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Stoke City

How Mark Hughes reinvigorated Stoke City during the summer and gave fans optimism

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke

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The Potters were lumbered with an ageing squad, an out of date looking 4-2-3-1 formation and a manager who had seemingly lost all sense of direction – the coming summer would be vital.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.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Stoke City

Is Bojan Krkic the perfect player for Gary Rowett to build Stoke City around?

The 27-year-old has been an outcast at the Bet365 Stadium.

Martyn Cooke

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Bojan
Photo: Getty Images

As Gary Rowett continues to rebuild the Stoke City squad over the summer there will be plenty of speculation regarding who will be arriving and departing the Bet365 Stadium.

The Potters have already dipped into the transfer market by signing Nigerian midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo and Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Benik Afobe whilst Egyptian starlet Ramadan Sobhi was sold to Huddersfield Town last week.

Xherdan Shaqiri, who is currently representing Switzerland at the World Cup in Russia, has confirmed that he will be leaving the club whilst, in contrast, Joe Allen has signed a new long-term contract to remain.

There are still plenty of question marks over current players. The likes of Jack Butland and Badou Ndiaye are expected to attract interest from Premier League clubs whilst the expensive pairing of Saido Berahino and Giannelli Imbula may not fit into Rowett’s plans but will be short of offers.

But what about Bojan Krkic?

The diminutive Spaniard was once one of the most promising young forwards in Europe after he rose through Barcelona’s prestigious La Masia academy system and made his first team debut at the age of 17.

He made over 100 appearances for the Catalan’s prior to loan spells with Ajax, AC Milan and Roma before eventually moving to Stoke in the summer of 2014.

Bojan has certainly made an impact at the Bet365 Stadium, particularly during his first two-and-a-half years with the club, but he fell out of favour under Mark Hughes and has spent the last eighteen months on loan in Germany and Spain.

(Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

At his best, the 27-year-old was a magician who produced moments of sublime skill and was a central creative influence in the team.

He was technically magnificent and would often glide across the pitch, weaving between defenders and was a genuine threat whenever he received the ball in the final third.

Bojan was one of only a handful of Stoke players from the last decade that would bring supporters to the edge of their seats in anticipation and expectation when he was in possession.

For anyone who requires a reminder of what the forward can do, simply look up his solo goal against Tottenham Hotspur form 2014.

Much has been made of his injury in January 2015. The Spaniard suffered severe knee damage in an FA Cup tie at Rochdale that meant that he was out of action for the remainder of the season and the common narrative is that he was never the same upon his return.

However, this storyline is incorrect. In fact, Bojan was at his peak over the Christmas period in 2015 when he was the centre of Stoke’s attacking trident which also included Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic.

Such was the effectiveness of the trio that The Potters picked up the nickname of ‘Stoke-a-lona’ in reference to their attacking brand of football.

So where did it all go wrong for him?

He fell out of favour with Mark Hughes and, after being dropped from the starting line-up, was never able to regain his position as Stoke City’s creative hub.

The Spaniard subsequently has spent the past eighteen months on loan with Mainz and Las Palmas but has struggled to make any significant impact either in Germany or Spain.

(Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

In many respects, Bojan’s stock has never been lower. He has fallen off the radar somewhat in the past year and it appears that any hopes that he may have had of returning to a prominent European club are all but over.

However, this opens up a potential return to Stoke despite their relegation to The Championship.

Last season The Potters were desperately short of creativity and goals – something that Bojan can provide.
The Spaniard man be the perfect figure for Gary Rowett to build his new look team around.

Joe Allen and Oghenekaro Etebo will provide defensive security and energy in the centre of midfield whilst Benik Afobe will make be the focal point in the final third.

Bojan could be the perfect link player if deployed as a number ten and you would imagine that he would be more than capable of causing chaos amongst defences in The Championship.

There is, of course, the question of whether the 27-year-old would be prepared to play in the second tier of English football, although Allen’s decision to sign a new contract and remain at Stoke would suggest that Rowett is capable of being persuasive.

If Stoke are serious about challenging for promotion, then keeping Bojan and reigniting his career at the Bet365 Stadium would be a serious statement of intent.

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Southampton

Mark Hughes interested in reunion with Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron

Mark Hughes interested in bringing the experienced defender to St. Mary’s

Luke Beaumont

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Cameron
Photo: Getty Images

According to a Stoke Sentinel report, former Stoke City boss Mark Hughes wants Geoff Cameron to reunite with him at Southampton.

Cameron, who turns 33 next month, was brought to Stoke by Tony Pulis in 2012 following a four-year stint with Major League Soccer side Houston Dynamo.

He thrived under the leadership of Hughes, becoming a versatile and influential player for the Potters in the Premier League.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

It is suggested that Cameron’s current deal includes a release clause in excess of £5 million, and Stoke will want to receive that figure if he is to leave the Bet365 stadium this summer.

Cameron is currently unsure whether he has a future at Stoke under Gary Rowett, so he will be hoping to find out when he returns to training next week.

It isn’t a secret that the Stoke boss is a fan of the player, however, heis trying to reduce the overall age of the squad following the club’s relegation from the Premier League but has stated there is room for some of the aging contingent which might include Cameron.

The American defender is highly thought of in his native country and a return to Major League Soccer has been rumoured. Championship clubs are also thought to be monitoring the situation.

The prospect of remaining in the Premier League and reuniting with Mark Hughes might be a huge factor if he decides to stay in England and finds himself out of favour with Stoke City’s promotion-chasing group.

With 149 Premier League starts to his name, there’s no doubt Cameron would add experience and valuable depth to Southampton’s defence.

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Stoke City

Joe Allen’s new contract sends a warning to Stoke’s Championship rivals

The 28-year-old has put pen to paper on a new four-year deal.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

Any supporter that has suffered the despair of relegation will tell you that the biggest fear that they have in the ensuing summer is that their club will be forced to sell many of their prized assets.

That fear tends to be exacerbated for clubs that drop out of the Premier League. The top flight may be awash with cash, big money signings and astronomical wages yet these can quickly become a burden in the financial wasteland of the Sky Bet Championship.

Relegated Premier League clubs often undergo a rapid-fire sale as they try to ensure their financial sustainability by reducing the wage bill whilst their star players tend to jump ship as quickly as possible.

It is a fine line balancing the books and ensuring that a team remains competitive and, as Sunderland supporters will tell you, a few bad decisions can quickly lead to a devastating downwards spiral.

Those fears were certainly prevalent around the Bet365 Stadium when the current campaign came to its conclusion as Stoke City’s decade-long spell in the top flight came to an unceremonious end.

After ten years in the top-flight the squad was full of star names, such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Jack Butland and Joe Allen, and expensive transfer failures that were sitting on long-term big-money contracts, including Saido Berahino and Giannelli Imbula.

The expectancy was that Stoke would be resigned to losing many of their prized assets whilst being forced to scramble as much money back on other transfer flops as possible. A major rebuilding job would be required over the summer and the squad would have to be overhauled – there was certainly fears of aa dramatic fire-sale.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

A clear signal of intent

It came as something of a surprise earlier this week then when the club confirmed that Joe Allen had signed a new four-year contract.

The Welsh international had joined The Potters in the summer of 2016 from Liverpool and was only two years into a five-year deal. He had been one of Stoke City’s star performers in what had been a disastrous campaign and it had been widely assumed that the 28-year-old would depart in the summer.

Allen’s loyalty to the club will come as a huge boost to new Stoke manager Gary Rowett as he attempts to mould a team capable of challenging for promotion. It is a definitive signal of intent that sends a clear message to their Championship rivals that they have little intention of being excluded from the Premier League for more than a season.

To have a player of Allen’s quality and experience playing in the second tier of English football suddenly provides The Potters with a new sense of positivity, optimism and momentum. This is a player, remember, who was named in the team of the tournament at Euro 2016.

You also have to applaud the 28-year-olds moral compass. It is clear that he has an affinity with the club and it would appear that he is willing to shoulder some of the responsibility for the club’s relegation whilst attempting to correct matters for the forthcoming season. Such loyalty following relegation is something that we see desperately little of in the modern game.

His decision may also have a bearing on some of Stoke’s other star names.

Allen’s willingness to sign a new contract may just make the likes of Jack Butland, Bruno Martins-Indi and Badou Ndiaye think twice before jumping ship at the first opportunity. The question is no longer how many players Stoke will sell, but rather how many they are going to keep?

Ultimately, Allen signing a new contract can only be a good thing for Stoke as they prepare for life in The Championship. His quality on the pitch will be crucial if the team are to secure promotion whilst it provides a clear message to rival clubs – that Stoke City will be a force to be reckoned with in the forthcoming season.

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