What a difference a summer can make.
On May 13th 2017 the Stoke City first team squad gingerly completed the traditional ‘lap of honour’ that occurs following the final home fixture of the season.
However, the Bet365 Stadium stood almost completely empty with only a scattering of hardy supporters having chosen to stay behind after the game – a heavy 4-1 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in which the team had been jeered off at the final whistle.
The mood around the club during this period was one of frustration and disappointment. After achieving three consecutive top-ten finishes in his first three years in charge Mark Hughes had come under increasing pressure throughout the 2016/17 campaign.
The Potters finished 13th in the Premier League, ten points clear of the relegation places yet trailing a Europa League qualifying spot by a whopping 17 points, and suffered early exits from both domestic cup competitions.
In short, the season was characterised by inconsistency, an ineffective defensive unit and an impotent forward line – there had been very little, if anything, for supporters to get excited about.
There was a feeling that the club had distinctly regressed over the previous twelve months. The free flowing football that had seen the club come within a penalty kick of reaching the League Cup final the previous year had all but dissipated, replaced by a cautious approach that was as inefficient as it was unexciting.
The team selections, substitutions and tactics of Mark Hughes left many onlookers scratching their heads with confusion and there appeared to be no long-term plan or sense of direction for the club in general.
Hughes was genuinely under pressure and although the Stoke fan base had not entirely descended into open revolt there was certainly a portion of supporters who either wanted to see the Welshman sacked or would have not have lost any sleep had he been dismissed.
The Potters were lumbered with an ageing squad, an out of date looking 4-2-3-1 formation and a manager who had seemingly lost all sense of direction – the coming summer would be vital.
Turning the tide
I have no hesitation in saying that I was among the swathes of Stoke City supporters who did not remain behind for the traditional lap of honour following the final home fixture of the campaign last season.
It was the first time that I had decided to leave early and it represented my genuine disenchantment with what I had seen, not just in the previous ninety minutes, but during the campaign as a whole. I was not openly calling for Mark Hughes to be dismissed but I did recognise that the first team squad required some major surgery over the summer months.
In fact, Hughes has done a rather good job of reviving the mood around the Bet365 Stadium over the last couple of months and the Stoke City of today looks refreshed and revitalised for the forthcoming year.
The Welshman has opted to switch to a 3-4-3 type formation and has worked effectively in the transfer market to bring in a host of new faces to freshen up the first team squad.
The arrivals of Kurt Zouma, Bruno Martins Indi and Kevin Wimmer, in addition to the existing talents of Jack Butland and Ryan Shawcross, now mean that The Potters have an abundance of talent in what now looks like a formidable back line.
Darren Fletcher, who arrived on a free transfer from Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion, looks like an inspired signing in the centre of midfield and has already demonstrated his ability and leadership qualities in the opening fixtures of the campaign. Finally, Jese Rodriguez and Eric Choupo-Moting have added a dynamic new energy to the final third of the pitch.
The early signs are positive. An opening day defeat at Goodison Park was followed by an impressive victory over Arsenal and a useful, hard-fought point on the road against West Brom prior to the international break. There is a new solidity with the trio of central defenders whilst the attacking talent of Jese Rodriquez, who oozes class and quality, is there for all to see.
However, whilst Mark Hughes has done a relatively impressive job of deconstructing and remoulding his Stoke team in a new image, there is still plenty of work to do.
There remains question marks over who will lead The Potters’ forward line, with Saido Berahino still yet to find the back of the net since his controversial arrival in January, whilst there is certainly a lack of natural wing-backs at the club (Mame Biram Diouf and Geoff Cameron, a striker and central defender respectively, have been shoe-horned in at right-wring-back so far).
Credit where credit is due
The pressure on Mark Hughes has slowly subsided and the calls for the Welshman to be sacked have all but disappeared in the opening weeks of the new season.
Supporters, who were left feeling distinctly underwhelmed following a disappointing previous campaign, suddenly have a renewed sense of optimism and, dare I say it, excitement for the year ahead.
It is still far too early in the season to be making definitive judgements or statements, yet there are plenty of positive signs regarding Stoke City’s potential trajectory.
Credit must go to Peter Coates and the remainder of the club hierarchy who maintained their faith in Hughes when there was definitely pressure building regarding The Welshman’s future.
Despite a poor previous campaign it is clear that those who walk the corridors of power at the Bet365 Stadium felt that Hughes had enough credit in the bank following his first trio of campaigns to be given the opportunity to remould the team.
He has responded perfectly, moving smartly in the transfer market to correct some of the key issues and freshening up the current first team squad bringing in quality without necessarily spending a huge amount of money.
Some Stoke City supporters were fearing that relegation could be a realistic possibility as the new season kicked off, but Mark Hughes has done to reinvigorate a club that had looked in danger of stagnating.
The early signs are positive but there is still plenty for the Welshman to do before the fan base truly forgot the trials and tribulations of the previous twelve months.