The rise of Stoke City and their future direction
Tony Pulis steered Stoke back into the Premier League in 2008. Despite Paddy Power paying out on Stoke’s relegation before a ball had even been kicked, they managed to fight to a respectable 12th position in their first season. Ultimately, Stoke remained a mid-table side for the whole of Pulis’ managership (Despite a brief foray into the Europa League in 2011 due to FA Cup success). Stoke under Pulis became synonymous with words such as “physical” and “battle”, the Rory Delap long throw, and wind-assisted long balls.
Therefore even the most devout of Stoke fans would have been hard pushed to predict the upwards trajectory of their club after Mark Hughes’ appointment in 2013. Hughes’ transfer market activity in his few seasons in charge has been nothing short of phenomenal. Players in the Stoke 1st XI such as Richard Cresswell, Rory Delap and far past his best, Michael Owen have been quickly replaced by young and bright Continental stars such as Ibrahim Affelay, Bojan and Xherdan Shaqiri to name but a few. At present, Stoke has the boast that 5 of their squad are Champions League winners.
Looking specifically at the most recent signing of Shaqiri for £12m, there are wide reaching ramifications. First and foremost, is the fact that the £12 million fee paid for the Swiss international is a transfer record for the Potters. Wise purchases of top young players who have the potential to turn a game on its head with a moment of magic are huge statements of intent by the club. The second consequence of this transfer is whom they beat for Shaqiri’s signature. Reportedly a host of clubs were after the signing, and in particular Everton. It cannot go unnoticed that Stoke is now beating many of its rivals to key transfers.
Stoke’s successful transfer policy has in turn led to a change of fortune on the pitch. In Hughes’ first season, he guided Stoke to a 9th place finish and the highest points tally since 1974-75. Stoke under Pulis was known in some respects as a tough, dirty team, and the Britannia a fortress for visiting sides. It might not have been aesthetically pleasing at times, but it kept Stoke as an established mid-table Premier League team. However, in the years that Hughes have been in charge, slowly the squad has been improved, and performances on the pitch have matched that. The evolution of the club have led them to become a possession based side with expansive and creative play. Some of the fans have tongue in cheek renamed Stoke as Stokealona!
While unimaginable to say just a few years ago, Stoke have undergone a total transformation, and have become a team of big stars. Pieters has come out in the media today to say that facing Spurs “holds no fear”, and that Stoke truly believe they can get a result against any side in the division. This only highlights their growing stature in the game. Stoke took a number of big scalps last season including a double over Tottenham and a 6-1 demolition of Liverpool on the final day. The Potters want to make sure that they are no longer seen as scalps but become commonplace.
So where are Stoke heading? What should their targets be for the upcoming season and the seasons that follow? Despite a defeat to Liverpool on the opening day (Which took a spectacular strike from Coutinho to break the deadlock and seal the 3 points), I would be very surprised if Stoke did not finish in the top half of the table with the standard of players they have available to them. They took a few big scalps last year, and they will certainly need a few more to even entertain the thought of improving on last season’s 9th place finish. However, with the introduction of the TV money, the gap between the European spots and mid-table is closing quickly. If Stoke can continue to operate effectively in the transfer windows, and the performances on the pitch are matched by this, there are no reasons why Stoke can’t challenge for the Europa League spots in the coming seasons (And a Cup run or two at the same time). Rivals for these spots such as Everton lack squad depth, and Stoke could make this advantage pay.
Though all these changes do come with a health warning attached. On their day, Stoke can attack any team with pace and precision, and their new signings have the potential to turn 1 point to 3. However, the question has to be posed, can these new signings do it on a “Cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke?”! Normally this question is reserved for world class stars of big clubs, whether they could play against a tough, hard-hitting Stoke side in poor conditions, and the like. Now it can be applied to the Continental stars of their own club. Higginbotham has come out to the media to question whether the team has enough fighters in the squad anymore. They have players such as Walters, and Adams, who provide the aggression and old school Stoke ethic to be able to grab the team by the scruff of the neck when it is needed. Do players such as Bojan or Affelay have this same fight, if the chips are down against a rough and tough, relegation fighting side? For this season, Stoke is unlikely to improve on last season’s performance. However, if Hughes’ can effectively blend the elements of flair and fighter in the coming seasons, they could be looking at a very successful period in Stoke’s history. Whatever happens with Stoke, the increased TV money being spent by the mid-table sides, can only lead to a more exciting, unpredictable Premier League. Great news for any football fan.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Dan Westwell