Stoke City: Could Hughes Settle At Last?

This could be a long and happy marriage in the Poterries - particularly if a kind early fixture list can put Stoke up in the top six for a while. Is Hughes here for the long haul?

Last Updated: 11/08/14 at 09:27 Post Comment

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LAST SEASON
Premier League
9th, 50pts, -7 GD FA Cup Fourth round League Cup Quarter-finals Top league scorers Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam 7 Bookings 78 (1st) with 5 red cards

Manager Mark Hughes (since May 2013; age 50) Odds on being first out of his job 33-1 (15=)

Players in Bojan Krkic (Barcelona, £3m), Dionatan Teixeira (Banska Bystrica, undisc), Mame Biram Diouf (Hannover, free), Phil Bardsley (Sunderland, free), Steve Sidwell (Fulham, free)

Players out Michael Kightly (Burnley, undisc), Jordan Keane (Alfreton Town, free), Ed Sanders (Sheffield Wednesday, free), Karim Rossi (Hull, free), Matthew Etherington (released)

Club turnover in 2012-13 £67m, 16th=

Wage bill in 2012-13 £60m, 12th

There is more than one answer to the question of what makes a successful manager and, regardless of winning trophies, finding regular work is a decent enough definition given the precariousness of the position. Mark Hughes has made some wrong turns: resigning from Fulham in a manner that put off his prospective employers at Aston Villa; failing to realise that Roque Santa Cruz could be a great answer to a question at Blackburn but not even a short-term solution at Manchester City; spending his entire club managerial career weighed down by a go-large-for-30p portion of fries on each shoulder. Still, he keeps on coming, even after the debacle at QPR, and after replacing Tony Pulis at Stoke he enjoyed one of his best campaigns.

You should not underestimate the difficulties in replacing a long-standing manager at a small club - think of Bolton's travails after Sam Allardyce felt the call of Newcastle, or Charlton's after Alan Curbishley decided he had done enough. Pulis should get some credit, too, for the strength of the foundations he left behind but Hughes built on them.

Pulis was axed after seven years because he seemed unable to evolve, and there was a need for some entertainment. His side managed 34 goals in 2012-13; Hughes increased that figure to 45, hardly prolific but an increase of almost a third. It helps his stock that most of the improvement was at home, where eight extra points were earned - the Britannia really was a fortress, with only the league's top five sides faring better on their own grounds. The domestic cup exits were 1-0 at Chelsea and 2-0 at Manchester United, no disgrace at all.

Not everything changed. Stoke's 78 bookings was the highest in the division and five red cards the third highest; the former figure was down three from Pulis's last season, the latter up two. Hughes's teams have always had a couple of problems with discipline: first, they have lacked it, and second their manager has always been in denial about this deficit.

Hughes has had a productive summer, with Bojan Krkic from Barcelona the most eye-catching. Phil Bardsley and Steve Sidwell are known Premier League quantities, as is Mame Biram Diouf, albeit not a hugely successful one. As for the Brazilian-born Slovakian Dionatan Teixeira, he impressed on trial but it could be a step up from Dukla Banska Bystrica. His other names are 'do Nascimento', but is unlikely to turn out to be another Edson Arantes of that ilk.

The one disappointment has been an inability to seal a permanent deal for Oussama Assaidi, the erstwhile loanee from Liverpool. Hughes's strengthening has been achieved without selling key personnel, such as Ryan Shawcross and Asmir Begovic. The club's chief executive was adamant in late July, saying: "We are not looking to sell star players, certainly not Asmir or Ryan. There are no requirements to sell those players to balance the books." The wage bill for Pulis's last year was 12th highest at £60m, while Stoke ranked 16th in terms of turnover with £67m - not ideal but healthier than many, with the increased TV cash to come.

Hughes is happy with what is at his disposal: "We have a good squad here, a healthy squad and I envisage everybody playing a part at some stage."

Stoke kick off at home to Aston Villa before travelling to Hull, two welcome fixtures before a trip to the champions, Manchester City. It is important for Hughes that Stoke make the most of what follows in the autumn, as home games with Leicester and Newcastle sandwich a trip to QPR; indeed after Man City Stoke next play a club that finished above them on October 25 at Southampton. The pain comes in November and December, with last season's second to seventh crammed into eight fixtures.

The early season, then, is a programme to seize on. Indeed this is a rare opportunity for Stoke to compete for the leading places, at least until the stagger unwinds.

With Hughes, the question is whether he can finally settle in somewhere. With Manchester City he had a shot at a major job but was overawed by the sudden injection of Abu Dhabi money; rescued by Fulham, he snubbed them. Maybe if he can be content at a club the size of Stoke and not surrender to the ambition that caused him to walk out of Craven Cottage, then this could be a long partnership to match that of Pulis with the Britannia Stadium club. And as Pulis makes a valued contribution elsewhere, perhaps Hughes can keep things more interesting in the Potteries than his compatriot could, too.

Philip Cornwall

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