Steak and Chips

With the news that Stoke are willing to listen to offers for Bojan breaking late on Tuesday night there seems to be a feeling that this is the final nail in ‘Stokalona’s’ coffin. ‘Stokalona’ as a concept is hard to nail down and there’s plenty of places you can go and have the debate on what it was, but it certainly was one thing, exciting.

Excitement was the one word that could truly describe the brief Mark Hughes was given when he was hired as our manager. Crowd numbers were dwindling as the fans were no longer satisfied with grinding out a 1-0 win, we wanted to be entertained. And my God did Mark Hughes do that. We went from having scored 4 goals in a league match once in Pulis’ five years at the helm, to doing it twice in one month under Sparky.

The odd thing was even when Stoke lost matches I had a great time, and not just from an enjoying the day out attitude but that, I was still entertained by the football. No match summarised this better than our loss away at United in Hughes first game. We spent most the match winning, at Old Trafford, still doesn’t sound real. And even though we were struck with two late blows, in the shape of a Rooney equalizer and a Hernandez winner, it was exciting.

This all culminated in the standout of standout performances that was the win against Man City, a double figure score line wouldn’t have overstated how good the Potters were that day. But it is becoming apparent that this was a peak that we don’t look likely of reaching again, and perhaps the worst part is that we don’t look interested in trying to get back there. Take this year’s performance at Old Trafford, an undeniably amazing result and a quality team performance, but we looked more like a Pulis side than his own West Brom do.

This is not the first time Stoke have seemed to regress, discussing our ascendency to Europe and the ultimate decline into Pulis and the club parting ways, Mr. Pulis said of the fans “If you’re given steak and chips every day, steak and chips becomes the norm.” A statement like that is as close as you’ll ever get to Tony admitting that the club had perhaps outgrown him, and it’s a comment that seems to have resonance with the current situation. The club have been moving backwards, in terms of entertainment, since the semi-final loss at Anfield.

January 2016 wasn’t a happy month to be a Stoke fan, and the rest of that season followed that pattern. Constant heavy defeats led to a meme popping up on the internet with the tagline ‘it’s that time again… 4 past Stoke’, you can forgive Mark Hughes for having some crises of confidence.  And it is this crisis of confidence that has brought us to the situation we are at now.

The embodiment and personification of ‘Stokalona’ is on loan at Bundesliga club who are not far from being dragged into a relegation scrap. Whilst Stoke continue to persist with filling the starting XI with leftovers from the Pulis era, and that is in no way a bad thing. It is simply a jarring comparison and shows just how far backwards we’ve gone in terms of entertainment value. We beat Watford at home in a fixture that was so entirely uneventful that the main talking point was the Captains celebration.

The excitement is escaping from the club at a rapid rate. And there seems to be somewhat of an inquisition going on, routing out the most exciting players and forcing them out of the squad. Take Imbula, who no matter what your opinion on his contribution to the side, is one of the most exciting players to have played for Stoke in the last 10 years. Yet he has been hounded out of the first XI twice this season and replaced by the paint by numbers centre midfield partnership of Charlie Adam and Glenn Whelan. There is nothing wrong with these players and both have served Stoke magnificently, but they are not exciting. And the introduction of Crouch into the side has made Stoke, as previously stated, more one dimensional than ever.

No one would begrudge Hughes if his choice of practicality and pragmatism had pushed Stoke up the table, but it hasn’t, we’re still ninth. Less than two months ago Hughes set himself the target of a seventh placed finish, and it is already beyond us. There would be a great deal more acceptance of this if the football was still exciting. That’s not the case and the scariest word in football fan culture is beginning to push its way to the foreground of conversation, apathy.

Instead of being excited by performances and hardly being able to cope with going 7 days without seeing Stoke play, fans are actively looking forward to long breaks. Matches are steadily becoming seen as chores and there is a collective sense of relief when the final whistle is blown. If you wish to ignore these issues that’s your choice and fair play to you, but for many the comparisons between Pulis’ final season and this one are fairly easy to draw.

So it may be of use for Hughes to remember that he is at this club with a mandate to provide excitement. When discussing why Pulis and Stoke parted company discussion almost always shifts to talking about taking Stoke to the next level, something that did look beyond Pulis. But it is often forgotten that it was a lack of excitement that truly drove him out of the club, record lows for season ticket sales forced Mr. Coates’ hand. With the ground expanding by 1,800 seats over the summer the board will be looking for guarantees that this area will be filled, and there must be concern that Stoke may fail to do so. Returning to Pulis’ metaphor, Hughes has provided Stoke fans with a culinary experience like no other, but recently everything is tasting increasingly bland.

Written by Tom Thrower

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