When Tony Pulis left Stoke City, it looked as the Potters would go into a bit of a decline. The progress that Stoke had made under Pulis was grinding to a halt, and the club were managing only mid-table finishes.
Pulis, of course, did a wonderful job in the Potteries, guiding Stoke into Europe for the first time since 1974-75 after losing to Manchester City in an FA Cup final.
His physical approach was lambasted in some quarters, or even just labelled as a throwback to a quaint English footballing past. Critics jokingly established a benchmark for silky footballers who play short passes and show off tricky feet, well – they’re only good players if they can do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke.
But Stoke’s decline post-Pulis never happened. In fact, Stoke have been progressing further under Mark Hughes, they’ve been doing away with the long-ball tag, and they’ve been doing all of this on the quiet.
Last season was Hughes’s first since taking over at the club, and he guided his team to its best Premier league finish of 9th. More importantly, though, he managed to transform the team’s playing style from one of directness and physicality to a more subtle and sophisticated approach.
Pulis’s reign wasn’t all about long-ball of course, and they did play some nice football at times. But no longer do Stoke resemble a rugby team at all.
Although there has been even more progress under Hughes, it must be remembered how big a service Tony Pulis did for the club. He got them to the ‘promised land’ of the Premier League and kept them there, building a squad that worked well together and made the Britannia Stadium a fortress. But in some respect, Pulis did the club just as big a favour by quitting while ahead. He seemed to have taken the group about as far as he could have done and the league positions show that, hovering around 13th or 14th place.
Mark Hughes has come in, and he isn’t a manager who is happy to just fight against relegation – he is there to create real progress. And under his stewardship, Stoke have shown that.
They finished 9th last term, and sit 8th in the table so far this time around, and although they still look some way off the European pace, Stoke continue to improve and impress.
The Staffordshire club still possess the work ethic and solidity that Pulis instilled into his side. Players like Glen Whelan, Jon Walters, and Ryan Shawcross are still there and still bring that to the team, but the added flair of Victor Moses and Bojan Krkic has brought the team to a new level.
Bojan especially was on great form at the start of this season, before he injured his cruciate ligament, forcing him out for the rest of the season. Even if he does play again this term, he probably won’t be totally up to speed.
But this just means that he’ll feel like a new signing for the club if he can get back up and firing again when he comes back.
His signing shows the ambition of the club. He is a former Barcelona ‘wonderkid’ of course, and eyebrows were raised when he signed for the club. But before his injury he actually fitted right in – illustrating Hughes’s intention to play passing football, not the long ball, physical game that Stoke have been chastised for in the past.
If the club can maintain their current league position, and finish 8th this season, that would be even further progress for a club on the up. And getting Bojan back for the start of next term will help them push on further if he can stay fit. But they’ll need to strengthen further still if they are to unseat one of the current top seven and climb further up the ladder.
Stoke are quietly becoming one of England’s best clubs, and people don’t even seem to be noticing them. Their progress has been steady rather than spectacular in recent seasons, but that’s no bad thing. They have become a team with a solid base to build its more elegant football on top of, but the weight of expectation doesn’t weigh too heavily on the Britannia.
This season is full of positives for the quietly progressing Stoke, and full of hope that they can progress further. But if nothing else comes of this season, at least Stoke proved that Bojan is a good player – he can indeed do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke!