Even during the 3-1 victory over Hull City in April that secured Stoke’s Premier League status, the mood was one of anger and frustration, if not quite mutiny. Goalkeeper Lee Grant and defender Erik Pieters were separated by referee Stuart Attwell after an angry exchange, while supporters’ huffing and puffing turned to boos when Saido Berahino was substituted.
If fans were despondent, you could see their point. West Ham, Stevenage, Sunderland, Hull, Swansea, Watford, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Southampton are the only clubs Stoke have beaten in all competitions in the last 16 months. It is a miserably short list, and one which puts a great deal of pressure on Mark Hughes. Having finished ninth in three consecutive seasons, 13th – with 44 points – represented a slump.
We are guilty, to a lesser or greater extent, of being hasty in our transfer window judgements. The phrase ‘winning the transfer window’ might be the most unpleasant modern nonsense, but when it’s used in July it is particularly galling. The desire to impose soap opera and reality TV rules onto sport knows no bounds.
Yet it is not an over-dramatisation to suggest that Stoke City supporters might be a little apprehensive of their club’s business thus far. If summer is typically the time for football supporters to forget their gripes, recharge and recuperate after a disappointing season, it is not proving so in the Potteries. Stoke’s summer has merely been an extension of their 2016/17 campaign.
Nobody could begrudge Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan their moves in search of guaranteed first-team football, but these were two of Stoke’s players with which supporters had an affinity. They are players in which you can see the cogs turning, impressive through their perspiration as much as their inspiration.
Further to those departures, loan deals for Bruno Martins Indi and Wilfried Bony have ended. Bony was an abysmal failure, but Martins Indi would be welcomed back at the Bet365 Stadium. To make his stay permanent seems a straightforward move. The latest news is that Stoke are struggling to get a deal over the line, and Crystal Palace are now also keen.
The biggest loss is Marko Arnautovic, Stoke’s second top scorer, top assist provider, top chance creator and top of a list of dribbles completed and shots on target. Were Stoke losing Arnautovic to an elite team in the Champions League, supporters may be able to swallow his departure. Instead he will join West Ham after handing in a transfer request. Arnautovic is said to frustrated by Stoke’s lack of ambition. When that makes you want to join West Ham, it’s a sign that all is not well.
Stoke players scored 37 times in the Premier League last season. Take out those who have already departed this summer and you are left with a measly 24 goals, and 91 of Stoke’s 300 created chances have also left the club in the last two months. Darren Fletcher and Josh Tymon are hardly likely to address either of those issues.
Just as concerning is that Peter Crouch – who turns 37 in January – was their top league goalscorer last season with seven. Plenty depends on Berahino finding form, fitness and well being.
The up-sell is that Hughes now has a blank canvas, but the realistic assessment is Stoke’s cupboard will soon look worryingly bare. If the end of a difficult campaign was the manager’s chance to breathe life into an underachieving squad, somebody should probably call for a paramedic.