Hughes in danger as Stoke loses identity, slides down league
LONDON (AP) — Wherever Mark Hughes turns, it’s hard for the Stoke manager to escape the rebellion growing among fans.
When the floundering squad was spotted at the city’s rail station disembarking from another recent miserable away trip, gesticulating supporters struck up a chorus of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt.”
The chants are even more brutal and personal inside a home stadium once seen as a stronghold in helping the team established itself in the English Premier League.
After a decade, that status among the elite is in peril — as is the manager’s job.
“Hughes out,” supporters bellowed last weekend during a 3-0 loss to West Ham that left Stoke a point above the relegation zone.
“You have to ride the storm and turn things around,” Hughes said on Thursday. “It is no good feeling sorry for yourself.”
The team is in a sorry state, and didn’t even manage a single shot on target against West Ham.
Five of the last six games have been lost, and the only victory in the last eight fixtures came against a Swansea side now stranded at the bottom of the standings.
Swansea showed Stoke what might be necessary when relegation is feared by firing manager Paul Clement on Wednesday. Saturday’s visitor, West Bromwich Albion, is already under new management after dismissing Tony Pulis a month ago and hiring Alan Pardew.
It was Pulis who led Stoke into the Premier League for the first time in 2008 and honed a pragmatic, often abrasive style that offered a bulwark against the threat of relegation. The long-ball tactics often relied on tall, powerful players imposing themselves aerially and launching tough tackles on opponents.
While rarely easy on the eye, Stoke never finished lower than 14th under Pulis and remained out of the bottom six in the top-flight for five consecutive seasons for the first time in the club’s history.
Stoke, though, wanted to go in a different direction from 2013 — in the standings by finishing higher, and on the pitch with more aesthetically pleasing displays.
That’s why the Potters — named after the city’s pottery industry — turned to Hughes to remold the team.
Hughes would not just settle with surviving in the Premier League.
“There comes a risk with that approach because you are raising expectations,” Hughes said this year, reflecting on the 13th-place finish that followed three seasons in ninth.
But a team dubbed the “jolly green giants” by then-Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson during Pulis’ reign has lost its identity under Hughes without gaining a new one.
Once renowned for its sturdy defense, Stoke has conceded a league-high 39 goals in the opening 18 games. The three teams below Stoke have not even conceded 30 each.
If anything, the club is becoming better known as the destination for one-time wonderkids whose early promise was unfulfilled as part of Champions League-winning squads, including Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Bojan Krkic, and Jese Rodriguez.
Being a destination to reboot careers in less exalted surroundings might need rethinking.
Just look at former Real Madrid forward Jese, who left the glamor of Paris Saint-Germain after failing to settle for a season on loan in the modest Staffordshire surroundings.
There was early promise: A debut goal to clinch a 1-0 victory over Arsenal in August. But Jese has failed to score since then. He lost a place in the starting lineup in October, and has made only two substitute appearances since then. He has not played since being disciplined for leaving the substitutes’ bench early and returning to the dressing room during a game.
“He’s still very much in my plans,” Hughes said of Jese.
But how long will Hughes remain in Stoke’s plans?
While among only a quarter of Premier League clubs yet to fall under foreign ownership, Stoke is still bankrolled by the affluent Coates family behind online gambling company Bet365. Stoke chairman Peter Coates’ daughter, Denise, took home 217 million pounds ($290 million) from Bet365 in the last financial year to make her Britain’s highest-paid company boss.
Bet365 is at least optimistic about Stoke’s prospects of Premier League survival. Odds of 11-4 are being offered that Stoke will be relegated, with shorter prices on five other teams.
“The support I have from the owners is first class because they’re football people who understand the peaks and troughs and the lows and highs,” Hughes told TalkSport radio. “They’ve been through it as much as I have.”
They gave Hughes a chance to revitalize a managerial career that faltered after failing to land a trophy at Manchester City despite vast investment from Abu Dhabi, and saw him relegated with Queens Park Rangers.
“I have had periods like this before in my career,” the former Manchester United and Barcelona striker said, “and you just have to face them full on.”
Time might run out, though, for Hughes at Stoke without a victory against West Brom. And the club could be longing for a return to drearier football under Pulis — a manager currently out of work.