Managers always tells us that certain grounds are a tough place to go, but which ground wears that reputation most vividly? It’s time to find out who takes home the 2016-17 Premier League Tough Place To Go Cup!
As with last summer, I went back through Google News looking for any mention of the phrase “a tough place to [go/come/visit etc]” throughout the season, carefully noting them down as I went.
Last year, nailed-on favourites Stoke City claimed the inaugural Premier League Tough Place To Go title in a landslide victory, with the Britannia Stadium/Bet365 Stadium having the moniker bestowed upon it ten times.
Have things changed this year? Has the reputation left behind by Tony Pulis faded any more as Mark Hughes prepares for his fifth season as Stoke manager? There’s only one way to find out…
Oddly, I counted the exact same number of utterances of “a tough place to go” (or TPTG) in 2016-17 as in the previous season: 52 in total.
I’d like to give a special shout-out to Ray Wilkins, who used it three times for three different teams in the same interview. When grading each team’s weekend for the Sky Sports website back in October, he described the homes of Arsenal, Bournemouth, and Burnley as a TPTG. That was despite only Burnley winning at home that weekend; Arsenal and Bournemouth drew with Middlesbrough and Spurs respectively.
Wilkins’ TPTG explosion aside, the most prolific user of the idiom was Sean Dyche: three times, one of which was about his own club, Burnley. Yes, that still counts.
The expression ‘a tough place to go’ is widespread, and isn’t just deployed by the kind of people you might expect (both Neville brothers, Harry Kane, Charlie Adam, Gary Cahill, or Paul Merson, for instance). It’s also been recorded spilling out of the mouths of Pablo Zabaleta, Francesco Guidolin, David de Gea, Cesar Azpilicueta, Vincent Kompany, and Jan Vertonghen.
There was also an incredibly rare variation on the cliché from Darren Anderton, who in May described White Hart Lane as ‘a tough place to leave’. Speaking as someone who once seemingly got locked inside Sheffield Wednesday’s ground after a game and had to go looking for the groundsman, I sympathise.
When is it used?
It remains relatively rare for people to describe a ground as a TPTG after the home team has actually won there. Most often, it is used after a draw, presumably partly in lieu of anything interesting to say about a boring stalemate, and partly as an act of self-reassurance on the speaker’s party.
“This is a tough place to go”, they tell themselves and, by implication, the gathered media pressing them for their thoughts. “A point is pretty good.”
The expression was used 17 times before a match, 27 times after a match (only 26% of which actually ended in a home win), and eight times as a general comment.
For the second year running, the team with the worst home record received no nominations (Villa last year, Sunderland this), showing even the biggest bullsh*tters in the game have limits.
Last year, Villa were the only side not nominated. This time around, Sunderland are joined in the hall of shame by three other sides. This seems pretty harsh on Man City (sixth-best home record in the country) and Hull (13th-best, and a point better than Stoke), but it’s hard to argue with it in the case of West Ham United – unless you’re arguing that the Hammers themselves found their new ground a tough place to go.
And the 2016-17 Premier League Tough Place To Go Cup goes to…
OK. Enough stalling. Let’s crown our champions.
Notable contenders included Everton and Liverpool, which were fair enough, boasting the fourth- and fifth-best home records respectively.
Bizarrely, the Merseyside clubs were pushed all the way by Crystal Palace, who received five nominations despite having the third-worst home record in the country. Even weirder, both of those facts were also true in 2015-16. That’s what having Sam Allardyce, Neil Warnock and Tony Pulis among your most recent managers will do for a club.
Clearly, Stoke were always going to be a contender, but a new rival emerged this year that ticks all the right boxes. Punching above their weight at home? Tick. Provincial town in the north of England? Tick. Old-school stadium? Tick. Reputation for agricultural football? Tick. English manager with a chip on his shoulder? Tick, tick, bloody tick.
It was close, but we have a new champion. Move aside Stoke City; the new official Tough Place To Go Cup winners are Burnley!