The summer break brings fans of most clubs almost three months of rest, respite and the chance to press a reset button and forget woes and misery from the season just passed. For Stoke City supporters, belief has rarely been in as short a supply.
Football has not been gone too long in the Potteries; in fact, it feels like it never left. From a second half of last season consisting of just three victories and none in their last eight, to consecutive league defeats to open this campaign, the bet365 Stadium is no longer a place for joy and positivity.
A once-famous atmosphere has turned dour, sour, and minutes now feel like hours in this corner of Staffordshire. Nathan Jones moved to the ‘Gateway of the North’ in January. New Year, but not a new start, and wins at home to Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers are all he has to show for his work thus far.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way; Jones arrived on the crest of a personal wave having guided Luton from a League Two relegation battle to the top of the third tier, yet it is his new side who look more likely to ply their trade in League One now than the Hatters.
Not that that would be the worse thing to happen in this corner of Staffordshire. It isn’t catastrophic results that have turned bright clouds grey at Stoke, but rather having nothing to fight for. There is little to shout about. There is nothing to excite. Football has become the one thing it never should to a supporter: boring.
Long-standing season ticket holders have released their seats for the first time in over a decade, and while a drop in attendances is to be expected following relegation, those numbers have dipped drastically with just over 24,000 fans at the opening-day defeat to Queens Park Rangers.
A club famed for vociferous and deafening crowds in their time in the Premier League is now a far (and loud) cry away from the glory days. Jones’ diamond formation has failed to capture the hearts of Stoke fans, and early signs have shown little promise.
James Justin was a revelation under Jones at Luton and would have been a massive improvement on the aged winger James McClean. And despite having a couple of the best No 10s in the division in Nick Powell and Mark Duffy, City are still resorting to playing Tom Ince out of position behind the strikers on occasion.
Last season’s simultaneous top scorer and flop Benik Afobe has been shipped out to Bristol City, while new recruit Scott Hogan has hit the back of the net just nine times across the past three seasons. Sam Vokes meanwhile, has just one more to his name in the same time.
Opening games against London sides QPR and Charlton Athletic were supposed to offer an optimistic start to the season, but instead it’s been capital punishment. It’s hard to tell where last season ends and this one begins.
But there is cause for cautious optimism. Jones has proven himself to be one of the best young managers in the EFL and left Luton with the best points-to-game ratio of any Hatters manager to date, while his take on the diamond formation was one of the best executed in the English game for years.
Stoke had been installed as one of the promotion favourites by a multitude of bookmakers, as with last season, and there is genuine quality in this squad. A change in formation to a back three away in Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup win at Wigan Athletic proved that this is at least a one-trick pony, not an injured show horse ready to be put down just yet.
But what Stoke need more than anything for success is to give the supporters something to rally around. A cup run would be good – results in the league even more so, starting this weekend at home to Derby County.
This is not a club making headlines for all the wrong reasons; they aren’t making headline at all. Failure has not come through constant losses, but through losing the fans. Give them something to cheer. That’s all they ask for.