Since Stoke City’s return to top flight football in 2008, after a twenty-three year absence they have been infamously known for their robust and physical style of play that has upset many footballistas who prefer to watch the so called beautiful game played with finesse and vigour.
The man who guided Stoke to the Premier League was Tony Pulis, a no-nonsense manager that harks back to the old school British manager with his noticeable management attire of his trusted tracksuit and baseball cap. In their inaugural season the Potters flirted with the relegation zone, as expected with a limited budget in comparison to the other Premier League teams.
The signing of ex-England international James Beattie in the 2009 January transfer window was a significant moment in their season as he scored 7 goals in 16 games with Stoke certifying their status in the top flight on 9 May with a 2-1 away win against Hull City. They haven’t really looked back since as they reached the FA Cup final in 2011 and lost 1-0 to Manchester City. The following year they had a European adventure in the form of the Europa League as they finished second in their group and were paired against Spanish giants Valencia in the round of 32, who they lost 2-0 in aggregate to.
One year later Pulis left the club after a meeting with club chairman Peter Coates as he felt the club had not progressed from the previous year.
He was replaced by fellow Welshman Mark Hughes who had a point to prove after his ill-fated spell at Queens Park Rangers, having left west London rivals Fulham in an unsavoury manner in the months prior to the start of his helm at Loftus Road. The Hughes revolution at the Britannia stadium begun with the releases of stalwarts Rory Delap, Mamady Sidibe, Dean Whitehead and Matthew Upson as Hughes seemed intent on trying to shake off the negative reputation that preceded his side.
He followed this up with the shrewd signing of Austrian international Marko Arnautovic from Werder Bremen. Who like his manager was also trying to shackle off an image that the media perceived of him. He has been pivotal to Stoke’s success this season contributing 10 goals (11 in all competitions) as Hughes is hoping that his talisman maintains his development and wants him to be the “complete player.”
In a relatively short space of time Hughes has managed to revolutionise Stoke’s ethos from a “long ball” team into a team full of attacking flair. This has been evident none more so than Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri, who made the shock move to Staffordshire from Inter Milan for a fee of £12 million. There seems to be a sense of parallelity between Shaqiri and team mate Marko Arnautovic as both have been highly-rated from a young age and have had brief and rather unsuccessful spells at the San Siro.
Hughes has however managed to get the best out of the talented duo and is reaping the rewards in the process. The final and by no means the least important component of the attacking trio is Bojan, a product of the prestigious La Masia (Barcelona’s youth academy) who recently signed a new contract. The Spaniard is already a fan favourite in the Potteries with his impressive work rate matched with natural ability. To be fair it must be a family trait as he is a distant relative of Lionel Messi.
Despite the fact that the club have changed their philosophy under Hughes, they have maintained their resilience and grit in the shape of the dependable duo captain Ryan Shawcross and Jon Walters. The latter has wanted to dispel the myth of the cold night in Stoke debate by regarding that his side compete with the bigger teams by not using “negative” tactics.
Walters said: “We feel that we can mix it up a bit more – we can go both ways. If we need to direct, we can. But we can play. We have players in different areas of the pitch who make it difficult.” The Irish international who has been at the club since 2010, has been impressed by the depth that the club has at its disposal.
Walters added: “It’s the strongest squad since I’ve been at the club. The depth here is unreal. People will start to take notice of that- but only if we continue winning. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”
The Potters currently lie in eighth position in the Premier League and have a chance, albeit comparatively slim, of reaching the top four and qualifying for the Champions League. With how ridiculously this season has unfolded who can bet against them from reaching the big time as Hughes, who would of been a manager of the year contender if it wasn’t for Claudio Ranieri’s heroics at Leicester or to a lesser extent Quique Sanchez Flores at Watford and Mauricio Pochettino at Tottenham, can build a legacy at the Britannia that match his aspiring ambitions. Their record signing of Porto midfielder Giannelli Imbula, widely touted as the next Claude Makelele seem to prove that they are heading in the right direction.