At least the panic is over, and Stoke can again bask in the warm embrace of mid-table obscurity. Mark Hughes had used his programme notes to insist that his team were not yet safe from relegation, which might have caused a frantic checking of the Premier League table by those home supporters taking their seats. Victory over Hull City, by whatever scoreline and through whatever performance, put paid to that.
In the end, the result was settled by a moment of stunning beauty from Xherdan Shaqiri, who lashed home from 30 yards to make it 3-1 before stopping to receive his acclaim. Finally the home fans could smile; finally his manager could applaud. Is there anyone who manages to nail angry enjoyment better than Hughes?
Yet even the full-time cheers could not mask the wider concern. This was a tighter victory than the scoreline suggested, and this is not an entirely happy time to be a Stoke fan. The Bet365 Stadium played host to a regular chorus of groans and sighs after Marko Arnautovic’s early goal, relieved only by Peter Crouch’s textbook header and a finish from Shaqiri that cannot be taught in print.
Stoke players were slow to spot potential overlaps and quick to pass the ball back to their goalkeeper. “I don’t believe it,” one supporter shouted four separate times in the second half. You’d think he’s at least starting to predict these eventualities by now.
If Hughes assumed that his team needed one goal to release the tension, so it didn’t prove. Stoke could easily have extended their lead in the first half, but allowed Hull to create opportunities of their own and eventually equalise through Harry Maguire. Hull have taken one away point since September 10, and scored only six times in that run.
On Saturday, the mood filtered down onto the pitch, goalkeeper Lee Grant and defender Erik Pieters separated by referee Stuart Attwell after an angry exchange over a lack of communication. The atmosphere from the stands was not mutinous, but they booed the substitution of Saido Berahino. Hughes may point out that it was Berahino’s replacement Crouch who scored the second goal.
This is hardly the knee jerk reaction of a fanbase spoilt by success, you understand. The list of clubs that Stoke have beaten in the last year comprises of West Ham, Stevenage, Sunderland, Hull, Swansea, Watford, Burnley, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough. The difficult place to go has been little of the sort. There’s nothing quite like first-hurdle exit from both cup competitions at home to Hull and Wolverhampton Wanderers to make everything seem futile.
While Hughes can now plan for another season in charge, there is a growing apathy to his management, if not from within the club’s support then certainly in the wider game. Hughes’ defenders will point to three consecutive ninth-placed finishes and claim him a victim of his own success, and they may have a point. His critics would ask whether it is preferable to finish ninth and play without a clear identity, or 14th with one.
In many ways, that is the choice that Stoke already made when replacing Tony Pulis with Hughes. For all the criticism of Pulis’ pragmatism, the game plan had structure, the atmosphere at the Britannia was raucous and the ball boys had towels. Stoke were, for a supporter at least, easier to identify with and even easier to love.
The absence of this identity is obvious. This season, Stoke rank 14th for possession (46%), but do not soak up pressure before hitting on the counter. They rank 14th for successful passes, so the Stokealona nickname has long been forgotten, if it were ever justified. They rank 15th for crosses, so hardly swing it into the box. They rank 12th for fouls conceded, so the physicality of the Pulis era has long been expunged to the past. There is no USP; whereas once Stoke were viewed by opposing fans as unpopular but effective, now they have become irrelevant.
Hughes’ transfer record is hardly exemplary, a factor of ever-increasing importance given the increase in revenues (Stoke have passed the £100m revenue mark for the first time). Joe Allen has been excellent in his first season, but Shaqiri has stalled, Wilfried Bony been an abject failure and Bojan is now loaned out and unwanted.
The success of Robert Huth and Steven N’Zonzi having been sold for a combined £10m also grates, while Peter Goldstein wrote last month about the regression in the current squad, Allen aside. Do you trust Hughes to spend again, and do it wisely?
“We’ve got Marco Silva, we’ve got… Marco Silva,” chanted Hull’s supporters almost throughout their defeat. They may follow a team ensconced in a relegation battle, but they are proud of their manager and their team. It’s easy to wonder both whether Hughes enjoys the same affection from the home support, and whether he ever will. Familiarity is breeding contempt rather than contentment.
Hughes is a manager who, like his predecessor, guarantees safety, but safety is not sexy. Plenty of Stoke supporters will wonder if their club still dares to dream. Unless Shaqiri repeats his trick on a fortnightly basis, those wonders will remain into this summer and beyond.