What Did You Expect?

It doesn’t take a footballing expert – and I am certainly not one of those – to recognise that Stoke have had better seasons in recent times. A less than gripping Premier League campaign, two rather embarrassingly premature domestic cup exits and a slightly less appealing style of football has resulted in a campaign filled with questions regarding whether the club are going backwards and whether some sort of radical action should be taken – and plenty of replies arguing against these ideas. It has, quite understandably, split the fanbase and, with views on social media becoming more significant and with the anxiety amongst fans having an effect on the general mood in the stands, it’s certainly not done any good for the club. Opinions, and the differences between others’, in football is one of the components that define “the beautiful game” and well formed arguments should always be listened to; however, some fan’s views have turned sour, nasty and frankly baseless. I’m here to try my best and argue for all sides of the debate and eliminate some of the unnecessary disparity between this, at it’s core, wonderful fan base.

One of the most predominant reasons, in my opinion, for Stoke’s slump over the last twelve months is due to an accumulation of a series of unfortunate events. It all began eleven months ago with Jack Butland’s serious injury whilst on duty for the England national side. Prior to this, a string of player-of-the-season worthy performances from the ‘keeper, amongst others, had Stoke one point behind Manchester United in sixth and pushing for European football, conceding just 37 goals in 31 Premier League games. Following that, Stoke were forced to rely on Jakob Haugaard and Shay Given, who managed to concede 32 goals between them in 12 league games – often four at a time. You can’t expect to win matches, or even play well, with that kind of record – we only won once in that period.

This caused more than last season’s hopes of Europe dashed and this season’s early threat of relegation threat genuine, it caused a complete overhaul in the team. The recognised number 10 role, held by Bojan, was sacrificed for a more defensive option with Joe Allen – who, to his credit, went on an incredible scoring run that kickstarted Stoke’s season. Giannelli Imbula’s poor start to the season saw him moved to the bench in favour of another defensive minded switch. In short, Hughes took drastic action to stop the rot in, what seemed to be, a short term solution. Stoke were able to start pick up wins following the change, not least with Lee Grant breaking into the side and heroically stepping up to the mark. Sadly, this was at a price: Stoke were scoring very few goals once those for Joe Allen had dried up. Wilfried Bony, the player who was thought to be the answer to Stoke’s goalscoring issues, drastically underperformed, partly due to a more defensive style of play, partly through some shocking individual performances.

Even just when results were back on the up: Marko Arnautovic – last year’s player of the season and top goalscorer – was sent off. Stoke did manage to score five goals during the Austrian’s three game suspension but they also conceded ten, gained just a single point and highlighted how valuable his influence is. Why am I recalling all this information? These events, in addition to Xherdan Shaqiri’s recurring calf injuries, losing Mame Diouf (a key component in a new formation) to international duty and a few other niggling factors have all contributed to some disappointing results in the last twelve months, some easily forgettable performances and a complete overhaul of the squad and style of football.

I think Mark Hughes has a long term plan in place: the players he has brought in (Shaqiri, Imbula, now Saido Berahino), the trial of new formations and a gradual change in style enforces that. Yet so many things have fallen against Sparky and his team that he’s had to almost abandon that plan (hopefully temporarily) and rebuild the foundations before Stoke completely collapsed. I think he’s managed to do that and did what he had to do, given the circumstances; but it’s obvious that it’s proved costly: a complete change of identity and strategy and it’s easy to imagine that Hughes is thinking on his feet – handing Bojan a new deal and then loaning him out for first team football a year later epitomises that.

Chasing Europe towards the business end of last season and the record breaking season prior to that have ramped up expectations for Stoke City massively, both within the club and with the fans and local media. Don’t misunderstand me, shooting for the stars should be encouraged if we ever want to smash through the glass ceiling. Saying that, it’s worth remembering that failure to reach those lofty targets doesn’t mean that the club is in any kind of decline and that failure can often be justified. You can’t expect to lose some of your best players and then play the same football, win the same games and continue a meteoric rise, Leicester City being a prime example.

That said, the concerns that we may never claw our way back to our peak are genuine and it’s vital that Mark Hughes does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Absent players, (for example: Butland, Imbula, Bojan) need to return all guns blazing on their (potential) reintroductions to the team, the fluid and exciting brand of football needs to return and reignite fans’ passion once more and, once Hughes has all of his preferred players at his disposal, the football needs to do the business. Once fans have that taste of success they, rightly so, want more; should the excuses begin to run out for the team, perhaps something big does need to change. There’s complete justification for a fan to be unhappy with the current regime of their football club, it’s completely subjective. Nonetheless, the proof is there that Stoke can reach those targets, it’s about replicating that best form over a longer period of time; even if that does mean that the rebuilding process has to begin next season.

The main motivation for me writing this blog is because I’ve seen fans actively hate on and abuse each other on social media over exaggerated and unrelated topics. To reference: there was a fan’s statement in the local news that completely dismissed the views of others because they do not attend matches – no matter the reason (through choice or not) that a fan does not attend a game, it does not make their opinion less relevant. Having said that, I’ve seen fans blurt out unfounded and extreme opinions and equally dismiss other opinions just because they’re not similar. Opinions, football or otherwise, should be reinforced with unbiased reasoning and discussed with others if you want to be taken seriously – stats aren’t always the answer, they can be easily manipulated. We can all learn from each other and it would reunite the fans as a consequence. You can’t expect every fan to agree with your views, whether it be on a player, manager or vision, but that does not necessarily mean that someone in the situation is wrong.

My final words of this (pretty ranty) piece relate to those of our great football club. As I write this: Claudio Ranieri has just been sacked as manager of Leicester; not to go into any detail on that situation, I’m saying a lot of clubs these days are built on rash, ruthless and impatient principles. Stoke City is admired across the country as one of solidity, stability and patience. We’re close to securing passage to a tenth successive season in the Premier League, something most clubs in England can only dream of. We support, at the heart of it all, a wonderfully well run football club. Let’s make sure that us, as fans, represent our club as we should: with pride and integrity. We owe Stoke that.

United Strength is Stronger, remember?


Written by Ben Rowley

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