How to even begin unravelling Stoke City’s season, when the Premier League in general chose 2015/16 to fall into the realms of Fantasia? This was one long mad hatter’s tea party, starting with a row with a club doctor knocking the league’s most powerful manager from his perch and ending with Nessun Dorma bringing the house down as the unlikeliest English champions in history took their applause. The PFA Player of the Year was a £350,000 buy from the French second division, the Football Writers’ choice was playing in non-league five years ago (not sure if anyone’s brought that up?) and the PFA Young Player in the Year arrived straight from League One.
However you feel about the Leicester fairytale, The Foxes cast a shadow over everyone else’s season. Whether it’s the top clubs who imploded to clear the way, or the mid-rankers who could only look on in envy as a peer cashed in the opportunity of a lifetime, their success only threw into sharp focus the shortcomings of those trailing in their wake.
Stoke are no exception, and there’s certainly an argument that the changing of the guard at the top has caused us to judge our own season too harshly. The Potters have been like Harvey Dent; at times swanning around as the handsome, dynamic, can-do playboys of the Premier League, at others their own acid-scarred, self-lacerating worst enemies, indecisive and hideous to look at.
However, ninth place for a third successive season and coming within the proverbial lick of paint and a penalty shoot out of a Wembley final represents overall a very decent campaign. If you’d offered us that in August, as we prepared to kick off the season without the last three recipients of the Player of the Season award (two sold, one out for an unspecified length of time), I’d wager a high percentage of us would have taken it. Given those issues, and the injury nightmare that’s plagued us from start to finish, you could even, if you squint, make an argument that matching the finish of the last two years is something of a minor miracle. It’s worth remembering that as late as March we were still in the thick of the Europa League hunt and an outside bet for a Champion’s League push.
Yet the cold, hard statistics tell us why it’s been the least satisfying season of Mark Hughes’ tenure so far. We finish with fewer points than last term, the fewest goals scored of the Hughes era and the most goals conceded. Only four teams had a worse goal difference than our –14.
It perhaps hasn’t helped that most of the high spots we’ve enjoyed all came during an intense burst in the space of about eight weeks, between late October and late December. That was a period that saw our League Cup run kick into gear with a memorable win over Chelsea on penalties and a comfortable vanquishing of Sheffield Wednesday. It took in an impressive win at Southampton, a marvellous Boxing Day victory over Manchester United and a triumphant seven-goal thriller at Goodison.
The crowning glory, of course, was the swaggering, dazzling defeat of Manchester City, the best I’ve seen Stoke City play in 25 years of watching them. The richest team in the world were humbled, blown away by a tornado of flicks, tricks, rabonas and backheels in front of a full house at the Brit and a televised audience of millions.
Yet that was a high watermark, a performance we never really got close to again. If Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, we will always have Man City at the Brit on 5th December 2015.
There were other fine performances, but not really, if we’re honest, enough of them. We were largely good away from home. The team showed heart and fight in abundance in that heartbreaking Anfield semi-final. We scored some great goals – solo efforts like Bojan’s against Swansea, team goals like the 13-pass move finished by Jon Walters at Watford, graceful chips like Shaqiri’s now-famous second goal at Everton and master blasters like Arnie’s goal on Boxing Day. This is a side bursting with talent, we all know that.
Perhaps that’s what made the various low points so bitterly disappointing. The season was bookended by two poor runs. We’re used to starting badly by now, of course, but that has been tolerated for the trade-off of a strong finish. That didn’t happen this time round. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and bad decisions made for the right reasons around the turn of the year – sticking with the same team and not strengthening sufficiently in the interests of maintaining momentum and keeping the faith with the existing talent – precipitated an alarming slide during the latter half of the campaign.
We’re not accustomed to seeing Stoke teams – Stoke teams this century, anyway – accept three or four-goal drubbings so meekly, and it’s been scary to see that happen with some regularity between January and May.
There have been mitigating circumstances of course, which we’ll talk about, but the problems appeared to run deeper than a terrible injury crisis, and they cannot be swept under the table.
The results and performances during April and May constituted relegation form, that cannot be argued. This was a team that was bereft of ideas creatively despite possessing some of Europe’s most vaunted attacking players, and who turned to blancmange after conceding a goal. This was a disorganised rabble without a plan, a clue or at times, seemingly, any inclination.
At least the rot was stopped on the final day, be it somewhat bizarrely, and that unlikely scramble to warm, loving, lived-in, familiar ninth place meant the season ended on a high. There was a carnival atmosphere for Andy Wilkinson’s testimonial, a game where we got to see our heroes again, the net finally bulged for the number 28, and the stands, as promised, duly emptied onto the pitch.
The feelgood factor was back. Stoke City don’t really do warm and fuzzy, but we made an exception for this night, and it was all the better for it.
Nevertheless, it feels like the Hughes era has reached a crossroads. At the end of his first two seasons, the consensus was that we were a couple of signings away from being a genuinely excellent football team. Now though, it feels like a much more significant overhaul is needed, not just in terms of personnel, but tactically as well. It is a huge summer for the manager. It’s not exaggerating to say that it will make or break his reign.
This season could have been so much worse – we are in no position to be turning our nose up at a top half finish. Yet it’s hard not to cast a glance 50 miles east and wonder what might have been.