Crouch, Ryan Shawcross, Robert Huth – they would run through a brick wall for you. They craved work, their nutrition was right, their sleep was right, they paid attention to what they had to do for recovery.
“They realised they were professionals and they wanted longevity. The problems came when those players were filtered out. Then you’re trying to get more talented players to buy into the same work ethic, which unfortunately didn’t happen.”
He added: “The DNA of Stoke had changed. The players that came in didn’t buy into a hard training culture. They felt, ‘No, we’re footballers’. Well, yes, but you’re in the Premier League and you need to run.
“When he was at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola said, ‘if you don’t run, you are nothing’. That applied to some of the most technically gifted players in the world, so why shouldn’t it apply elsewhere?
“When players are not willing to work as hard in training, or to look after their bodies, or to give everything in a game, that’s going to affect fitness and results. When Paul Lambert suggested some players weren’t fit enough he was bang on. It wasn’t anything that hadn’t been discussed a season before though.”
Paul Lambert and Gary Rowett had both gone by the time Nathan Jones tried to redefine what the club and playing for it meant in his very first press conference – when he was asked about DNA.
He said: “Firstly, my staff will earn every single penny. It’s good for the club that we don’t get paid by the hour! If we did, we’d be far more expensive.
“Secondly, we will streamline the squad so we don’t need the amount of players we had.
“Then when we recruit we will recruit what we call Stoke City players. Stoke City players will play in a certain way, will act in a certain way, will be athletic, will be courteous, will buy into the community. Everything we will sign will be Stoke City players.”
And last summer he expanded on his thinking in a rousing, Rudyard Kipling-style speech.
“The be all and end all will be winning football matches – but there’s a way of doing it,” he said.
“I think if fans see players 1) working hard and 2) they can relate to, so they see a bit of humility about them, an honesty and hard work, that’s a start.
“If you then see a structure, a way you play, you’re trying to score goals and there’s a real commitment to it, they will get behind you even more.
“If you convert that into clean sheets, goals and winning football matches, then they will follow you everywhere.
“If you can show them that you care as much as them, which we do, then they’ll die for you and that’s what makes a great, great football club.
“We believe we are one step at the minute from restoring that.
“It’s a great club in terms of buildings, in terms of bricks and mortar, training pitches, great owners, a real good tradition of good football players, excellent football players, there’s a noise, an identity with it in terms of Delilah, the wind from the corners, every little thing makes Stoke great.
“We want to put a team out there they can be proud of, they can relate to, they can get behind and hopefully, God willing, cheer to the Premier League.”
Alas… you know what happened next.
But Michael O’Neill has started on a journey to build that pride – and there is no doubt that the club’s response to the current crisis has done much in that regard too.
So as the wider world talks about Stoke DNA, Stoke supporters have been trying to put their finger on it on our Stoke City Facebook page – using just three words.
Steve Webb: Passion, pride, loyalty.
Mike Smith: Passion, pride, unpredictable.
Stephen Lockett: Loyal and passionate.
Lindsay Meakin: Super Johnny Walters!
Jacqueline Fagan: Honour, passion, pride.
Daniel Slee: Work, fight, together.
Daniel Tapley: Fight, passion, pride.
Andrew Figuel: Wright’s pies, oatcakes.
Ben Austin: Together strength’s stronger.
Chris Goodwin: United strength stronger.
Don Whyte: Heart and soul.
Dave Marshall: Fight, fight, fight.
Butch Robinson: Oatcakes, bacon, cheese.
Julie Williams: Banks, Greenhoff, Smith.
David James: Moan about everything.
Ant Brown: Anthony Richard Pulis.
Billy Pattie: Blood, sweat, tears.
Stephen Oxby: Vis unita fortior.
Lars Dyreborg-Gunslev: Why, why, Delilah.