With ‘news’ that some Manchester United ‘fans’ are planning recourse to that most modern of protests, the plane-towed-banner, to express their displeasure at and request the removal of Jose Mourinho, one Twitter user responded thus:
It’s a very fair point, succinctly put. The constant demands of staying in the Premier League, the financial speculation usually required to ensure continued Premier League status balanced with the potential losses incurred if relegation happens, have caused chairmen up and down the country to rid themselves of perceived deadwood. But it’s worth noting, after their 3-1 win over Swansea (themselves an object lesson in throwing away stability in a panic, it would appear), that Stoke and Mark Hughes offer a lesson in the benefits of stability.
Appointed on 30 May 2013, Hughes has been a Premier League manager for three and a bit seasons, longer than anyone in the PL apart from Arsene Wenger (though Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche have been at their clubs longer, overseeing promotion; Aitor Karanka has been in his post just five and a half months less, also achieving promotion to the top-flight). The next longest Premier League only manager is Mauricio Pochettino, who has been at Spurs for two years and 159 days as of today (Wednesday). Indeed, it’s worth observing that Howe, Dyche, and Karanka are also testaments to keeping the faith, Howe especially, as they have remained at the helm either building something, in Howe’s case, or despite relegation (Dyche) or failing to achieve an expected promotion first time round (Karanka). And Pocchettino is probably the finest manager in the division, so Spurs would be insane to get rid of him, which will not happen anyway given his progress.
But back to Stoke: under Tony Pulis (another long serving boss, from June 2006 to May 2013, and the first Stoke manager to guide them to an FA Cup final), Stoke were renowned for reductive football predicated on defensive solidity, high work rate, and grinding out results. It’s the Pulis blueprint. Hughes has been given time to renovate Stoke, like buying the shell of a aging house with plenty of potential and strong foundations, but that needs a lot of love to make it habitable again with any joy. By allowing Hughes time and a budget, not making knee-jerk decisions when signings or results do not pan out, Stoke and their owners have shown that there is another way to achieve success.
The legacy of Hughes’ (relative) longevity was evident against Swansea. Erik Pieters and Marko Arnautovic were signings made during Hughes’ first season, 2013/14. Phil Bardsley was snapped up from Sunderland on a free the following year, when Bojan Krkic was also signed from Barcelona. The 2015/16 season saw a number of signings, some of them questionable (Shay Given and Jakob Haugaard ), but the acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter Milan was a masterstroke, as were 2016/17’s purchase of Joe Allen and the loans of Bruno Martins Indi and Wilfried Bony, as well as underrated Championship goalkeeper Lee Grant from Derby. Hughes has retained Stoke stalwarts like Ryan Shawcross, Glenn Whelan (both signed 2008), Jonathan Walters (2010), and Charlie Adam (2012), as well as overseeing the development of Jack Butland (injuries notwithstanding) into perhaps the best English goalkeeper (apart from Tom Heaton, on current form).
Stoke have started this season slowly, yes: they are towards the top of the lower half of the table for chances created, shots on target, and touches in the opposition box, but are certainly not the cloggers of old. Indeed, defence is possibly where Stoke have weakened; only Burnley (71), Hull City (65), Sunderland (59), and Leicester City (55) have given up more shots on target than Stoke have (54). But, they have three wins on the bounce with a blend of players either retained and reshaped by Hughes, or signed by him to give greater attacking thrust to the side. The deployment of Allen in a more forward role was a masterstroke, as his two assists against the Swans showed. That sort of decision is the sign of a manager with confidence in his abilities, certainly, but also confident that if things don’t immediately go his way (even with a £15m signing), he will not be shown the door without a chance to put things right.
Stoke are upwardly mobile and their long term, planned approach, is at the heart of it. Other Premier League clubs should take note.