This has been a season of ups and downs, but take a look at the form table and you'll see several clubs whose Premier League standing is struggling to pull out of a nosedive. Right at the bottom sit Blackpool and Stoke City, which have both slipped out of the top half of the table with one win in their last six matches. In lip-microphone parlance, that's relegation form all right. The big difference is that the plight of Blackpool fills a far-flung legion of armchair supporters, won over by its have-a-go attitude, with genuine dread. Few beyond the city would mourn the loss of Stoke, and now some of its own fans are starting to feel the same way.
Since being promoted in 2008, the Potters' soccer has as brutally honest as its intentions: We just want to stay here long enough to dare to call the place home. Perfectly understandable, given that Stoke's last stay in the top flight had ended in 1985 with a then-record low of 17 points, and on returning 23 years later, it swapped places with Derby County, which had just been relegated with a mortifying 11. It was simply not the time for philosophy -- West Bromwich Albion, whose program writers sneered that Stoke trained by firing balls out of cannons for the front line to chase, had a fine philosophy, and would go on to be relegated in last place.
The thing with winning ugly is that winning is the essential ingredient in that cookie -- you can always cook up a batch of ugly; it's the two quarts of victory that make it palatable. For a long time, none inside the Britannia Stadium minded their team's play being branded one-dimensional (even anti-) soccer; they reveled in the role of upstarts and spoilers, rattling Arsène Wenger and taking points from big sides (had Stoke capitulated in its two goalless encounters with Liverpool in 2008-09, Rafa Benítez's team would have won that elusive 19th title). Now they're losing ugly, and that's just no fun.
Especially when Tony Pulis' side had started to prove itself to be more than the stereotype. It's been said that after two and a half seasons, the rest of the league has finally learned to cope with the bombardment of long balls from the back but, though Rory Delap's throw-ins certainly seem less fearsome, it's not that simple. The Opta stats for this season and last actually show that a marginally lower percentage of Stoke's passing has been long (20.3 percent, down from 21.1) while slightly more long balls have actually reached their target (42.5 percent, up from 40.8).
Though it might not have been obvious to those who don't visit the Britannia regularly, Stoke's play has been tangibly more exciting, more multi-dimensional than cannon slinging. Or had been. Five of the eight goals it's scored since the turn of the year have come from set pieces, but before then the combination of Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant, quick wingers who can carry the ball beyond defenders, with front men Ricardo Fuller and Kenwyne Jones, had offered a sight for sore eyes. There was chatter about away trips to Europe.
The recent loss of momentum is literal -- since the start of January, Pennant and Etherington have started only two league games together. Both have been experiencing fitness problems and there is no like-for-like replacement, in terms of speed and quality, for either; with John Carew and Jonathan Walters more often preferred up front Stoke has sometimes lacked spark there, too -- even if Carew is the club's only striker to have scored a league goal since new year's day. Don't mention
The breadth of Stoke's creative options has also been reduced by the January departures of Tuncay and Eidur Gudjohnsen (though neither was getting too much game time in any case), and even its famed ability to make life difficult for opponents has waned with midfielders Danny Pugh and Marc Wilson deployed as full backs. At Upton Park last weekend, West Ham (which won 3-0) and Stoke seemed to pass each other on opposite sides of the carriageway.
Pulis -- a manager who has never suffered relegation -- has always insisted that Stoke would need to stay in the Premier League for three seasons before setting its sights higher than survival. He resolved from the start to avoid spending too far beyond his means and as others yo-yoed up and down (if they were lucky), Stoke's steady consolidation has been admirable. It still feels counterintuitive to talk about it as a candidate for the drop: Stoke is 12th, even if it is only three points above the danger zone, and few teams can dig in quite like the Potters.
The run-in holds matches against four of the top five, but at least Chelsea and Arsenal will have to visit Staffordshire, where the ferocity of the crowd and the tight dimensions of the pitch can intervene in the general order of things. There are also home ties with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic -- the only two sides to score fewer away goals than Stoke, which has lost 11 of 15 on the road - to hang hopes upon.
If most fans refuse to entertain genuine relegation fears just yet, some have been disquieted by how swiftly their hopes can have succumbed to doubt and dissatisfaction. Blackpool's élan has combined with Owen Coyle's transformation of Bolton Wanderers (the cloth from which Stoke was cut) to have a greater impact on their collective psyche than the way Wolves and Wigan have struggled to prosper with style. Survival in the top-flight is no longer novel enough to dismiss aesthetics, and sacrificing the latter no longer feels like a guarantee of the former.
Though Pulis has never relied on the backing of the fans for confidence (he wasn't especially popular during his first spell in charge of Stoke, between 2002 and 2005), he seems aware of the need to show that the club will progress its ideals having offered a hint of something more. Though he was careful to qualify the scale of change, he promised this week that Stoke would "push on" if it stayed up.
Sunday's FA Cup quarterfinal brings West Ham north for a second meeting in quick succession. The excitement of the cup has not previously lured Pulis' attention too far away from league affairs, but the chance to right the wrongs of last weekend makes it an unusually important fixture. "It would be wonderful to get through to the semi finals," he said today, "but because of the way the season has gone, it is a big game in other respects. The Premier League remains the priority, and a win on Sunday would be a massive boost to our confidence going into the important matches that are coming up." Neither will the manager mind an opportunity to renew supporters' faith and optimism, as Alex McLeish has at League Cup holder Birmingham City. When preserving Premier League status means so much, it would be a shame not to be missed in your own town.