The Two Unfortunates Health Checks: Stoke City
Optimism – not historically a familiar sensation for football fans in The Potteries – was in surprisingly high supply over the summer for those of a red and white persuasion. Despite relegation following a decade in the Premier League and the subsequent, inevitable sale of star man Xherdan Shaqiri, the feeling many had was that this was but a temporary holiday in the Championship. Such grand visions ran beyond the arrogance of the long-time top flight dweller too; the board had been unusually proactive in targeting an immediate return to the top table. A new manager in had been poached from a direct promotion rival in Gary Rowett and one of the biggest budgets in the division was sunk into buttressing a playing squad that had retained big names like Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross and Joe Allen. The bookies were in agreement – Stoke were installed as promotion favourites. They’d take some stopping.
They really haven’t though. Like so many demoted clubs before them, The Potters have found themselves completely unprepared for the culture shock of the Championship, and have spent almost the entire season closer to the relegation zone than the promotion mix. An opening day schooling at Elland Road underlined how far away they were from the genuine contenders, while humbling home defeats to the likes of Blackburn, Wigan and Preston illustrated just how deep the malaise runs. Something is rotten at the Bet 365 Stadium…
The Past Five Years
When pointing fingers for Stoke’s descent from aspirational Europa League contenders to bottom-half Championship sliders, it’s hard to look beyond Mark Hughes. Sparky had initially done a fine job in furthering the work of Tony Pulis, bolting on some pace and flair to the flinty, well-drilled bunch he inherited and delivering the club’s best league finishes for 40 years. He also successfully developed the playing style, discarding Pulis’ fading long throw, long ball model in favour of ‘Stokealona’, and an electric front three of Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri.
It started to go wrong for Hughes around the middle of his third season. After a decent start and a heartbreaking League Cup Semi Final exit on penalties, the bottom fell out of Stoke’s season, as they won just six of their remaining 18 fixtures and received an alarming number of three and four goal batterings.
To add to Hughes’ woes, that steely core of professionals he inherited was starting to creak, and rather than sourcing younger versions, he did as he had at QPR, signing a series of ‘names’ with no heart and no hunger.
As results and performances continued to decline over his final two seasons, Hughes dug himself deeper and deeper into trouble until he’d engaged full-on, King George III meltdown mode. He lavished £12m on Saido Berahino, weeks after West Brom sent him to fat camp. When the club cashed in to the tune of £20m on wantaway talisman Marko Arnautovic, Hughes spent the bulk of the fee on the unfit, overweight Kevin Wimmer, a centre back the club didn’t even need. He became set on using a system that relied heavily on wing backs, despite not having any at the club, and more three, four and five-goal thrashings ensued. By the time he was mercifully relieved of his duties in January 2018, the club was in the relegation zone and had been dumped out of the FA Cup by League Two Coventry.
If Hughes is the primary culprit, others should not escape scrutiny. The ‘transfer team’ encompassing CEO Tony Scholes and Technical Director Mark Cartwright have to an extent become convenient bogeymen for a support desperate to find a singular smoking gun for the club’s ills. However, while most of the transfer blunders appear manager-driven, Scholes and Cartwright have contributed to the process that has seen so many wasters signed to lengthy, lucrative contracts. The pair have hardly helped themselves by muddying the waters whenever the opportunity has arisen to shed a little light on their roles, always quick to underline what they don’t do but altogether more shy to let us in on what their remit actually is.
Given their bankrolling of the club’s recent golden age in the top flight, it seems churlish to cast any blame in the direction of the Coates family, but it cannot be denied that the owners have made some questionable decisions themselves, mostly relating to managerial appointments. It was they who showed too much loyalty to Hughes, waiting too long to sack him and ensuring that the usual firefighters had been taken by the time the axe finally fell. It was they who tasked Paul Lambert, fresh off consecutive unremarkable Championship placings with Blackburn and Wolves, with keeping the club up, rather than casting their net wider for a more progressive alternative. And it was they who paid Derby around £1.5m to secure the services of one Gary Rowett.
On the surface, the snaring of Rowett appeared a coup. He’d taken Derby back into promotion contention and was still just about perceived as a manager on the rise. Any warnings emanating from up the A50 were written off as mere bitterness from Rams fans. If only we’d listened…
Rowett was a disaster almost from the outset. One might have had a degree of sympathy, given he inherited a set of players still in the grip of a losing habit. Yet he took a bad situation and made it significantly worse.
He spent considerable money on ‘proven’ top-end Championship players like Benik Afobe and James McClean but insisted on using a 4-3-3 that didn’t play to their strengths. He stockpiled box-to-box midfielders when the club already had approximately 37 on the books, yet neglected qualities like creativity and pace. Panicking as the goals flew past Jack Butland while he struggled to put his stamp on the team, Rowett’s solution was to stick 10 men behind the ball and grind out points, but that was never going to get a branded title favourites very far, and even the weaker teams in the division could enjoy a pretty comfortable afternoon. Having spent most of his managerial career in charge of scrappy underdogs, this was a very different challenge that his dreary, cautious approach never felt suited to.
Worse, he antagonised players and supporters at almost every turn with his buck-passing interviews. A succession of players were thrown under the bus; captain Ryan Shawcross was called out after one defeat, while another was blamed on right back Moritz Bauer despite him not even being in the squad that afternoon. When a technically accurate but dubiously-termed ‘unbeaten run’ (four wins, six draws) imploded over Christmas, he took aim at fan favourite Bojan Krkic and those creativity-starved fans chanting for his inclusion.
This was the last draw. Nobody puts Bojan in a corner, and the knives were out for Rowett from that point. By the end of another lifeless home defeat on New Year’s Day to Bristol City, all four sides of the ground were hurling derision and invective towards the dugout. Rowett’s position was untenable. He was sacked a week later.
The Current Situation at the Bet 365 Stadium
The owners stunned most Stokies by turning to Luton Town’s Nathan Jones as the man to replace Rowett, rather than indulging their standard penchant for established, safety-first pragmatists. Jones represents a ‘project’ appointment with an eye on the long-term, the hope being that he can build the kind of industrious, energetic, goal-laden side he produced in Bedfordshire. It’s a significant roll of the dice. As marvellous a job as Jones did with The Hatters, he has just two-and-a-half seasons of full-time managerial experience, all of which, bar a sensational five months earlier this season, has come in League Two.
Is there an appetite to back the new man? Given the size of the job he faces, with a listless side slipping further and further down the table, there is surely little alternative. Financially, the club should be a force in this division for as long as the Coates family remains interested. The effect of relegation has been to further ratchet up the club’s reliance on the owners. No longer can the club count on the riches of the Premier League TV deal, which accounted for 79% of the club’s turnover in 2017-18 according to the ever-excellent Swiss Ramble. The ‘friendly debt’ owed to the family rose from £76m to £123m in that same period. Though the loan is interest-free, with no fixed timetable for repayment, SCFC would be in considerable peril were the Bet 365 owners to lose interest. That, thankfully, is unlikely – Peter and son John Coates are both local businessmen and avid Stoke supporters, with Coates Jr reportedly taking on more of a role in making the key decisions for better or worse.
On paper, Stoke’s squad appears one of the strongest in the Championship, boasting plenty of names familiar to even casual observers. Yet the on-field woes have continued, with confidence evidently fragile at both ends of the pitch and a palpable cowardice frequently rising to the surface. Short-term, the largest threat to Jones will be that fans don’t buy into his vision or the notion of a long-term rebuilding job. The air remains thick with mutiny at home games after three years of unstinting misery, and the recent run of one win in nine games, along with a series of baffling team selections and substitutions, have caused some to already question the new man’s credentials.
A committed, deserved win over Nottingham Forest has gone some way to silencing the critics, not least because the upturn in form of some of the most high-profile underperformers (Ince, Clucas, Afobe) suggested that the players are actually buying into the intense Welshman’s values. These nevertheless remain the embryonic stages of a work in progress. A sizeable cull is still required, after which Jones is expected to bring in younger, hungrier players who’ll fit into his high-tempo 4-4-2 diamond system. Every member of the current squad should be considered expendable.
What the future holds depends almost entirely on Jones. The club have gone all-in on the new manager, and the direction of travel will be dictated by whether or not the man from the Rhondda Valley turns out to be the real deal. Should he fail, it’s difficult to imagine that anything other than an extended wilderness period awaits.
Many Stoke fans are somewhat uneasy about the club’s entrenched connections to one of the country’s largest betting companies. There is a certain wry irony, however, about The Potters’ immediate fortunes resting heavily on a family of bookmakers taking a sizeable punt of their own.