Stoke City’s 10-year residence in the Premier League has come to an end. The once ‘established Premier League club’ were the first to be relegated to the Championship after a season full of disappointment.
Their 62nd year in the top tier of English football saw them underperform considerably, particularly in comparison to their previous nine years in the Premier League. With the joint worst defence in the league and an unnoticeable attack, they exited both cup competitions in the third round with embarrassing defeats to Bristol City and Coventry City. In the supporters’ eyes, the problems began around a year and a half before their relegation, which led to Mark Hughes’ overdue departure in January 2018. Paul Lambert replaced him in order to revive their fortunes, but the writing was already on the wall after the team’s awful start to the 2017/18 season. Lambert was left flogging at a dead horse, adding to his abysmal recent record as a Premier League manager.
It started with a panicky and rash transfer window by Mark Hughes. Another ‘Player of the Season’ departure saw Marko Arnautovic leave to their mid-table rivals, West Ham, in a £25 million deal. Also, the former Stoke spine was being dissected with the departure of Potters veterans Jonathan Walters (Burnley) and Glenn Whelan (Aston Villa). Other players to move on were Phil Bardsley (Burnley), Joselu (Newcastle) and Phillip Wollschied (Metz). Leaving on season long loans were popular characters Bojan Krkic (Alaves) and Mark Muniesa (Girona) with the talented former record signing, Giannelli Imbula going to Toulouse for the season.
The arrivals saw Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Darren Fletcher and Josh Tymon come in from Schalke, West Brom and Hull City respectively. Bruno Martins Indi had a successful 2016/17 season on loan with the Potters, but they almost lost the Dutch centre half to Crystal Palace, before eventually securing him for £7 million. Austrian Kevin Wimmer became Stoke’s surprise record signing for £18 million which epitomised the reckless and impulsive summer transfer window endured by Stoke as he would go ultimately out on loan after only 17 appearances for the club. He performed poorly and was considerably overweight, resulting in him being sent to a fitness camp late into the season. Finally, they filled the rest of their wage bill with loanees Kurt Zouma and Jese Rodriguez. Stoke’s summer transfer window saw their best player sold to a rival and more influential leaders of the club leave and replaced by players who didn’t have the same passion for the club.
However, despite an uninspiring and expensive transfer window, the Potters made a positive start, beating Arsenal with Jese scoring the winner – his only contribution of the entire season. This was followed by a draw against Manchester United. However, Mark Hughes’ side then repeated the previous season’s performance against the top teams. They conceded heavily and produced little going forward producing results like 4-0 to Chelsea, 7-2 to Manchester City, 3-0 to Liverpool, 5-1 to Tottenham Hotspurs and even a 3-0 defeat to West Ham. Losses at home to the likes of Newcastle and only securing one away victory against Watford saw the fans turn against Mark Hughes around the November-December period.
It wasn’t only the results that upset the fans, the lack of passion and fitness left supporters confused and frustrated. Mark Hughes’ arrogance in press conferences and post-match interviews portrayed a manager refusing to see the truth, deluding himself and his Stoke squad. Refusing to change the team or formation and without a win in four months, the anger from the supporters was warranted. Fans wanted his exit long before the alarming defeat to Coventry in the FA cup third round, but it was welcomed when it happened. The problems under Mark Hughes were present for a long time before the troubles were brought to light by the media in December. The fans were given a hard time by the press being deemed ‘unfair’ by demanding the termination of Hughes’ contract, even though these issues were present in the second half of the 2016/17 season. Like the club, the fans were loyal to Hughes and thankful, but the club had gotten into an unpleasant state which showed no signs of changing. The club seemed to welcome this delusion and take the Premier League for granted.
The former Aston Villa and Norwich City manager Paul Lambert was eventually hired. This was only after the Stoke board’s incompetence became more evident after the fiasco of lining up Martin O’Neill. They decided to tell him he was their second choice and pursue the Espanyol manager at the time, Quique Sanchez Flores. Flores rejected the Potters which saw them crawl back to O’Neill, still refusing to give him a contract longer than the rest of the season. These negotiations broke down, with all roads now leading to Lambert, who didn’t seem fazed that he wasn’t even on Stoke’s original shortlist. However, upon his arrival he brought a positive energy and demanded a change in the poor attitude that had spread at the club under the Mark Hughes reign.
His first action as new manager was to improve the poor fitness of the squad. The newcomers in the January transfer window highlighted the lack of fitness within the squad with Mauritz Bauer charging up and down the right wing and the solid toiler Badou Ndiaye showing up the rest of the squad. Lambert also banished several players who didn’t welcome the changes he demanded, again proving the former manager and the club had let standards slip. A failure of the January window was that the club didn’t bring in a striker, despite the lack of goals. Lambert did make an instant impact with a 2-0 home win against Huddersfield, which sparked hopes of a revival. Then came a series of draws and losses to teams also involved in the battle to avoid the drop. Relegation was starting to look like a reality. Lambert inherited the dwindling Hughes squad, managing to tighten them up but ultimately failed to improve their attacking game. They regularly buckled under the pressure, too often throwing away leads. Eventually, everyone caught on and stopped expecting Stoke to pull themselves out of the relegation fight. The Potters got exactly what they deserved following the home defeat to Crystal Palace and were relegated to the Championship. His only other victory came in the last game of the season, away at Swansea with nothing to play for.
There were numerous reasons and parties responsible for the relegation of the former ‘established Premier League club’. Mark Hughes must take a lot of the responsibility, such as not keeping the Stoke backbone built by Tony Pulis, which made the team so notoriously hard to beat. He built his attacking philosophy around playing the awful striker, Mame Biram Diouf, at right wing-back for half the season. His arrogance to ignore poor performances from his players and their disappearing passion and effort, whilst his terrible tactical setups heavily contributed to the negative atmosphere growing at the club. He refused to step aside or take the blame, and continued to tarnish and damage the reputation of the club.
The board showed their incompetence with their misplaced expectation to recover from mistakes through minimal and unthoughtful action. Refusing to remove Hughes earlier, agreeing to rushed transfer dealings, allowing sales of their best players, being frugal and not addressing the poor culture at the club reflected the board’s failure. The club fell apart after failing to address the cracks so many supporters could see forming early on, and relegation is a wake-up call for a club who took the Premier League for granted.
The players need to take a long hard look at themselves and have a re-think as to whether or not they deserve to wear the shirt. Many of them seemed to just turn up for a pay-cheque, whilst others played for themselves. Experienced heads at the club didn’t stand up and address the problems until it was too late. Out of the regular starters, it can be argued the only players who Stoke should try to hold onto are Jack Butland, Bauer, Ryan Shawcross, Martins-Indi, Ndaiye, Joe Allen and Liverpool target, Xherdan Shaqiri. The latter should be approached with caution because his inconsistency is common, and the winger can sometimes see himself as a one-man team which could be argued as fair considering he is the quality in a poor attacking Stoke squad.
Stoke need a big clear-out this summer and bring in fresh blood who will fight for their team, regardless of the situation they find themselves in. The appointment of former Derby manager, Gary Rowett, is a positive step for Stoke considering he got Derby into the play-offs just last season. However, Stoke will need to fund their summer transfers through the likely sales of Butland and Shaqiri, and not be afraid to part ways with some of their riches to get the players they want. Stoke’s summer will help determine whether they will follow some big names into League 1, or if they will bounce back straight away.
Written by Andy Ridgway.