When Stoke City rejoined the Premier League in 2008 no one expected them to be around for long. Bookies Paddy Power were paying out on all bets that Stoke would be relegated….after just one game! Stoke had a reputation as guileless donkey’s who relied on throwing their weight around; and long balls, long throws and goal line scrambles to score their meagre tally of goals.
Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger famously accused Stoke of playing football like a rugby team.
Stoke supporters dug in and relished their ‘no one likes us everybody hates us’ position. When Stoke went 1 – nil up against Arsenal 25,000 fans burst into a rousing rendition of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
On December 28th 2008 Stoke lost 2-1 to West Ham after striker Fuller was sent off for fighting with a team-mate. They were bottom of the League.
Somehow Manager Tony Pulis managed to instil enough resilience and determination in his team to keep them up.
Little changed over the next four seasons. Stoke continued their reputation as a low scoring, physical team that played the sort of football sure to secure them the last slot on Match of the Day.
At the end of the 2012-13 season when Stoke survived by the skin of their teeth it was time for Pulis to go.
There wasn’t much of a queue for the vacant Stoke job. But when Mark Hughes was announced as Pulis’ successor most fans were still disappointed. Hughes had a great pedigree as a player, had shown early promise as a manager but, as his humiliating reign at QPR had shown, just didn’t have what it took to cut it in the Premier League.
It looked like Stoke’s flirtation with top flight football would soon be over.
But Mark Hughes arrived at Stoke with a plan and over the subsequent two and half years he has been doggedly putting that plan into action. It was audacious but his plan was to turn Stoke into the Barcelona of the north. Here is his 5 step plan:
1. Paint a compelling picture of where you are taking your people
Soon after his arrival Hughes was talking about the style of ‘dynamic and progressive’ football he wanted to establish at the club. Many scoffed…including most of the Boothen End. The first chance for many to see how a Hughes team might play was the pre-season friendly against Genoa in August 2013. It was something of a revelation as players looked comfortable with the ball…moved it around with neat passes and played with real pace. Even the two Wolves fans I watched it with were impressed. Mark Hughes has repeated his vision for the club at every opportunity and has gradually got the players, the supporters and now even the pundits believing it’s possible.
2. Be ruthless with those who aren’t up for challenge
By the end of that Genoa game Hughes had swapped 9 of the starting 11. For all that the starting eleven impressed, most of the players who finished the game looked clueless. They seemed to have no idea what they were being asked to do. By Christmas six of them had left the club. When you have set out clearly where you are taking your organisation you need to give your people a chance to decide if they are up for the challenge. Many won’t be and you can help them find an organisation with a better fit. Some will want to play a part but just won’t be up to it (see 3. below). A few will resist change. They won’t believe that things are changing and will carry on doing things the way they’ve always done them. These people just have to go. In the case of Kenwyne Jones he went to Cardiff City.
3. Look after the people who helped get you to where you are now
Schoolboy Stoke City supporter Andy Wilkinson made his club debut in 2001, breaking into the first team in 2007 as part of the promotion winning side. He went on to make 160 appearances for the club. His place as right-back was never entirely secure and when first Robert Huth and then Geoff Cameron arrived at the Britannia. He had prolonged periods on the bench. It soon became clear that Wilkinson would struggle to adapt his game to fit with the new style of football Hughes wanted. With his contract due to end Wilkinson played his final game in February 2015. He received a rousing send off as he said his goodbyes to fans at the end of the season. And that could have been that but in July the club announced that:
Stoke City can confirm that Andy Wilkinson has been given a contract until December 31, 2015, to enable him to regain full fitness with the support of the club’s medical staff after sustaining an injury last season.
Any organisation needs to be focussed on its future…where it is going…and thinking about who can help it get there. But we should never forget those who helped us get to where we are now. We may be right to conclude that there are colleagues, like Andy Wilkinson, who don’t have what we need for the next stage of our journey but we should be grateful for what they have contributed and help them move on with dignity.
4. Don’t be afraid to bring in new talent
‘Growing your own’ talent is wonderful. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone come up through the ranks to play a leading role in your organisation. Manchester United did it brilliantly under Fergie. But sometimes you need to look outside for the type of skills that will inspire your existing people and help them see what it is you’ve been talking about. They can help speed up the transformation and bring energy to the team. The relationships and reputation Hughes’ established during his playing career at Manchester Utd, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have stood him in good stead in the transfer market. He has been able to bring footballers to Stoke with real flair and natural ability but also with experience of playing at the top level. Loan players like Moses and Assaidi; and full signings like Arnautovic, Bojan and Shaqiri.
Stoke now have more Champions League winners in their side than Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal put together.
5. Be patient. Don’t expect change to happen overnight
After Hughes’ first season in charge Stoke achieved their best league finish since 1974-75. They repeated the feat in 2014-15 finishing the season with an emphatic 6-1 home drubbing of Liverpool. With more players arriving in the summer the 2015-16 season got off to a faltering start with Stoke securing just 3 points from their first six games. But as things have settled down and a first choice team has emerged Stoke have started to climb the table and progressed to the semi-finals of the League Cup. Not only have they already beaten Chelsea, Southampton and both Manchester clubs they have done it with the kind of football that most fans never dreamt of seeing at the Britannia.
Stoke might not quite be on a par with Barcelona just yet but they are starting to be watched with interest by the Spanish media. And some of the play in their recent 2-0 win against Man City was a joy to watch: