Sometimes when you walk into a football ground on match day you can pick up a certain vibe straightaway. At Huddersfield this season there’s an optimism, not quite ‘just glad to be there’ but certainly an element of fresh-faced positivity. Newcastle has a different sort of optimism, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. West Ham…well, you don’t want to know about West Ham: it’ll just make you sad.
At Stoke City on Wednesday night, everybody seemed to be on edge. You wouldn’t quite call it nervous, more that they were prepared for rather than fearing the worst, bracing themselves for mistakes, misplaced passes, aimless hoofs and ultimately defeat. They were ready to see their team play terribly, and in the end they didn’t disappoint.
When Stoke fans are at their best (or worst, depending on your point of view) they can be a great force, loud aggressive and staunch defenders of their own particular identity. The Bet365 Stadium looks out over the odd collection of towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent from on high, giving the impression that it’s just a little bit colder and windier than everything around it, even if that’s something of an illusion. In short, it can be a pretty intimidating place for an opposition team to play.
Those fans tried their best against Liverpool, whipping themselves into semi-justified outrage after a linesman decided Joe Gomez hadn’t taken the ball out of play before the first goal, then absolutely justified outrage when Simon Mignolet wasn’t sent off for wiping out Mame Biram Diouf before he could roll the ball into an open goal.
But it wasn’t too long before the reality of what lay before them ground the crowd down. When an error was made, the unmistakeable sound of a particular brand of exasperation spread around the stadium. The sort that doesn’t so much say ‘How did he miss that?’ as ‘Of course he missed that, he’s been missing those all season.’ One scene in particular towards the end, when Liverpool seemed to be almost encouraging them to claim a consolation and scrap of dignity but three quick chances were missed, was pure tragicomedy. Perhaps Martin Atkinson didn’t send Mignolet off because he couldn’t be certain that an open goal constituted a clear scoring opportunity.
...refereeing errors provided a handy smokescreen for a manager whose team is failing. The defeat was Stoke’s seventh of the season, leaving them fifth-bottom of the table and perilously close to the relegation zone.
After the game Hughes naturally focused on the refereeing decisions, briefly admitted that his side had indeed made some mistakes and then returned to the refereeing decisions. “It was disappointing that we got beat 3-0,” he said, “but you need the officials to help you sometimes when you come up against these big sides.”
Perhaps that is true, and he was justified in his displeasure to an extent, but the refereeing errors provided a handy smokescreen for a manager whose team is failing. The defeat was Stoke’s seventh of the season, leaving them fifth-bottom of the table and perilously close to the relegation zone.
Not all of those losses have been against the ‘big teams’ either: on Saturday they were beaten by Crystal Palace, last month they lost to Bournemouth (who at the time had only one win to their name all season) and on the opening day a reverse to Everton, who then promptly went nearly three months with only one victory.
Only West Ham have conceded more goals. Only three teams have a worse goal difference. Only Bournemouth and the bottom three have lost more games this season.
But more than the bare statistics, there’s a sense of aimlessness about Stoke which is troubling. This reeks of a side who have come as far as they can, whose manager has run out of ideas and relies on bad refereeing to explain away bad results. If you asked your average football fan about the clubs in the Premier League they would be able to tell you something about most of them. About the way they play, how they approach things, their admittedly nebulous ‘identity’.
But Stoke…what would they say? Something about Xherdan Shaqiri looking more like a weightlifter than a footballer? Hughes’s aversion to handshakes? ‘Is Peter Crouch still playing?’ At least under Tony Pulis, Stoke were disliked. As it is at the moment, there’s nothing much to them, positive or otherwise. They’re just…there.
For the last ten minutes or so the Liverpool fans contented themselves with singing Christmas songs and suggesting Stoke could be going ‘down with the blue shite’. Given that Everton were making short work of West Ham at the time under the dispiriting but undeniably solid gaze of Sam Allardyce, only the first part of their taunt could be right.
You can currently get 7/1 in some places for Hughes to be the next Premier League manager to leave his post. If you’re a betting person, it might be a good idea to get on that price while you still can.