Simon Lowe: There's plenty to play for as Potters target that elusive top-half position
AH, the nostalgia of it.
A football-free weekend when most of the rest of the division are playing in the cup.
It feels just like the good old days.
Remember them? When defeats to the likes of Burnley, Nuneaton and Hartlepool United made you too embarrassed to leave the house afterwards?
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A generation of Stokies still put their heads in a bucket of sand and shout 'wibble' when the name Blyth Spartans is mentioned.
It might surprise you to know, though, that since that hideous night at Nuneaton's Manor Park in 2001, Stoke have only lost on two occasions to sides below them in the league table on the day of the game – a turgid 1-0 home defeat to Wimbledon in 2004 and the surrender at Hartlepool in our first season up in the Premier League.
Suddenly Stoke have transformed from the FA Cup's worst performing team from the mid-1970s to the turn of the century, to a feared and difficult opponent who generally only succumb to top-quality opponents such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Three quarter-finals, that wonderful semi-final thrashing of Bolton and of course the first-ever FA Cup final in the club's 150-year history have made this season's early exit from a competition which has been good to us feel like something of a damp squib.
So it's back to concentrating on the league as we used to do so regularly for a quarter of a century back in the day.
And there is plenty to do.
This should be no season of slow decline and dreaming of the waves lapping over sandy dunes as the last few games pass by.
For this season gives Stoke a very serious opportunity to finish in the top half of the Premier League table for the first time.
That was the aim back in August, and it's a goal which is very much on given how the season has paned out.
Given the fixtures remaining, Stoke have a relatively benign run-in with only Manchester United and Spurs left to face of the big clubs and both of those sides have to visit the Britannia Stadium.
Once again there has been no threat of relegation, but now we are into a fifth season in the Premier mere survival is not a high enough target.
Top half, achieving 50 points or more and a positive goal difference were where I thought Stoke should be by the time the season ends in May before the big kick-off back in August.
But to achieve that City have to take on a series of clubs in the mid-table reaches who are also faced with a final third of the season with very little to motivate them other than pride and the lovely lolly which comes with finishing a few places higher up the division.
So then, what better examination of the managerial and motivational skills of the likes of Martin Jol, Chris Hughton, Steve Clarke and, yes, Tony Pulis?
There are plenty of points up for grabs, plenty of games to be won.
And to achieve that isn't it the case that Stoke need to show plenty of ambition, especially away from home where City's next game sees a visit to Fulham's Craven Cottage, a ground which has been relatively unfruitful in recent years?
Fulham are just two places and four points below Stoke, so a victory would see the Potters pretty much guarantee to dispose of the Cottagers as rivals for that top-half finish.
The frustration is that we all know City will in truth be looking only for a draw when they step out next Saturday.
Away games are not Tony Pulis' forte.
But perhaps that is how Stoke should seek to be measured.
Six away fixtures remain – all with the potential to end up as Stoke victories.
Rather than merely the actual points that City return from the trips to the likes of Sunderland and Newcastle United with, it should be a combination of the team Tony Pulis selects, the way they play and the ambition they show. Not just the points earned.
While points are of course the ultimate measure, progress now has to be made or stagnation will kick in.
Oh we'll, we can dream, can't we?
Isn't that what blank FA Cup weekends are for?