Following the surprise departure of Tony Pulis, many Stoke City fans feared the worst. Pulis, who has since gone on to save Crystal Palace and West Brom from impending doom, had been a resounding success story during his seven year tenure.
The methods used by the Newport-born boss were, and still are, to the distaste of most opposing Premier League fans, but 23 years into his managerial career, Pulis has yet to face relegation.
His unorthodox approach at Stoke has been well publicised: a host of six foot something strikers, four bruising centre-halfs at a time and a long throw specialist in Rory Delap. His side was functional if painful to watch but calls from the home crowd for a reformed style of play were non-existent.
Pulis was getting the best out of a limited group of players and for any chairman whose sole motivation is staying in the division, the 57 year old is seen as the dream appointment.
Despite his success, by mutual consent, Pulis left the north Staffordshire club in 2013, leaving supporters sweating over the prospect of plummeting down the leagues. His replacement came in the form of another Welshman, Mark Hughes. His appointment cemented the growing belief that Stoke were in trouble.
Finding another manager with the qualities to mask the weaknesses in his squad as well as Pulis did seemed impossible.
Furthermore, Hughes’ reputation had been fading for a number of the preceding years. After impressing at Blackburn, he was invited to manage Manchester City, where he had the financial means to lure the likes of Emanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez to the Etihad.
However, Hughes failed to realize the club’s ambitions of a top four finish and was sacked in December of his second season in charge. An intermittent spell at Fulham proved successful, with the West London club finishing eight during his year at the helm, before a move to another big spending side, QPR, saw the former Barcelona striker shown the door less than 12 months later.
So it came as a surprise to many when Hughes was afforded a Premier League lifeline by Stoke chairman Peter Coates. Dismayed at the exit of their beloved Tony Pulis, fans were generally unhappy with the club’s decision. At the time, tabloids led with headlines such as ‘Hughes must win over doubters’ and ‘Stoke fan stages Hughes protest’. However, undeterred by the hostile reception, he was determined to prove himself.
Without a cosmic war chest to delve into, a more considered approach would be needed if the 51 year old was to succeed, and it may have been a blessing in disguise.
During his first summer in charge, Stoke brought in young defender Marc Muniesa from Barcelona and Dutch International left-back Eric Pieters, while former Inter maverick Marko Arnautovic joined from Werder Bremen.
Notable departures included Mamady Sidibe, Mathew Upson and, even more crucially, Rory Delap. Other changes saw the increase in diameter of the Britannia Stadium pitch in aid of a more expansive style of play.
A change of philosophy was clear from the outset. A more possession-based game was to be deployed and the preferred requisite for new signings was a history of elite-level experience, something touched upon by Mark Hughes before this season’s opener against Liverpool.
There’s always a risk bringing people in. But signing players with pedigree from top clubs reduces that risk, in my view.
In his debut campaign, Hughes went a long way to answering fans’ reservations with a ninth place conclusion. It was the club’s first-ever top ten finish in the Premier League and bettered Pulis’ final year by five rankings.
Last summer saw a continuation of the club’s altered strategy with the arrivals of Phil Bardsley, Steve Sidwell and Mame Biram Diouf, all of whom had previous spells at top four sides in England.
The main attraction, however, was the marque addition of former Barcelona prodigy Bojan Krkic. The 24-year-old’s form for loan clubs such as Ajax and AC Milan was disappointing but his talent remained undoubted and his signing served as a reminder of Stoke’s ongoing transformation.
Bojan was particularly impressive as Hughes led his team to a second consecutive ninth place finish, improving on the previous term’s 50 points by four. On the final day of the campaign, Stoke’s attacking talents, minus the injured Bojan, blew their Scouse counterparts away in a shock 6-1 win.
Off the back of their impressive efforts last season, Stoke have acquired the services of no fewer than 11 players as Hughes further stamps his mark. Philipp Wollscheid has made his temporary switch from Bayer Leverkusen permanent. Chelsea midfielder Marco Van Ginkel has been snapped up on loan. Moha El Ouriachi and Ibrahim Afellay add to the former Barcelona contingent.
Ex-Real Madrid striker Joselu has joined from Hannover with another Los Blancos youth product arriving in the form of Sergio Molina. Glen Johnson has signed from Liverpool while goalkeepers Shay Given and Jacob Haugaard and talented Blackpool youngsters Dom Telford and Mark Waddington have also been brought in.
Markedly, eight out of the 11 new arrivals have experienced playing for a seasoned Champions League club.
It’s unlikely to end there, either. Xherdan Shaqiri was spotted at the game yesterday while failing to bring in the former Bayern Munich winger could see attention turned to yet another Barcelona starlet, Adama Traore.
Though a top-half cessation denotes an even tougher task this time around, the initial doubts over Mark Hughes’ ability to steer the club in the right direction are a distant memory.
Gone are the days when an intimidating crowd and a sideline towel were Stoke City’s biggest allies. The new Barcelona? Perhaps not, but a trip to the Britannia nowadays represents a largely different challenge to that of the previous regime.