Stoke: All Change At The Britannia?

Welcome the new guy, same as the old guy. Philip Cornwall has some sympathy for Stoke fans who might've expected a change after Tony Pulis's departure...

Last Updated: 07/08/13 at 15:52 Post Comment

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LAST SEASON

Premier League 13th FA Cup fourth round League Cup second round

Manager Mark Hughes (since May 2013) Odds on being first out of his job 25-1 (11th=)

Players in Erik Pieters (PSV Eindhoven, £3m), Marc Muniesa (Barcelona B, free)

Players out Dean Whitehead (Middlesbrough, free), Mamady Sidibe (released, after loan at Tranmere), Rory Delap (Burton, free, after loan at Barnsley), Matthew Upson (Brighton, free, from loan), Michael Owen (a television or racecourse near you, released)

Club turnover in 2011-12 £71m (13th)

Handicap betting to win Premier League +39 points (16th)

A year ago there were grounds for optimism that we would be rid of Stoke City and Tony Pulis. Stoke remain in the Premier League for another season but half a wish fulfilled is better than none, especially as it was the recurring dourness of Pulis's vision that led to the hope in the first place. On the other hand, the name of the replacement does not exactly thrill.

Along with Pulis, another symbol of the Potters' recent years has departed, with Rory Delap joining Burton. The long-throw specialist played only once in the top flight, as a sub on opening day, last season but the legacy was there in a side with the worst pass completion rate in the division, who propped up the official fair play league and had three representatives - Dean Whitehead, Steven Nzonzi and Charlie Adam - in the top 10 for picking up cards.

Discontent within the club was apparent when the chief scout, the long-time Pulis ally Lindsay Parsons, publicly criticised the style of play. It was certainly not much fun even for any fan willing to turn a blind eye to tactics and physicality: Stoke scored just 34 goals last season, fewer than all but QPR.

And of course that raises the question as to whether the chosen replacement will change very much at all: that Rangers side were managed, until his dismissal on 23 November, by Mark Hughes, whose Blackburn sides of the middle of the last decade regularly vied for and won the title of the Premier League's dirtiest.

Peter Coates said that the man who spent £17.5m to take Roque Santa Cruz from Blackburn to Manchester City and wanted the Paraguayan at Fulham was the only man interviewed for the manager's job, suggesting an almost Pulis-like narrowness of vision. He praised Hughes's sides as having been "hard to beat" - perhaps ignoring QPR.

Pulis's Stoke were easy to dislike but I have never had much trouble feeling the same about Hughes's sides. I have every sympathy for Stoke fans who understandably stood by the man who brought back to-flight football after so long, and who realised eventually that there was more to football than what was on offer from Pulis. Some of them were not that wild about his replacement, even if they will give him a decent crack. The bookmakers are unconvinced, too, placing Stoke 16th in the handicap betting.

Coates, interviewed by TalkSport just after picking Hughes, said: "You know that supporters will have lots of different ideas and opinions and they're more than entitled to them. You will never get consensus on anyone... I do believe you have to back your judgement. It's a big responsibility and you're always mindful of supporters because they're so important to your football club, but you've still got to do it yourself and do what you think is right." I think that come the end of the season the chairman will have cause to regret, as his club contemplate a return to the Championship.

Hughes has to start proving Coates was right and me wrong with the visit to Liverpool on the first Saturday, which is followed by a home game against promoted Crystal Palace. Given that the following three fixtures are at West Ham, at home to Manchester City and away to Arsenal, that Palace match looks like an opportunity that must not be spurned. The season will not turn on that single result but in four of their five seasons in the Premier League Stoke have been reliant on their home form and Hughes surely needs to have the crowd, as well as the chairman, on his side.

Philip Cornwall

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