Thursday 22 August 2019

Red cards and tunnel bust-ups typical of the toxic atmosphere suffocating Stoke

 

Ryan Shawcross and James McClean appeal to the referee during Stoke's defeat against Wigan. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Ryan Shawcross and James McClean appeal to the referee during Stoke's defeat against Wigan. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

John Percy

Just over 12 months ago Stoke were celebrating a 1-0 victory over Arsenal at the bet365 Stadium.

It felt like a seminal moment for Mark Hughes, already under pressure after a torrid end to the previous season, and it was an archetypal 'Stoke' performance including all the qualities which Arsene Wenger used to detest.

What followed, however, was an unfolding nightmare for Hughes and Stoke, ending in what was an inevitable relegation and the end of the club's 10-year existence as a Premier League club.

The problems which afflicted Stoke last season were clear for all to see long before that - and it is now Gary Rowett picking up the mess.

On Wednesday night, Stoke were thumped 3-0 at home by Wigan Athletic and this was undoubtedly another archetypal performance - for a club relegated to the Championship.

Put simply, they stunk the place out. Confidence disappeared like tears in rain when the first goal went in, players were racked with indecision and there was a distinct impression that many of them didn't want to be there.

Bust-up

Rowett was told he didn't know what he was doing by the home fans and also had to contend with suggestions of a bust-up between Jack Butland, Ryan Shawcross and James McClean at half-time.

It felt like the last two or three years of problems exploded in 90 minutes. The poor recruitment, the faith in players whose best days are long behind them, the lack of discipline which had one senior player last season referring to the final months under Hughes as a "holiday camp".

Just a word on the dressing room, too. When former manager Paul Lambert described some of the issues earlier this year as "unacceptable", it wasn't a convenient excuse designed to disguise bad results.

The issues still remain to some extent and even last week there was one player who declined to complete a full training session and simply walked back into the training ground dressing room.

We are only four games into the season, and it is far too soon to be writing post-mortems, but it already feels like Stoke are in a hole.

Rowett is not daft. He is an experienced operator in the muck and nettles of the Championship and will know that he cannot escape scrutiny.

One of his signings, Ashley Williams, was dreadful on Wednesday night and predictably sent off, giving Stoke fans little optimism for the future. McClean showed more fight in the tunnel and dressing room than on the field. Benik Afobe, Rowett's big £12m signing, was anonymous.

But the problems at Stoke appear to lie far deeper. There seems a mental issue, a deep-rooted frustration among the squad at how things have panned out over the last two years or so.

The alarm bells were ringing soon after the Capital One Cup semi-final exit to Liverpool in January 2016 but too many influential people had their fingers in their ears.

Butland, for one, must be wondering where his career is heading. He could have been No. 1 at the World Cup this summer but has conceded five goals in two games against Preston and Wigan.

Shawcross will also know that he is struggling, big-time, to rediscover anything resembling the form that made him such a reliable Premier League defender before a serious back injury.

Berahino has not scored a goal since February 2016. The list could easily go on.

Away from the first-team squad, Stoke's malaise is perfectly summed up by Giannelli Imbula, the emblem of poor recruitment under Hughes who cost £18.3m but cannot be given away. He is training with the club's U-23s.

Fans are demanding the dismissals of chief executive Tony Scholes and Mark Cartwright, the technical director. Many fans still pin the blame on the Coates family for not sacking Hughes earlier.

Could Rowett remedy the short-term situation with more new signings? There are eight days left before the EFL loan deadline and he is targeting Brentford's Ryan Woods whose move would become permanent in January for £6.5m. A new central defender and another striker would be useful, too.

There needs to be a serious wake-up call soon, or this season could sink even lower. Senior figures at Aston Villa always used to insist that avoiding a second successive relegation was a huge, under-rated achievement by Steve Bruce.

It will surely get better for Stoke, and Rowett, but the Championship takes no prisoners and these players have to adapt quickly.

As Rowett insisted after the Wigan match, past reputations count for nothing right now.

Irish Independent

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