Stoke City: The Rise and Fall of The Potters

This season, Stoke City found themselves embroiled in a battle to avoid relegation to League One. If they had gone down, it would have been the first time they have plied their trade in the third tier for some 18 years.

Not too long ago, Stoke competed in the F.A. Cup final, and played Europa League football. So, how have the Potters suffered such a fall from grace? 

Stoke’s rise towards the top tier of English football really began early in the 2002/03 season, when the resignation of Steve Cotterill led to Tony Pulis being given the job in November of that season. 

Pulis immediately found himself and his new side in a relegation battle, fighting to stay in a league that Stoke had been promoted to in the previous season. The club’s fortunes were lifted as a result of two signings completed by Pulis, as Ade Akinbiyi provided the goalscoring touch desperately required by any side in a relegation battle, and Mark Crossley was a more solid figure between the sticks. 

Stoke managed to avoid relegation on the final day, beating Reading 1-0 courtesy of a goal from Pulis’ signing, Akinbiyi. Pulis went on to reflect on the achievement of keeping Stoke from relegation, mentioning that he felt that it was among his best achievements at the club. 

After surviving relegation, Pulis led Stoke to a respectable 11th place finish the subsequent season. However, the 2004/05 season that followed spelled trouble for Pulis, as tensions grew between the manager and the chairman of the club at the time, Gunnar Gislason. 

Pulis grew frustrated at the lack of activity by the club in the summer transfer window, with the Stoke manager being restricted to free agents, with Dave Brammer and Steve Simonsen becoming his only signings. 

The relationship became untenable when Pulis was sacked in June 2005, with Gislason citing a failure to exploit the foreign transfer market in his reasoning for removing Pulis from his post. Following his sacking, Pulis bemoaned the fact that the club had sold top scorer Ade Akinbiyi, a Pulis signing, to championship rivals Burnley without signing a direct replacement. 

Johan Boskamp was the successor to Pulis, but he wouldn’t last long in the role. Peter Coates’ purchase of the club for £1.7 million in May 2006 signalled the end of Boskamp’s short tenure at the club, after finishing 13th in the table in his one season in charge. 

In the month that Coates took over at the club, he approached Pulis with the intention of bringing him back to his managerial role at Stoke, but Pulis denied the approach. However, just a month later, Tony Pulis was named as the new Stoke City manager for the second time. 

Peter Coates showed his ambition for the club, and his belief in Pulis as he allowed his new manager to bolster the squad ahead of the 2006/07 season, with the addition of the likes of Danny Higginbotham Ricardo Fuller. The latter is now a club legend. 

The faith in Pulis was repaid, as Stoke peaked at 4th in the table prior to the January transfer window, and they went on to finish 8th in Pulis’ first full season back at the helm.

In the season that followed, Pulis again navigated the transfer market skilfully, signing five players on loan. The new signings included Ryan Shawcross from Manchester United, who joined permanently in the January window and remains at the club today. 

Stoke achieved promotion to the Premier League on the final day of the season, meaning they would play top tier football for the first time in 23 years. 

In their first season as Premier League club, Stoke traversed a tricky mid-season slump which left them as one of the favourites for relegation. They sat in and around the relegation consistently until March, when a rich vein of form lifted them out of the bottom three. 

A 2-1 win against Hull in May secured their Premier League survival with two games to go, and Tony Pulis received widespread praise from all corners, particularly for managing to achieve Premier League survival on a limited budget. His name was even mentioned as a potential manager of the year candidate. 

Pulis was able to consolidate Stoke City’s standing as a Premier League club in the season that followed, as they finished 11th and enjoyed a run to the F.A. Cup quarter final where they eventually fell to Chelsea. 

The next season though, is the one that Stoke fans will perhaps hold in highest regard. It was the season in which they had their appearance at English football’s most coveted ground, Wembley Stadium. 

Stoke secured another respectable finish in the 2010/11 season, finishing in 13th place, but by far their most impressive feat of the season was reaching the F.A. Cup final after a glorious 5-0 win over Bolton in the semi-final. Only a goal from Manchester City’s star man Yaya Toure separated Stoke City from domestic cup glory. 

It was only the third time a Stoke City manager had led the club as far as the semi-final of the F.A. Cup, and the first time the club had ever reached the final of the competition. Peter Coates would go on to say that Tony Pulis was Stoke City’s greatest ever manager following the achievement. 

The F.A. Cup run also secured European football for the club for the first time in 36 years, as Manchester City qualified for the Champions League, meaning the F.A. Cup runners-up would take their spot in the Europa League. 

Pulis achieved another landmark as Stoke manager, as he became the first manager of the club to win a two-legged European tie during the qualification stages of the competition, which took Stoke into the group stages. 

They drew Besiktas, Dynamo Kyiv, and Maccabi Tel Aviv in the group stage, and after qualifying from the group into the knockout rounds, they drew Valencia. Stoke lost the first leg of the game 1-0, and Pulis drew rare criticism in the second leg as he fielded a mostly reserve side, and only took a four man bench with him to the fixture. However, he defended his decision, and led the club to a 14th placed position in the Premier League that season. 

In the 2012/13 season that followed, Stoke showed little progress under Pulis, despite him stating that he had begun to change his style of football. A marked dip in performances and results led to the end of Pulis’ second spell at the club following a meeting with the owner, Peter Coates, in May 2013. Pulis mentioned following his dismissal that he was disappointed at the decision, but could accept it. Nonetheless, Mark Hughes was installed as his replacement. 

After a disappointing spell as QPR manager which led their relegation following his sacking, the appointment of Mark Hughes was one that raised concerns among the club’s supporters. Hughes admitted that he had a point to prove, and his tenure as Stoke City manager began. 

Hughes enjoyed a good start to life at the club, winning two of his first three games in charge, but their early season form didn’t last long. They endured a nightmare couple of months throughout September and October, in which they didn’t win a Premier League game, picking up only 2 points, and scoring just 3 goals in that period. 

Stoke’s fortunes picked up in November, going on an impressive run of only one loss in seven games. They carried their upturn in form through to the end of the season, as Hughes achieved a 9th place finish, Stoke’s highest league finish sine 1975. 

The two seasons that followed produced 2 more 9th placed finishes, as Mark Hughes garnered praise for being able to change Stoke’s identity. 

They began to play more exciting football, with players such as Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Bojan providing attacking flair, but players like Ryan Shawcross, Glenn Whelan, and Charlie Adam offered the side a rugged and tough reputation, making Stoke a difficult team to beat as they often caused problems for the big clubs. 

Although they had achieved a third consecutive 9th placed finish, warning signs were there to see for the club, particularly in their recruitment. Previously, the club had shown they could be clever in the transfer market under Tony Pulis, but their recruitment strategy started to become their achilles heel under Hughes.

Xherdan Shaqiri proved a shrewd acquisition from a major European club in Inter Milan, however other signings such as Joselu, Shay Given, Jakob Haugaard, and Marco Van Ginkel offered very little to the club, and were clearly not up to scratch.

At the beginning of the 2016/17 season, Joe Allen and Bruno Martins Indi would become decent signings who remain at the club today. Despite this, recruitment did not massively improve as they also signed Ramadan Sobhi, Wilfried Bony, and Saido Berahino, who all turned out to be disastrous signings for the club. 

In spite of poor recruitment, Stoke secured their Premier League status yet again, with 2 games to go they managed to achieve a 13th place finish. This was their lowest finish to date in Hughes’ four seasons at the club. 

Mark Hughes had four relatively successful seasons at the club, however his fifth season is where things began to go very badly wrong for the club. 

In the 2017/18 season, Hughes’ position at the club became more and more unsafe after some terrible results, namely a demoralising 3-0 home loss to West Ham, a game in which Mark Arnautovic scored for his new club and celebrated heavily in front of the home fans. They also suffered heavy defeats to clubs in the top 6, with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur enjoying 7-2 and 5-1 wins respectively against the Staffordshire club.

By January, Stoke had only won five games out of 22, with calls for Hughes to be sacked coming from fans following a devastating 5-0 defeat to Chelsea, a game in which Hughes rested several key players. Hughes justified his decision by stating that their next game, against Newcastle United, was more important as it was the more winnable game. Newcastle would win the game 1-0, prompting heavy criticism towards the coach, leading Hughes to walk out of the post match press conference.

Following a 2-1 defeat to struggling Coventry City in the F.A. Cup, Hughes lost his job. At the time, Stoke had the worst defensive record in the league, despite several defensive acquisitions, such as the £18 million signing of Kevin Wimmer from Tottenham, as well as the season-long loan of Chelsea centre-back Kurt Zouma. Another shocking indictment of the club’s recruitment in the last few years. 

Stoke City desperately needed a lift, they needed somebody who would reinvigorate a squad devoid of any confidence or semblance of organisation. Paul Lambert was the man the club judged to be their saviour. 

Lambert took the job on a two-and-a-half-year contract, with the intent on stabilising Stoke and retaining their Premier League status. However, Stoke were only slightly less hopeless under their new coach. Paul Lambert was unable to arrest the slide down the table, and Stoke’s relegation to the Championship was confirmed following a 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace. Lambert agreed to leave the club by mutual consent following the confirmation of the club’s relegation. 

All the hard work put in by the club and the coaching staff during the Tony Pulis era of the club had been completely undone by years of poor recruitment and terrible behaviours at the club. 

Lambert claimed that at the beginning of his short-lived spell, the behaviours and professionalism of some players at the club was simply unacceptable. He was obviously never going to name any names, but several players had let down the coach during Stoke’s relegation scrap. 

Players such as Ibrahim Affelay, Jese Rodriguez, Saido Berahino and Kevin Wimmer all displayed a lack of fitness, in addition to a lack of any real desire to perform for the club. None of the aforementioned players featured heavily during the relegation run-in, although all of them arguably possessed qualities that could have helped Stoke survive. 

The goal-scoring prowess that Berahino had displayed at West Brom, the creativity of Affelay, the mercurial talent of Rodriguez. These players could have been heroes for Stoke, alas they were the villains in the end. 

Despite his effort, Lambert could not change the mentality at the club quickly enough to secure survival, and the failures of his predecessor are ultimately what doomed the club. 

Many say that the Stoke board should have acted more proactively in removing Hughes from his post. For many fans and experts, the warning signs had been clear to see for a long time. It was clear to many that Hughes had lost his touch at the club, and that he was no longer the man for the job. 

It’s impossible to say whether sacking Hughes earlier and putting Lambert in charge sooner would have given the Scotsman enough time to turn around the fortunes of the club, but many Stoke fans were keen to see how their club would fare in the second tier, as many saw their squad as by far the strongest in the Championship.

At the conclusion of the season, Derby County’s Gary Rowett requested permission to speak to Stoke City about the vacant manager role at the club. Stoke paid around £2 million in compensation to Derby, and Gary Rowett’s reign as Stoke manager was underway. 

Rowett was given a large transfer budget, and used it to sign several players to reinvigorate the playing squad. Adam Federici, Ashey Williams, Cuco Martina, Sam Clucas, Peter Etebo, Ryan Woods, Tom Ince, James McClean, and Benik Afobe all arrived to a squad expected to challenge the clubs at the top of the table, as Stoke were expected to bounce back up to the Premier League at the first attempt. 

What was expected could hardly have been further than what actually transpired, as Rowett endured a tough start to life at the West-Midlands club, winning only two of his first ten games at the helm. 

Throughout the season Stoke made little progress in the Championship, despite a spell of 10 games unbeaten. Their progress was hampered by the fact that they drew six of those ten games. As Stoke gained a reputation of not being able to get over the line in games, most Championship sides felt that they could always get a result in games against the club. 

Following poor results against Rowett’s former club Birmingham, Bolton, and Bristol City, supporters began to call for Rowett to leave as they lost patience with their new manager. On 8 January 2019, Gary Rowett’s contract with the club was terminated with the club sat 14th in the table with just 35 points after 26 games. 

Just a day later, Stoke fans were optimistic again with the appointment of their next manager, Nathan Jones. Jones had impressed in previous roles as first team coach and assistant manager under three different managers in his time at Brighton, in addition to his role as manager of Luton, where he had achieved promotion from League 1 the season prior. 

It’s safe to say that Nathan Jones didn’t exactly have an instant impact at Stoke, winning only three of Stoke’s remaining 21 matches in the 2018/19 season, and gaining only a single point from his first 6 games in charge. 

Despite the poor start to Nathan Jones’ time at the club, there was still an undoubtable sense of optimism among Stoke fans who had quickly grown to like Jones. His instant passion for the club in addition to his unique style of football meant that fans were sure that, given a summer in which he could recruit his own players and familiarise the squad with his style, he would be successful. 

In the summer leading up to the season, Jones signed ten players in an attempt to build the Stoke squad in his image. A bad start to the 2019/20 season resulted in just one point from Stoke’s first six games of the season, mirroring Jones’ start to life at the club in January. 

Despite Jones’ obvious passion and desire to get it right at the club, as well as the admirable patience of the Stoke fans who never seemed to really turn against Jones, their form failed to take a turn upwards. Nathan Jones was sacked on the first day of November, just short of 10 months after his appointment. No one could have argued that the decision was unjust, Jones had won just two of the 14 games at the beginning of the 2019/20 season, and had won just seven of his 38 total games at the club. 

In spite of Jones’ obviously poor record, many fans will look back on his time at the club with a hint of regret. Many of the Stoke fans believed for a while that Jones really was the many to take the club forward. A young, fresh faced coach, as opposed to the experienced journeymen they had become accustomed to during the managerial reigns of Pulis, Hughes, Lambert, and to a degree, Gary Rowett. Alas, it was not to be for Nathan Jones at Stoke, though he has always maintained that he does not regret leaving Luton for Stoke. 

With Stoke sat rock bottom of the Championship following the dismissal of Jones, it was clear to everyone involved with the club that they desperately needed to get the next appointment spot on. Chris Hughton was linked to the role, and Tony Pulis was even linked with a third stint at the club. Martin O’Neill was the man chosen to lead the club forward though, and he began with an instant impact. 

Stoke won their first game under O’Neill, 4-2 away to Barnsley was a great result for a squad in dire need of a confidence booster. The form and the attitude at the club began to improve exponentially, with O’Neill securing vital wins against Wigan, Luton, Sheffield Wednesday, and Huddersfield to vastly improve the state of affairs at the club. 

Early in March of this year, Stoke demolished Hull City 5-1 in an encounter which lifted them three points above the relegation zone with just nine games to go. The Championship season was suspended six days after the result due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Stoke’s preparations for the restart were significantly upended by the confirmation that Michael O’Neill had tested positive for the virus. Fortunately though, he recovered and continued to lead Stoke forward. 

Results had been a mixed bag since the restart, with just two wins from seven games. However, seven points from seven games represented a decent return for a side hopeful of avoiding relegation, and Stoke found themselves 4 points from the relegation zone with two games to play. 

Stoke’s two remaining games presented extraordinary challenges. The first challenge was a game at home to Brentford, in which to win they would be tasked with halting an 8 game winning streak that their opponents had built up. 

The game finished 1-0 to the Potters, with Lee Gregory scoring a true poacher’s goal to decide the fixture. With safety guaranteed, Michael O’Neill’s final game of the season was away to play-off hopefuls, Nottingham Forest. 

Forest only needed to avoid a six goal swing in Swansea’s favour, as the south Wales side would pip Forest to the final play-off spot should such a scenario occur. What followed was an utter capitulation by Forest, as they fell to a 4-1 defeat at home to a Stoke side who had spent the entirety of the season battling relegation. More importantly for Stoke, the result confirmed a 15th placed finish for the Staffordshire based club. 

Michael O’Neill had taken the Potters from rock bottom of the league, to a mid-table finish in less than a season. 

O’Neill has undoubtedly had a significantly  positive impact at a club who appeared to be in free-fall prior to his arrival. Analysis of O’Neill’s points-per-game (PPG) ratio at the club during the league season makes for exciting reading for Stoke fans. Over the course of a 46-game Championship season, the PPG ratio that O’Neill has amassed over the course of his short time at Stoke so far would total in a tally of 69 points, a tally capable of vying for a position in the play-offs places. 

The initial challenge for O’Neill was keeping the club afloat, it was imperative that Stoke remain in the Championship this season if they hope to really kick on under the former Northern Ireland coach. 

When O’Neill’s current PPG is taken into account, added to the assumption that the summer will bring new players more capable of implementing the manager’s instructions, in addition to a severely required clearing of the deadwood at the club, there future may be bright for a club who have experienced true exasperation in previous seasons. The light of England’s top division may yet shine again over the Potteries, only time will tell.


About the author

I'm a Tottenham fan based in Stoke, using this platform to write about the sport I love.

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