From Stoke To Joke

Just over a year ago, Stoke City were the best they ever have been in the Premier League: playing swashbuckling football which caught the attention of the world’s media, disposing some of England’s greatest football teams with ease and, following the 2-1 win over Watford last April, Stoke were just one point behind Manchester United who were in sixth place. We were talked about as genuine contenders for European qualification and we seemed almost unstoppable. Mark Hughes was being lauded with getting the best out of a promising side and was even being linked with big jobs away from Stoke. Fast forward twelve months and the Potters’ fortunes have been turned on their head: we are one of the lowest goalscorers, play some of the most tepid football and have been on the wrong end of humiliating scorelines on a regular basis. What on earth has happened?!

I wrote a blog just over a month ago defending Stoke City and that we’ve been on the end of some truly rotten luck. Losing Jack Butland to injury led to an incredibly tough period where we didn’t have a Premier League standard goalkeeper. Other injuries such as Ibi Afellay, Xherdan Shaqiri, Geoff Cameron and Glen Johnson depleted the squad to it’s bare bones and halted any soaring form that the team picked up. Having to run through undulating periods of tough fixtures means that it’s easy for the team’s morale to dip. Despite this, I also said that this does not mean that Stoke should not hide behind these excuses and that they need to recover from the slump should they want to reach the heights that they have been known to achieve.

Sadly though, this has not been the case so far: Stoke have won just ten of their last 39 league games, conceded 65 goals and haven’t beaten a side that was in the top ten (at the time of playing them) since 2015. The spellbinding football has gone too: only four sides have created less chances than Stoke have this season and it’s only those four sides that have scored less goals than the Potters too. Stoke have been sitting pretty in ninth place for months, however now have paid the price for another poor run a form recently and now sit 13th. There’s a growing concern within the fanbase that Stoke will not be able to reach the same heights we know they’re capable of unless a big change is made.

Big changes have been reported by national media, with Mark Hughes and Stoke City looking to rebuild the squad next Summer. The Telegraph reported that Stoke want to build a more youthful, dynamic squad in order to protect the club’s future. However, this seems odd when players such as Peter Crouch and Ibi Afellay have been handed new deals and players such as Giannelli Imbula, Bojan, and Marc Muniesa have all been tipped to leave. Hughes has spoken before about bringing in more players that are prepared to have a less favourable role in the squad, rather than attempting to keep certain fringe players happy. These comments imply that some players could be kicking up a fuss behind the scenes and it could well be possible that the once harmonious dressing room is now being torn apart.

There are some fans that have their reservations about trusting Hughes to rebuild the squad, having been in charge of similar overhauls in the past – albeit under poor guidance – and the plans backfiring. On paper, Stoke have a squad capable of reaching European football and there’s plenty of growing room in there too. There are very few players in the squad who remain from the previous regime, however they tend to be the ones that are the most regular on the team sheet. To restart Hughes’ project would almost undo any progress that he’s accomplished over his time with us, it would be a big risk to see whether he can pull off the same feat again, particularly in a far more competitive and expensive market when it comes to looking for young and promising talent.

There’s further reservations that others have with the man at the helm too. Stoke tend to suffer from slow starts, giving the club a much larger hill to climb by the time that other clubs have made their mark.  His tendency to flit from idea to idea – whether that be formation or perceived importance of any given player – means that the quest for consistency always seems to be at arm’s length. Despite this, Hughes has an air of stubbornness around certain ideas which means some sagas are carried out almost for the sake of it: the Saido Berahino chase a good example. There’s more minor issues – such as the squad being far more injury prone compared to the previous regime and some of the substitutions (or lack of) he makes are more than questionable – which all accumulate to some fans questioning whether the end for Mark Hughes’ reign is nigh.

Should Sparky be shown the door, it should be seen as a sad time. Although not being the most popular man to come through the Clayton Woods doors on his arrival, it’s undeniable that he’s worked the very best out of Stoke City and thrusted them into overachievement, especially during the early stages. He’s brought nothing but top half finishes, remarkable signings, wonderful memories, smashed records and chases for domestic glory. He deserves every amount of praise he’s received over the last four years and there’s no particular reason to suggest why he cannot revive Stoke City and continue on our road to (eventual) glory. However, should the worst happen, it should not be seen as a time of the end of a failure and the start of potential success; it should be seen as a regrettable end to a magnificent time in the club’s history and the beginning of a rebuilding journey which is going to require hard work and patience should the decision be a worthwhile one.

As I write, Peter Coates has just finished talking to BBC Radio Stoke and certainly could have done more to convince fans that he’s 100% behind the manager. With the priority being recovery ahead of the final six games of the season, he refused to comment on whether the managerial position is under threat. The situation smacks very much of Tony Pulis’ final months and it may well take a drastic turnaround for Mark Hughes to save his job. Saying all this, whether Hughes is under pressure or not, we should all be looking for improvement from the Potters as we aim to sign off the season with a final flourish. There haven’t been many standout highlights from this season, however there’s still the opportunity to achieve targets and reinstall faith. Whatever happens, we should undoubtedly feel lucky that we have an incredibly intelligent, passionate and loyal owner at this Football Club and he will do what’s best for the club. Not for himself. Not for the staff. Not for the players. Not for certain groups of fans. For everyone. I certainly don’t envy him right now.

For now, there’s six games left. Just for six games, keep the faith.


Written by Ben Rowley

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