Do Stoke City have a direction in mind?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 11, 2018

There’s a short, facetious answer to the question posed above. In fairness, it’s also a broad and secondary concern compared with Stoke City’s more immediate requirements: they need a forward, they need a reconstructed midfield and they need a defence which doesn’t melt at the sight of a competent opponent.

More than anything else, though, Stoke are in search of a definitive direction.

Before Mark Hughes was booted through the exit door at the Bet365 Stadium, media reports had suggested that the delay in terminating his contract, a step which was due over six months ago, was being caused by a lack of alternatives. That information may or may not have been accurate, but given the delay in appointing a successor and the broad list of names now being linked with the vacancy, it certainly seems based in truth.

Martin O’Neil, Quique Sanchez Flores, Slaven Bilic.

Steve Bruce?

The troubling aspect of that range is its ideological variation; there’s no theme with rises from it. A football club with a clear vision for what it hopes to be would typically conduct their search within a narrow area, interviewing head-coaches who all shared a particular set of desirable traits. No two managers are the same, of course, but the expectation should be for a fair degree of crossover. After all, certain coaching styles suit existing squads, budgets and executive structures better than others.

Instead, the intention seems to be the hook the club's wagons to a particular type of personality and hope that momentum lasts for as long as possible.

But that doesn’t seem to exist here. Instead, the intention seems to be the hook the club’s wagons to a particular type of personality and hope that momentum lasts for as long as possible. It’s really what West Bromwich Albion are attempting with Alan Pardew and, to a lesser extent, what Swansea are hoping will be the consequence of appointing Carlos Carvalhal. Those were recruiting decisions made without any deference to legacy; the sort which end with a manager clearing his desk and, within days, there being no evidence that he ever worked there at all. No foundation systems, no long-term strategy.

Not every club has the opportunity to appoint an continentally famous idealogue and, in all likelihood, the age of dynastic, decades-at-a-time management is probably over. Nevertheless, the objective should always be continuity. Football is obviously an imperfect sport and no amount of planning can guarantee sustained forward progress, but that should still be the aim – or, at least, an intention which can be seen even in spite of potential failure.

If Manager A can only be expected to be in place for three years, his successor – Manager B – should be someone who can carry on his work and prevent the club from having to perform a hard reset.

And that is what Stoke are enduring now: a hard-reset.

Viewed from a different perspective, it’s also an opportunity. Tony Pulis has been gone for a long time and the attempt to water-down the characteristics he left behind has proven unsuccessful. There has never been, then, a better chance to abandon moderate thinking and pursue a new identity. To become something again. To construct a system around a new manager which radiates certain sporting values. To allow Stoke to become just another club.

Peter Coates does not have Abu Dhabi Group wealth, neither is he Roman Abramovich, but he is still offering the chance of a highly desirable job and not incosiderable resources with which to do it. Coates is also as patient a chairman as can be found in top-flight football, traditionally allowing his managers the proper time to implement their beliefs and plenty of opportunity to correct their failings.

Collectively, that comprises a highly attractive premise and it should provide access to a wide world of interested, talented head-coaches.

Framed as such, the list of appellant candidates which has emerged – all instant recall Premier League names who roll off the tongue – really does suggest a dearth of original thinking.

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