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Stoke City

Which of these Stoke exiles deserves a second chance under Gary Rowett?

The new Potters manager potentially has three superb talents at his disposal.

Martyn Cooke

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Rowett
Photo: Getty Images

On Wednesday morning the Stoke City first team squad officially reported back at the club’s Clayton Wood training complex for the first day of pre-season training.

It was Gary Rowett’s first opportunity to cast his eye across the current cohort of players as the former Derby County manager looks to build a team capable of challenging for promotion in the coming season.

There were a number of fresh faces present at Clayton Wood including new signing Benik Afobe, who arrived on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers earlier this month, and various members of Rowett’s revised backroom team.

Callum Davidson has been announced as assistant manager whilst there are also coaching roles for Kevin Phillips and a return for Stoke legend Rory Delap.

However, it was interesting, and in some cases somewhat surprising, to see that three former Stoke exiles reported for pre-season training.

Giannelli Imbula, Bojan Krkic and Ibrahim Affelay were all present despite spending much of the previous campaign away from the club for varying reasons.

But which of these three exiles deserve a second chance at the Bet365 Stadium under Rowett?

Giannelli Imbula

In January 2016, Stoke City broke their transfer record by signing French midfielder Giannelli Imbula from FC Porto for a fee of £18.3 million.

There was considerable excitement around the Bet365 following his arrival and this was only enhanced following a promising start to his career in English football, including a spectacular goal in his second appearance for The Potters against Bournemouth.

The central midfielder was young, technically efficient and physically intimidating – he looked the complete package.

However, Imbula’s form and confidence steadily declined over the following twelve months eventually culminating in Mark Hughes omitting him from the match day squad.

Last summer he was shipped out on loan to French side Toulouse for the season where he made 30 appearances as the team finish third from bottom of Ligue 1.

Quite what Stoke should do with their record signing is open for debate.

Imbula’s star has faded significantly and it appears unlikely that they will be able to recoup much of the £18.3 million that they paid for the central midfielder whilst potential suitors are likely to be put off by his large wage packet.

However, he could still be a significant asset for Gary Rowett.

If Stoke’s new manager can get Imbula fit, confident and help him to return to form then there is little doubt that the Frenchman would be a force to be reckoned with in the Championship.

The 25-year-old might flourish under a new managerial regime and he certainly possesses an abundance of quality – it is just a question of whether Rowett can get the club’s record signing to perform.

Verdict: Give him a second chance.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Ibrahim Afellay

Dutch midfielder Ibrahim Afellay possesses an impressive CV having established himself as a central figure at PSV Eindhoven in the formative years of his career before earning a move to Barcelona in 2010.

However, his time at the Nou Camp was plagued by injuries and he was never able to make an impact for the Catalan giants.

A couple of relatively unsuccessful loan spells in Germany and Greece followed prior to Stoke City signing him on a free transfer in the summer of 2015.

Afellay’s career at the Bet365 Stadium was something of a slow burner but by the end of his first season with the club he had cemented his place in the starting eleven and was producing impressive performances on a consistent basis.

However, in April 2016 the midfielder suffered a severe knee injury in training that ruled him out of action for the best part of a year and he has never re-established himself as a key figure within the squad.

He was exiled by Paul Lambert at the back end of last season following a training ground bust up that related to Afellay’s attitude and performances in training.

The Dutchman was told that he was not welcome at Clayton Wood and he was forced to spend the final two months of the campaign in exile.

It was widely expected that Afellay would depart the Bet365 Stadium in the summer, but the appointment of Gary Rowett appears to have provided the dutchman with an opportunity at redemption.

However, it is difficult to see the 31-year-old having a future at the club.

Although he may possess significant experience and an abundance of technical ability, his lack of physical presence, fragility and proneness to injury would suggest that he is ill-suited to life in the Championship.

You would imagine that Stoke would be looking to invest in younger players rather than placing their faith in a veteran midfielder who has barely feature over the previous two years.

Verdict: Not worth a second chance

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Bojan Krkic

Bojan Krkic 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.

At his best, the 27-year-old was a central creative influence in the team who was capable of producing a sublime piece of skill or moment of magic that would break down the opposition defence.

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.

However, the Spaniard fell out of favour with Mark Hughes and was never able to regain his position as Stoke’s creative hub.

His exclusion was somewhat bizarre considering the team’s inefficiency in the final third and the fact that he signed a new long-term contract in February 2016.

He 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.

Bojan’s return provides Gary Rowett with a remarkable opportunity to build his new-look Stoke side around a player who is a genuine superstar.

The 27-year-old provides creativity, goals and will be the perfect figure to unlock Championship defences if he can be convinced to remain at the Bet365 Stadium.

Whether the Spaniard would be prepared to drop into the second tier of English football is unclear, yet his presence at Clayton Wood for the first day of pre-season training suggests that there is a possibility that he could remain and lead Stoke’s promotion challenge this season.

Verdict: Give him a second chance.

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.

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Stoke City

How Stoke have become early favourites for promotion

Martyn Cooke

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Stoke
Photo: Getty Images

Loyalty is a commodity that is in short supply in modern football.

The age of players spending their entire careers at one team or managers building a club over a period of time spanning decades is long gone.

Instead, the contemporary game is characterised by players that jump from club to club in search of regular game time or more money and a ‘managerial merry-go-round’ in which over half of managers in English football’s top four tiers will either be sacked or resign by the end of the season.

For players especially, the focus is on being in the Premier League. That is where the glitz, glamour, talent and, ultimately, money is located and there tends to be limited loyalty if a club is relegated from the top tier.

Which makes the recent developments at Stoke City come as a pleasant surprise.

The Potters were relegated in May after a decade-long spell in the Premier League and the general perception was that the club would be stripped of its prized assets over the summer.

Jack Butland, Joe Allen, Xherdan Shaqiri and pretty much anyone else who possessed a significant reputation was linked with a move away from the Bet365 Stadium.

(Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images)

The fear for supporters was that there would be some kind of fire-sale, leaving the new manager with the unenviable task of starting from scratch and building an almost entirely new squad.

However, that simply has not been the case.

Yes, Xherdan Shaqiri was sold to Liverpool last week, although that was to be expected after it was revealed that he had a relegation-release clause that made him available for just £13 million, and his departure was proceeded by the sales of Ramadan Sobhi and Lee Grant.

But, beyond that, there has been a surprising level of loyalty shown by the majority of the squad.

Gary Rowett’s most impressive feat since being appointed as manager at the start of the summer has not been who he has bought in the transfer window, but rather who he has been able to convince to remain at the Bet365 Stadium.

Joe Allen, who was named in the team of tournament at the European Championships just two years ago, was the first to sign a new long-term deal and commit his future to the club. The Welsh midfielder certainly would not have been short of options this summer and his decision to remain is a significant statement of intent.

He was then followed by Moritz Bauer, who signed a new contract earlier this month. The 26-year-old only arrived in January but has been quick to commit to the challenge of securing promotion from the Championship despite being hugely impressive during his 15 appearances in the Premier League last season.

Furthermore, Peter Crouch has signalled his intention to stay after suggesting that he had ‘unfinished business’, whilst the likes of Ryan Shawcross, Bruno Martins Indi, Eric Pieters and Mame Biram Diouf all appear willing to stay.

Rowett revealed over the weekend that he is hoping to convince Bojan Krkic to remain at the club and return to his best after his loan spell in Spain ended and there are whispers that Jack Butland might also be willing to scrap it out for a year in the second tier.

Somewhat bizarrely, it is not inconceivable that Stoke will start the campaign with a stronger, more balanced squad of players than the one that ended the previous season in the Premier League.

It is perhaps no surprise to see Stoke among the favourites with betting companies to be promoted although there is certainly still plenty of work to be done.

However, Rowett has started to build an intimidating squad of players that is full of experience and quality. He has not achieved this through splashing vast arrays of cash in the transfer marker, but rather by convincing existing big-name players to remain at the club.

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Stoke City

Gary Rowett opens the door for Robert Huth’s return to Stoke

Martyn Cooke

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Robert Huth
Photo: Getty Images

Stoke City boss Gary Rowett has opened the door for Robert Huth to return to the club on a permanent basis as the central defender continues to train with the first team squad as he attempts to regain his fitness.

The German was released by Leicester City at the end of last season following a hugely successful three-year stint at the King Power Stadium which included their historic Premier League title triumph in 2016.

Subsequently, he approached Stoke at the start of the summer and has been allowed to train with Rowett’s squad whilst he looks for a new club.

Huth remains a popular figure at the Bet365 Stadium having made over 150 appearances for The Potters over the period of half-a-decade following a £5 million transfer from Middlesbrough in 2009.

The 33-year-old formed a dominant central defensive partnership with Ryan Shawcross that provided the solid foundation on which the club’s modern success was built.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

The notion of Huth re-signing for Stoke is a romantic concept, one that many Stoke supporters will be keen to see, and Rowett told the Stoke Sentinel that the door is still open for the German defender.

“He’s coming to train. We’ll see how it is for both parties and we’ll assess it as we go along … We’ll try to help him and that’s where we are at the moment. I don’t think there’s any real rush to make a decision.”

“There’s no strings attached for either party but come in and train, we’ll get you involved – we’re a little bit short in terms of numbers in that area anyway.”

Stoke are currently short of central defensive options following the departures of Kevin Wimmer (on loan to Hannover 96), Marc Muniesa (who has signed for Girona) and Kurt Zouma (who returned to Chelsea following the conclusion of his loan spell) as the club adapts to life outside the Premier League.

With that in mind, Huth’s availability as a free agent and his pre-existing standing within the club makes him an attractive option as Rowett continues to re-mould his squad in preparation for the new season. He has already featured heavily in Stoke’s early pre-season activities and fixtures whilst he is also likely to be joining the club on their tour of Germany.

However, Rowett is right to be cautious about signing the German defender.

Huth did not make a single appearance for Leicester last season as he struggled with a string of injuries and fell considerably down the pecking order at the King Power Stadium whilst, at 33 years of age, he is stepping into the twilight of his career.

Could he realistically adapt to the physical demands of the Championship where there is a requirement to play two matches most weeks as part of a demanding fixture schedule?

Furthermore, Stoke should be looking to the future rather than attempting to recreate previous glories.

(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Whilst Huth remains a legend in the eyes of supporters he would only provide a short-term solution and will undoubtedly return as a very different player than the one that last played at the Bet365 Stadium in 2015.

Rowett is quite rightly looking to bring in a new generation of young, fresh and hungry talent which will be led by new signing Oghenekaro Etebo, Nigeria’s 21-year-old World Cup star. Does Huth fit within those parameters? Probably not.

Whilst Huth’s return may be a somewhat romantic notion that would certain provide a short-term solution to the club’s lack of defensive cover, on a practical level which looks at the long-term in would leave much to be desired.

Ultimately, much may depend, as it so often does in football, on money.

Stoke have already made significant moves in the transfer market following the arrivals of Etebo and Benik Afobe whilst they have been linked with a string of other big-money signings.

Without the safety net of Premier League TV revenue the signing of Huth on a free transfer could allow Rowett to focus his investment on strengthening other areas of the team.

So the door is certainly open for Huth to return on a permanent basis, although Rowett will need to decide whether his focus is on the short-term or long-term future of the club.

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Stoke City

Do Stoke City have the Championship’s best full-back in Moritz Bauer?

The Austrian signed a new deal at the Bet365 Stadium earlier this month.

Martyn Cooke

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Photo: Getty Images

The Bet365 Stadium has been a hive of activity over the summer so far as Stoke City prepare for life outside the top-flight for the first time in a decade.

The Potters were relegated from the Premier League in May but the club have been quick to begin to address some of the issues, mistakes and frailties that underpinned their failures last season and, arguably, can be traced back throughout the previous twenty-four months.

Gary Rowett was appointed as manager at the start of the summer and his arrival was seen as something of a coup after Stoke were able to persuade the 44-year-old to leave Championship rivals Derby County.

He moved quickly to secure the impressive signings of Benik Afobe and Nigeria’s World Cup star Oghenekaro Etebo whilst Joe Allen was also convinced to sign a new contract that saw him pledge his long-term future to the club.

All of these events have been widely discussed but something that many media outlets failed to highlight was that Stoke have also been able to sign the best fullback in the Championship.

It was announced at the start of July that Moritz Bauer had signed a new long-term deal that will see him remain at the Bet365 Stadium until 2023.

The Austrian defender may not be the most instantly recognisable name in English football yet Stoke supporters will be quick to highlight the considerable impact that he has made at the club since arriving in January.

(Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The 26-year-old was signed from Ruben Kazan for an undisclosed fee six months ago and he produced a string of hugely impressive performances as he cemented his place in the starting eleven.

In what was a disappointing season that ultimately ended in relegation, Bauer was one of the few bright sparks that supporters could take some heart from.

He made 15 appearances in total with his energy, enthusiasm and pace enabling him to easily make the transition into a prominent performer in the Premier League.

Bauer is naturally a full-back and he proved to be equally adept at undertaking his defensive responsibilities as he was driving forward with the ball or making overlapping runs into the opposition half.

He ended the campaign being used as a winger as Paul Lambert struggled to find a solution to the team’s woes on the pitch but he undoubtedly applied himself to the best of his ability.

Immediately following relegation the Austrian publicly announced that he would be happy to remain at the Bet365 Stadium and it is refreshing to see a player showing a degree of loyalty to a club that he had only recently joined.

The fact that he signed a new contract at the start of the month confirmed that he was a man of his word and leaves Stoke having signed what will be the best attacking fullback that you are likely to see in the Championship this year.

(Photo  by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Bauer’s natural athleticism combined with his technical ability will make him a force to be reckoned with in the second tier and, if used as a fullback, his overlapping runs will add another string to Stoke’s attacking repertoire.

If supporters thought that he had adapted well to life in the Premier League then they will be licking their lips at the prospect of him being unleashed in the Championship.

The 26-year-old’s new contract has continued to add to the feel-good factor surrounding the Bet365 Stadium during the summer and there is a real sense of positivity around the club.

Rowett’s side are among the favourites for promotion and his activities so far as manager, both in terms of new arrivals and persuading key squad members to stay, clearly demonstrates his intentions.

Bauer possesses all of the attributes to be a star for Stoke in the Championship and he will be a key feature in the team are to immediately bounce back into the Premier League.

The best attacking fullback in the Championship? We will have to wait and see.

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