Unexpectedly quiet summer at the Britannia
17 August ~ When 2012-13 drew to its close there was a sense that it represented a watershed for Stoke City. The team had, for the second season running, imploded spectacularly in the second half of the season, winning just three games – and two of those against relegated clubs. Just as fast as things were falling apart on the pitch, the same was true off it. Manager and technical director were not friendly, neither were manager and chief executive, while players were smashing each other's cars to pieces after dressing-room rows.
So when Tony Pulis was sacked two days after the campaign ended, it seemed the club was set for a summer of change. Almost the opposite has occurred and when the Potters run out at Anfield this lunchtime for the launch game of BT Sport (and if anything shows that Sky hold the balance of power still, surely it's that) there will be very few changes in personnel. If the players look up to the TV studio – where their former boss will be sitting doing punditry duties – they could be forgiven for wondering if anything has changed at all.
Apart from the news that fans are being given free coach travel, it has been deathly quiet at the Brit as Pulis's replacement, Mark Hughes, has made very few public pronouncements. Just three players have been signed: Dutch international left-back Erik Pieters and a couple of highly rated youngsters. Pieters was a player who nearly signed for Stoke last January anyway. Whether this is because Hughes has learnt from his mistakes at QPR, or because the club's owners, the Coates family, have decided the days of City spending money like a big club are over, only they know. What is clear is that the lack of transfer activity at a time when similar clubs to us have been strengthening has seen many tipping Stoke to go down.
This pessimism neglects the key point that despite all his faults – and the fact he kept telling everyone we weren't very good – Pulis actually bought some half-decent players over the last five years. Asmir Begovic is an excellent goalkeeper, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth are hardly poor central defenders and midfielders such as Steven N'Zonzi, Glenn Whelan and Charlie Adam are better than they are given credit for.
Hughes might not have said much but he has shown a refreshing attitude towards burying the hatchet and ending the feuds his predecessor appeared to enjoy having with players. Jermaine Pennant has been given another chance and the baffling exile of Wilson Palacios appears to be over. That is not to say there aren't problems. There is a lack of goals in the squad and the club are desperate for a winger and a full-back. Although Hughes is promising to play more football (which wouldn't be hard), not even a magician could turn the aforementioned Shawcross into the next Franz Beckenbauer, or Ryan Shotton into a Premier League footballer.
The opening day trip to Liverpool represents not only a tough test but also the chance for Hughes to make good on his promise to be more attacking. Stoke are yet to score in five league trips to Anfield and in some of them have barely crossed the halfway line, so it will be interesting to see if anything changes this time around. Whatever happens, the future at Stoke might be just a little brighter than many think and the events of May this year might be a turning point after all. Andy Thorley