Top-Half Football Hurts

It’s the hope that kills you. A sentence that probably sums up the mood for any Stoke fan at the moment. The season that promised so much, exciting football with exciting players, a potential tournament final and maybe even a late push for European football.

Complaints and footballing agony have been the only constant since Mark Hughes suggested an unbeaten end to the season was possible. It’s probably lucky that Stoke still find themselves under the media radar, the manager of a fashionable club would have been likely ridiculed for saying that before our recent string of form. Now the Potters rely on a lacklustre Manchester City beating Swansea, or we can pray that Stoke somehow rediscover an ounce of form/effort to beat an impressive West Ham outfit.

But why does it all hurt so much? Top half of the most competitive league in the world is surely an achievement to be proud of, regardless of the circumstances. Here are a couple of my ideas for why it just doesn’t quite cut it this time around.

Perhaps in a few years’ time it won’t be the sluggish start to the season that will be remembered, we won’t remember the disastrous end of season form nor our constant injury list that even Wenger would be proud of. But instead we might remember the sensational football that graced our eyes during one of the happiest Christmas periods in recent Stokie memory. The confidence and flair on show against the two Manchester teams had many suggesting these were some of the best performances from the boys in red and white in the Premier League era.

The fact that we saw it happen just makes it all the worse, how far we find ourselves from those heady heights is almost incomprehensible. In the reverse fixtures we conceded three against United and four against City during two of our worst runs of form whilst Hughes has been at the helm. Those stellar performances seem so unattainable now that I’m surprised I haven’t seen any conspiracy theorists saying the matches were faked a la moon landing 1969.

Part of the pain must be slapped on the doorstep of the clubs that, as of last yea,r were at, or below, our level only last year. Leicester are an anomaly that I won’t discuss but I don’t think I am the only one that feels as though we could have been challenging for Europe alongside West Ham. In a season where both clubs wave goodbye to their spiritual homes I have often found myself thinking, “Why the hell were we not the ones to sign Dimitri ‘Loves a Free Kick’ Payet?”.

As a quick side note, have any clubs gone a whole season without scoring from a corner before?

The last time we broke our transfer record twice in one season was when the £1.2 million signing of Leon Cort broke the record signing of current captain Ryan Shawcross, a bargain at £1 million. This time the two new boys cost the club over 10 times the figure that the two defenders did in January of 2008. The entire footballing world was in shock when Xherdan Shaqiri decided to put pen to paper and make the move to Staffordshire. Less was known about Giannelli Imbula but we trusted the club had found a diamond in the rough if over £18 million was to be spent for his services on the field.

Shaqiri started well, showing glimpses of the dynamism we had all seen at the world cup, he even found Mama Diouf’s head on his debut for the club, the first of six assists this term. Upon Imbula’s arrival it seemed as though we had found exactly the player we needed, a direct link between defence and attack. Since the promising start there have been a few different question marks on the record breaker, specifically his work rate, defensive ability and whether those gloves have actually been glued to his hands.

The club are clearly looking to push towards higher finishing positions in the league by bringing in expensive talent. In light of this there is no wonder that us fans will start having an expectancy to improve. Money will likely be spent in the summer to improve the squad, which no one is going to complain about, but when it does the football must improve.

Glimpses of the quality of football we crave, other clubs performing as we can now only dream of and one of the most exciting squads of Stokes long history (certainly the most expensive) all play a part in the hurt that we have felt in the dying embers of this ‘what could have been’ season. My diagnosis isn’t exactly ground-breaking but talking about the trauma helps the healing process.

The positives we can take are that we have seen these players produce amazing football, with our first team squad fit and firing there is no reason this can’t be repeated. The summer will no doubt see a few new faces take the tour around Clayton Wood’s impressive facilities and a full pre-season for the current squad we should be able to hit the ground the running. There will be no false pretences about Hughes always having a better second half of the season, with our squad and ambitions it isn’t about having half a good season any more. For all of the pain and hurt we are feeling at the moment, we all know that come August the same hopeful mood will have crept up within us. And as a wise Bear Pit TV blogger once wrote, it’s the hope that kills you.

What else has caused the abnormal extent to the pain we are feeling?

Written by Ben Cartwright

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