As a Stoke City supporter, I was initially quite despondent when Mark Hughes was appointed manager to replace Tony Pulis. Hughes switched Stoke’s style practically overnight to one that focused on playing the ball out from the back, passing for passings sake, becoming slow and ponderous, and pretty much inviting the opposing team on and priming our defenders to make mistakes. A style that we laughed at under Pulis — one that was too light weight and lacking in substance.
For someone who had sampled the full ten years of Pulis-ball, this seemed a change too far, too soon, and slightly sacrilegious. However Hughes asked for patience, reasoning that sides under his tutelage always improved in the second half of a season. The turning point in my attitude towards Hughes came in the 3-5 defeat at home to Liverpool. On paper, the score looks like we were steamrollered. In truth we gave a very good game, and showed the best form for more of a match than we had for weeks. Liverpool breathed a collective sigh of relief when they were awarded their penalty. Stoke raged at a perceived injustice. Anyone there or watching on television would probably put the match in their top 5 games last season, for the way both sides played.
Quietly, and despite the disappointment, we gained some belief that things were beginning to progress and Hughes team was starting to gel.
Following that match, we beat Manchester United at home. While it sounds impressive, it was nothing special based on the United side under Moyes, but something we always failed to do under Pulis.
The match, however, was the turning point in our season under Mark Hughes, where Stoke City went on a tremendous run culminating in the following:
• Finishing in our highest league position (9th),
• Picking up 36 points at home and 50 in total – our highest tally since promotion,
• More passes than ever (30% more goals than the previous 2 seasons),
These were all marked improvements given the tepid start we experienced.
In the transfer market, Hughes spend has been limited. He spent £5m on Marko Arnautovic and Erik Pieters, and exploited the loan market for Oussama Assaidi and Stephen Ireland. Things took time to gel but bar the disappointing John Guidetti on loan, everyone has settled and performed exceptionally well.
This summer, Hughes has done his business early in the window, signing Mame Biram Diouf, Dionatan Teixeira, Steve Sidwell, Phil Bardsley and Bojan Krkic for the cost of a third of Ross McCormack – echoing last year’s minimal spend of £5m. Our strategy is now quiet and efficient rather than the last minute, balls out, who’s got the biggest check book attitude of the past era. If I were Sky Sports, I wouldn’t bother sending Rob Dorset on deadline day.
All in all, I would argue that Mark Hughes has won the confidence of Stoke fans. He’s now delivered five top 10 Premier League finishes and has recovered from his nightmare at QPR. I get the impression that similar to his predecessor, he makes his best signings when his budget is restricted, having to think about a signing and how they will fit in, rather than being dazzled by a big name or wealthy chairman.
Another top 10 finish and a cup run would be evidence of continued evolution for Stoke City. Shipping out some dead wood along the way would be a bonus, as well as hopefully dispelling a few myths along they way with our new brand of soccer.
As I write this, it’s 78F without a cloud in a gorgeous blue sky. Bojan must be wondering what all the fuss was about playing on a cold, rainy night in Stoke.