An Open Reply to Robbie Savage

Following a colourless season last year, being handed a tough start to the 2017/18 campaign and having spent the least amount of money in the Premier League: many fans and pundits outside of Stoke-on-Trent have tipped the Potters to struggle this season. Robbie Savage is one of those pundits: predicting that Premier League clubs will overtake Stoke in his column in The Mirror. Having played the game and spent his time following his playing days as a pundit, Robbie probably knows a hell of a lot more on the workings of football than I do. However, I can’t help but feel that some of Savage’s views are a little short-sighted when it comes to his disapproval of Stoke City’s ambition and that the clubs’s hierarchy are doing a better job than he, and other media outlets, are making out.

It’s fair to say that, on the whole, spending by Premier League clubs have inflated to ludicrous levels. Big money spent by Europe’s elite is compounding with the Premier League’s riches and transfer fees are inflating more than ever, leaving transfer records smashed day after day. Having only bought one player permanently for a transfer fee (£7m for Bruno Martins Indi), Stoke are one of the few exceptions to the rule and Savage says that Mark Hughes should feel frustrated that his squad hasn’t benefitted from similar levels of spending. He says that Saido Berahino and Peter Crouch will not be enough to bring in the amount of goals needed to survive in the Premier League and that Stoke will pay the price for not investing in a proven hitman.

In answer to that: it can be argued that no matter which striker plays for Stoke City, they would not score goals. Stoke have ploughed through a plethora of strikers with various different qualities over recent years and none of them have been able to consistently notch for the Potters. It’s more likely the case that, certainly in the last 18 months, that Stoke sides have not created quality chances; part of that being a result of Hughes opting for more defensive players in his team selections and leaving influencers, such as Bojan and Imbula, out of the side. Simply spending astronomical amounts of money on some red-hot striker doesn’t lead always lead to goals: ask Chelsea about what happened to Fernando Torres, Liverpool on Andy Carroll and even Stoke themselves after bringing in Wilfried Bony last year.

Which brings me onto a related dig from Savage: he hits out at Stoke’s decision to tighten the purse strings despite banking more gross income than ever before. He says: “Brighton have broken their transfer record three times in a month, Watford’s net spend this summer is £40 million, while Newcastle, Bournemouth and Huddersfield have all spent more than Stoke.” as if Stoke should feel obliged to copy these spending habits. He implies that Hughes may feel that Stoke cannot progress without investment that keeps up with the rest of the Premier League clubs, and his ambition will surpass that of the Potters. Savage understand that money has been spent elsewhere, such as stadium development, but that there could be drastic consequences if Stoke don’t reshuffle their priorities.

Yes, Stoke are the lowest spenders when it comes to transfer fees, but I would imagine the wages of those brought in by Stoke are significantly higher than players recruited by their rivals. Kurt Zouma of Chelsea and Jese Rodriguez of PSG would have come with huge salaries (along with reportedly large loan fees, totalling £10m for the pair). Even the relatively inexpensive captures of Maxim Choupo Moting (ex-Schalke), Bruno Martins Indi (ex Porto) and Darren Fletcher (ex Man Utd and West Brom) will have come with salaries which would sit at the higher end of Stoke’s wage structure. In addition, aside from the record sale of Marko Arnautovic, departures have been of those who sit on the fringes, with both transfer fees and the newly freed-up wages not drastically outweighing those who have come in.

However there is a case for the infamous unaccounted prize money: £107m according to Savage’s article. The fact is, as stated in my earlier point, the Premier League isn’t a flat out pissing contest: money spent does not guarantee success. Newcastle United is a perfect example, after being relegated in 2015/16 after spending £80m. Stoke have a very good squad already, better than that certainly of the big spenders Savage mentions in his column. How much money would it take for Stoke to break free of the ‘best of the rest’ in the Premier League and break into the European places? My guess is quite a damn lot. Besides, even clubs like Everton are being praised for their high spending; but with the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley surely generating over £100m in extra income, I don’t see Everton exactly blowing their load either?

Why should the first team be injected with a silly overdose of cash anyway? It’s been proven in the past, and present, that Mark Hughes works well with a more restricted budget and one of his biggest talents is reviving and improving seemingly lesser players. Hughes’ QPR situation was a strange one, but it’s fair to say that his times with less money to work with has forced Hughes to think harder, play smarter and has brought the best out of his sides. Stoke will be far from inspired by the Giannelli Imbula saga, after the club’s record signing (by far) is consistently left out of matchday squads and is set to be shipped off back to France. While near-free signings such as Stephen Ireland, Peter Odemwingie, Bojan and Mame Diouf have been crucial parts of Stoke’s climb under Hughes.

This isn’t me saying I want Stoke to only work within the more frugal markets: Xherdan Shaqiri’s then record signing has proved to be one of the best and worthwhile coups. I am saying that Stoke shouldn’t spend just to lift themselves higher in the totaliser. I want Stoke to continue to attract some of the world’s very best players and develop as a squad and as a club. I want Stoke to be successful, yet there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The Potters underperformed last year, that much is clear. But occurrences such as injuries to top players, not being able to recover from being a goal down and capitulating should the side go two down are all things that Stoke need to overcome. They certainly don’t get solved by throwing money at it: it comes from an approach in training, an approach to matches and, honestly, luck.

Having said all of this, the transfer window isn’t even closed yet, there’s still plenty of time to make a big money move. I’m confident that the club would carry out such a move if the opportunity arose.

Altogether, Savage suggests that Hughes shouldn’t turn his nose up at leaving Stoke City of his own accord. He protests that some Stoke fans will never be won over, fingers are being unfairly being pointed at the manager and Hughes could find somewhere where he’s more appreciated. He speaks of the opening six fixtures of the season as an opportunity for Hughes to plead his case for progression and to walk if it falls on deaf ears. Finally, Savage says that, should Stoke end up in a dismal place after the first six games, there will be plenty of fans praying that he leaves anyway. Fuel would have been added to Savage’s fire after having some Stoke fans challenging his sympathy for the Stoke manager last season.

Saying that fans are unhappy with Hughes purely because of results and league position are lazy in my opinion. I’d like to think that a large portion of those protesting fans understand that a club’s Premier League position can fluctuate as seasons pass and that sometimes things happen outside of the manager’s (or even the club’s) control. Rather, those discontent fans are pointing out the lifeless football that has tainted Stoke for well over a season. Tony Pulis was relieved from his duties at Stoke City despite being more successful than any other Potters manager in recent history; part of that was due to the stagnant football that was in display week after week. Mark Hughes promised, and initially outfitted Stoke with, a much more thrilling brand of football and one that brought better results in the process. Concerns must be raised when both the results and the brilliance have been taken out of the club, especially when Hughes refused to identify this as a problem throughout the 2016/17 season.

Those who know me and knew of my work for The Bear Pit TV last season know that I tried to reinforce Hughes’ leadership as much as possible. Some fans couldn’t see that Stoke were suffering from issues beyond their control and that Hughes had provided such sweet times before. But there’s only so many 4-0 losses you can hide away from. I said Stoke needed revamping, because whatever was happening at the time was simply not working and the club were indeed sleepwalking into colossal trouble. Stoke did get that change though, it came through a change in playing personnel rather than coaching staff. It’s given many fans new belief to be hopeful for the new season, and one with Mark Hughes and Peter Coates leading the way.

Stoke have played two games so far this season, and they both epitomise what fans are really concerned about and what fans really want. Losing 1-0 to Everton at Goodison Park was disappointing, but it was always plausible. It was the manner of the defeat that frustrated fans: struggling to trouble Jordan Pickford, making amateur mistakes at the back and seeing fans leave the game with very few mental souvenirs. It was dull, and we had 18 months of it. The game at the bet365 Stadium against Arsenal was a completely different affair. Stoke weren’t dominant in possession but they did enough to get bums off seats and their resilience at the back was reminiscent of the times where the club were just beginning to blossom in the Premier League. Plus we won in the first six games of a season, for a change. Most of all, the game was exciting, the game was memorable… the game was emotional. That’s all fans really want when it’s all said and done, we want to feel. If Mark Hughes and Stoke can reignite that dampening fire, as it was proved possible on Saturday night, we’ll all be singing from the same hymn sheet once more.

Don’t get me wrong, Robbie, I love how passionately you follow your beliefs and you certainly aren’t the kind of pundit to hold back simply because your opinion is unpopular, but I would suggest delving a little deeper into exactly why fans are feeling a certain way. We at Stoke don’t expect much. We don’t expect the most expensive of signings, we don’t expect the highest of league finishes, we absolutely don’t strive to be everyone’s cup of tea. But we do want to be able to come away from a football game with something to hold on to. Peter Coates knows what it’s like to be a fan of this football club because he is one. He, and most other fans, are right behind our chairman in whatever decision he makes because he doesn’t just represent us, he is what we are. I’d just be a little more tentative when you question what Peter Coates does because he’s one of the best football club owners in the world. Whatever it is he’s doing, he’ll be doing it for a bloody good reason.

FACT: Vis Unita Fortior.


Robbie’s column:


Written by Ben Rowley

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