This is the first relegation I’ve properly experienced. I was too young in 1998, when we went down to the third tier. So after being a season ticket holder for 17 years, this weekend marked the first time seeing Stoke City on a league table in bright red. Bottom of the pile, with the ‘R’ sign where our position should be.
Overall, I’m fine with it. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Perhaps my reaction would have been more visceral had we faught nobly, right down to the wire. Perhaps I’d have shed a tear if the lads had given everything and been denied Premier League status due to some injustice. Maybe I’d have felt relegation more strongly in 2009, 2012 or 2016. If I genuinely liked more of this current squad, maybe I’d be angrier – ringing up radio stations and ranting against the club’s hierarchy.
That’s not to say that I’m not gutted. I haven’t been operating on auto-pilot, I just think I’m at the ‘acceptance’ stage of it all now, and probably have been for some time. Despite the agonising way in which Shawcross’ error set up Van Aanholot for Crystal Palace’s winner, it wasn’t unexpected in either the context of the game or the context of our season. We lost that game, and got relegated because we absolutely deserved to lose that game and get relegated.
The reasons for our relegation have been well documented, and covered by better writers than me. It was re-assuring to read that Jack Butland was aware of these problems as well, but also doubly concerning that such self-evident problems were not adressed earlier. Recruitment, Hughes, sticking with Hughes, Lambert, lack of firepower. The totality of mistakes and oversights were simply too much to produce a Premier League quality football team.
As Tony Pulis used to say, “If you stand still in this league, you fall behind”, and Stoke, stood still for long enough to be overtaken by a lot of very slow runners. Ten years of Premier League experience, and three promoted clubs – two in their very first Premier League season and one with a Championship squad – have overtaken us. A Watford side that changes managers like socks has overtaken us. Swansea, who like us were the very model of Premier League stability, have every chance of staying up despite being similarly poor for perhaps even longer than ourselves. Palace are staying up despite no goals in their opening seven games. West Ham have our best player of recent years, and will stay up despite a toxic relationship between fans and ownership. An uninspiring and blunt Southampton has a fighting chance of staying up despite the very obvious limitations of their new man in the dugout. Even West Brom, who up until recently were the most hopeless Premier League outfit in recent years, now look stronger and better-led than us.
Burnley have done incredibly well within obvious limitations, and will play in Europe next season. Bournemouth too, are proving its not all that difficult to stay in this league. Leicester City, who we relegated to the third tier, are comfortably mid-table now – and I don’t need to remind you of their adventure.
All of the above clubs came into The Premier League after us. Only Man City, Man United, Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs were permanent fixtures in our ten seasons after promotion in 2008. How the hell have we cocked that up?
Our first season up was incredible. We were amazing. A loud, brash, ugly anti-hero that thrilled us and annoyed everyone else. Our first home game typified all that was great about us. Endeavour, organisation, character, a dash of magic from Ricardo Fuller, the sheer terror of a Rory Delap throw-in and a refusal to lie down even when the pundits, bookmakers and other clubs tell you that you may as well. A now full Britannia Stadium fell in love with Abdoulaye Faye, Ryan Shawcross, Tommy Sorensen, Mama Sidibe, Liam Lawrence, Glen Whelan, Ethers, Beattie, Dicko, Wilko, Griff and even Seyi Olofinjana. We came, we saw, we did throw-ins and pissed a lot of people off. We stayed up because Pulis had a plan on the pitch and a plan off it. His chairman backed him, and a recruitment policy based on both character and quality ensured we had enough to compete. After talk of ‘doing a Derby’, we were well on our way to being a ‘proper Premier League club’.
Over the next couple of seasons, we added more quality, more characters. Huthy and Walters joined, and became cult heroes. Whilst recruitment wasn’t always perfect – Tuncay joining Dave Kitson as a player who’s expectations proved too high to live up to. We got to Wembley, we won 5-0 at Wembley, we all went on a European tour. While these are now happy memories, they are also incredible achievements. The one and only cup final in the history of Stoke City Football Club, built off the hard work and shrewd decision-making of three seasons in The Premier League.
It became clear, in the two seasons after, that Pulis had hit his glass ceiling, and fans dared to dream that we could expect more from Stoke City. We wanted the fight and character to remain, what set of fans wouldn’t? But surely we could aspire to a more entertaining brand of football – stuff that you wanted to go and watch. For me, it’s no coincidence that the discontent with Pulisball came around the time that his greatest entertainer, Ricardo Fuller, moved on to pastures new. We didn’t have guys who got you out of your seat like he did.
So, in came Mark ‘underwhelming’ Hughes, who provided that ‘little bit extra’, that ‘progression’ and that ‘entertainment value’. It was a gradual transition, but Hughes got us playing the best stuff we’ve played at this level since the seventies. Patchy, inconsistent, frustrating, Brilliant. Hughes had the right amount of name recognition, backing, and ambition (ah, remember that?) to attract mercurial talents from all over Europe, and even help develop a few players who’d only known Drill Sargeant Pulis.
A quick, counter-attacking style built on the likes of N’Zonzi, Arnautovic, Odemwingie, Diouf, Walters and Assaidi morphed into Stokealona. Bojan and Shaqiri joined the party, and joined Arnautovic in tearing apart the league’s best for at least one glorious winter. Style of play, check. Results, check. League postion, check.
Most things seemed on the surface to be going swimmingly, but as the buzz from Stokealona died down and results went the other way, Hughes’ limitations were brutally exposed. A failure to organise a defence, a haphazard recruitment policy (whether his fault or the club’s as a whole), and a general tactical naiveté meant we got found out. We tried to go back to basics, and we couldn’t. The squad wasn’t equipped for it. Serious miscalculations in the transfer market meant that, as Hughes’ final season approached, we were left without both character and quality. It wasn’t ‘stick or twist’ time, it was ‘You have to absolutely twist now’ time, and yet the board stuck, until it was too late. The club sleepwalked into a relegation battle, when all the while the support was screaming at it to wake up.
Then came the last throws of the dice. Rowett, Flores, O’Neill either bolted or weren’t quite convinced we were a project worth taking. So in came Paul Lambert, with a patchy CV, but a ‘man the barricades’ attitude. Yes, he inherited a rotten squad, with far too many bad eggs. Yes, he can’t help Mame Diouf’s finishing or be held responsible for Butland’s error in Leicester or the Charlie Adam missed penalty debacle. Yes, he does seem like a really lovely bloke. He’s just failed the audition. One win in fourteen, dropping too many points from winnable positions, and little ideas beyond ‘keep it tight, lads’. Lambert, like Diouf, seems like he genuinely cares about football and Stoke City, but he’s simply – as has been proven – not good enough.
Would Hughes have kept us up? Probably, given just how few points it will require to stay up this season. Would Pulis have kept us up? Probably, given his track record. But would any Stoke fan have them back? Of course not. We didn’t go down because we lost Pulis’ men of character or Hughes’ men of quality. It really isn’t that difficult to stay up this season, which makes the collective failures of the last few years so disheartening.
Now, we look forward. With or without Lambert, the squad will need a massive shake-up as a necessity – and it’s just as important that we get the right people out of the door as the right people through it. We will bid ‘fuck off’ to the mercenary wasters, ‘thanks and good luck’ to those who didn’t let us down, and do all we can to keep those who may have something to prove in The Championship. It’s the most important summer in our history.
We’re still Stoke City, we’re still the club of Matthews, Banks, Hudson, Smith, Soo, Steele, Ritchie, Conroy, Stein, Chamberlain, Fuller and Andy in his Dumper Truck. We’re still going to be right behind them. Don’t believe those who think we’re going back to one man and his dog attendances next season. We’ll still be with them, every step along the way. Thanks for the Premier League Years, Stoke. They were ace. Lets get them back.
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