Stoke face era-defining summer

TEAMtalk's Michael Graham believes Stoke could struggle against relegation next season if they do not get their summer transfer activity right.

Last Updated: 21/05/12 at 10:35 Post Comment   

Stoke: Big summer ahead

Stoke: Big summer ahead

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Sad as we all are to see the football season draw to a close, there is nothing like the intense summer flurry of transfer rumour and activity to take the sting out of football-less weekends. The big clubs and the huge names will dominate the headlines, but one club to really keep an eye on, I fancy, is Stoke City.

It may not be a popular truth to accept, but the Potters have been one of the real success stories of the Premier League. It is easy to forget that just 10 years ago they were celebrating promotion from the third tier of English football. What is perhaps even more impressive is that they have achieved it all whilst harnessing their identity, not by compromising it.

The generous backing of Peter Coates has already allowed Tony Pulis a lot of scope in the transfer market, and the fact that Stoke have flirted more seriously with winning a trophy than they have relegation is testament to how well the chairman's money has, to a large extent, been spent.

This summer, however, presents a crucial juncture in the Stoke story. A chance to really grow up once and for all and complete the transition from cautious pragmatists to perennial Premier League mainstays.

Since Stoke were promoted they may have been consistent spenders but - despite carrying a large squad including relics of their rise such as Michael Tonge, Tom Soares, and Andrew Davies - have largely kept their wage-bill under control. Entering into the financial fair play period which will restrict the influence of Peter Coates' backing, that leaves the club in a very strong position to move forward.

That position is further strengthened by the lengthy list of fringe players who find themselves out of contract at the Britannia this summer. Salif Diao is already confirmed to be joining Soares and Davies in leaving the club next month, whilst the senior figures of Jonathan Woodgate and Ricardo Fuller could also be following them out of the door.

In addition to one or two sales, the opportunity to inject some extra quality into the squad to replace quantity, without threatening the club's sound financial footing, is clear and tantalizing.

The down side is that it won't be easy. Recruiting quality never is. Tony Pulis will be required to perform a delicate balancing act between trimming down his squad whilst also improving it.

There isn't a great deal of margin for error, either, which is something that Pulis has had the luxury of enjoying up until now in his transfer dealings. There-in lies the intrigue, though. There-in lies the risk. In the coming months, Stoke will be gambling away a chunk of the stability upon which their Premier League successes have been built.

Could a smaller Stoke squad like the one we are likely to see next season absorb many transfer market mistakes this summer? That is a question for which they really don't want to find an answer, but you'd fear for them.

Nevertheless, the rewards for getting it right could be great. On the face of it, last season's final position of 14th will probably be construed by most as a disappointing return, especially against the contextual backdrop of another strong summer spend and the heightened expectations that are attached to established names like Peter Crouch.

But it is important to consider the margins involved. Stoke were just seven points behind the top eight, and that was despite having to juggle their league schedule with an arduous Europa League campaign and, to a lesser extent, a serious commitment to the FA Cup. With a drastically reduced fixture list next term, that gap doesn't appear an insurmountable one by any means, especially if one of two shrewd additions to the squad can be found.

Opportunity appears rife, too. Newcastle United's success has suggested the upper echelons of the Premier League are more accessible to the rest than ever before but, as things stand, the mid-table pack is wrought with uncertainty. West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa will start next season with new managers, Norwich and Swansea will have the threat of the dreaded 'second season syndrome' hanging over their heads, and Sunderland appear just as committed to cutting costs as they are to facilitating Martin O'Neill's plans.

Ultimately, Stoke are a club who seldom get the credit that they deserve. The pantomime villains of the Premier League. For too long, neutrals have almost been willing them to fail. Two or three bad signings, and next season they may just finally get their wish.

But be warned - if Tony Pulis can get his close-season transfer business right, the the Potters could be ideally positioned and primed to serve up one mammoth, and decisive, serving of humble pie.

Either way, it looks like it is going to be another interesting old summer at The Britannia.

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