Joyless division

A Queens Park Rangers podcast today commented on how their visit to Stoke came with a soundtrack of groans and grumbles from the agitated Potters home support. Even in one of the more entertaining games to be held at the bet365 stadium this season, there wasn’t much to commend the atmosphere – the groans only broke up extended periods of silence. At one stage it became possible to hear Ryan Shawcross’ on-pitch instructions from the back of the main stand.

As the days get darker and colder, there is now even less to recommend a visit to a Stoke home game. Fans trudge to the ground with heads bowed, solemn, not looking forward to the next few hours of their life. It has felt like a chore, watching Stoke over recent months (years?). Relegation from The Premier League has hit the club hard, not just in a footballing sense, but a spiritual one. Fans wanted their return to the second tier to bring a sense of renewal, of Stoke finding their feet again after the shambles of the previous season.

Bookies’ favourites to win the title, tipped by most media outlets for an immediate return to the top flight, Stoke are now 13th and look in a different league to this season’s top dogs. Few expect Frank Lampard’s Derby to come away from The Potteries without at least a point to their name. This was a stadium that drowned out teams of Premier League all-stars with a deafening cacophony of raw Staffordshire yawping. Now, not even the recent addition of a new corner to the ground can drown out the sound of the wind blowing through the stadium. Stoke go behind, groan. Ince mislays a pass, grumble. Rowett makes a sub, groan. James McClean wins man of the match, boo. Full time. Boo.

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These discontented noises though, are not just a result of expectation. They are an expression of just how turgid Stoke are to watch, and a reminder of just how far footballing standards have fallen. As, even putting to one side the disappointment of not being in a promotion hunt, games are joyless. They’re played out with so little intensity it can easily be mistaken for a lack of effort on the part of the players. Where before there was the blood-and-thunder of Tony Pulis or Mark Hughes’ brief encounter with slick attacking football, Stoke fans have Gary Rowett. A man whose nickname at school was Gary Rowett.

It would be unfair to solely blame Rowett entirely for the state of things. The in-the-ground agitation was there before him and it surely will be there after him. On paper, Rowett is the perfect Stoke manager. Old school, rugged, straight-talking and who built his career from the bottom up rather than top down. A self-made manager. If, as Stoke fans were warned by Derby fans, his football was a bit defensive, so be it. If Stoke fans can fall in love with Pulis they can fall in love with anyone. His signings too, have been broadly welcomed. Ince and Afobe arrived to great excitement, and Ryan Woods has arguably been Stoke’s standout player this season. Not that that is any great compliment.

Yet his football has done little to win fans over. Defensive, low-octane, play – seeming to lack a general purpose or identity – might have been accepted had it actually generated results. However, Stoke have won five, drawn eight and lost five. Making them about as mid-table as mid-table can possibly be. Stoke’s average shots per game and expected goals are towards the wrong end of the 24, with even famously defensive managers like Tony Pulis getting their sides to create far more to worry the opposition.

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Table from @EFLstats on Twitter

After the worrying early season home defeats to Leeds, Blackburn and Wigan (in which Stoke conceded three goals each time). Rowett has stabilised the backline, and ground out 0-0 draws as well as the odd 1-0 win. This isn’t enough though. The rough xG table below still has Stoke very much in mid-table, expected to concede ever so slightly more than they are to score. Bland, joyless, mediocre. The most anticipated game of the season is now a Checkatrade Trophy tie at Port Vale.

The case may be that Gary Rowett is simply playing the long game, and turning the boat around will take a lot longer than the 18 games he has had so far. This though, is a manager that talked up the quality of his side before the season, and proudly declared Stoke to be ‘his team now’ after a sluggish 1-0 win over a depleted Swansea City. Now though, he talks about Sam Clucas and Joe Allen forming part of a five-man attacking quintet. Cries for either two up front, or a number ten to link midfield with the isolated attack have fallen on deaf ears.

Given the money spent on assembling this side, fans are entitled to expect more than what they’ve been getting. Not necessarily free-flowing football, not expect a huge winning run to take the Potters up to the top of the table, not even a play-off spot. Just something to fulfill football’s obligation to be a welcoming distraction at 3pm on a Saturday.

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Things could always be worse. The prospect of ‘doing a Sunderland’ seems far from likely and there is still perhaps the potential of the ‘Leeds away moment’, that point in 06/07 where Pulis’ side clicked and set us on the course for the top-flight. Given Rowett’s approach though, scoring four in any game seems a wild ambition.

Apathy reigns supreme in The Potteries. Attendances have held up relatively well but many fans now feel they’re going out of obligation. I’ll be at Derby, again hoping for that penny to drop, that spark of inspiration to turn Stoke back into the team we hoped they would be. Unfortunately, I fear that an early Derby goal will prompt the groans, grumbles or abuse to fly from the supporters, during yet another winter of discontent.

No matter how bad things get, Stoke fans will always turn up to support their team. We have the fourth highest away following in the division. Nobody follows Stoke expecting success, but going from Marko Arnautovic to James McClean in such a short space of time makes the recent monotony of mid-table a lot harder for fans to get used to. The Championship is an enthralling, exciting league, but at Stoke, it’s a joyless division.

David Cowlishaw

 

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