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Stoke City: The Challenges Facing Mark Hughes at the Britannia

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Stoke City: The Challenges Facing Mark Hughes at the Britannia
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Hughes knows what is expected of him at the Britannia Stadium, but can he deliver at the right price?

“I think we have got good enough quality to take the game to the opposition.”

It was a nice bite from the new Stoke City manager, Mark Hughes, quoted in an interview with the Stoke-on-Trent regional The Sentinel, but rarely is there a sentence that manages to contain such varying degrees of truth from one end to the other.

Taking the game to the opposition has been the ethos at the Britannia stadium for a long time, but not in the manner that Hughes claims will be exhibited from now on. Without wanting to sound too harsh, there have been several games involving Stoke when opposition players were fortunate to escape without shattered tibias. Others, such as Aaron Ramsey, were not so lucky.

But that, as well as the final league position, is what Hughes has been brought in to address, and he for one seems confident in his own ability.

The Welshman has a bad rap in the game. His past managerial stints having earned him something of an unfavourable reputation, which is somewhat unfair. His five-year spell managing the Wales national team left them greatly improved on the side he had inherited, while he took Blackburn Rovers to their first F.A. Cup semi-final in over 40 years and led them to a sixth-place finish in the Premier League, spending relatively little money in the process. We’ll leave the assertions that his Blackburn team weren’t exactly the cleanest to one side, what with the task facing him at Stoke.

However, when Hughes tried to make the transition into the upper echelons of football, he made a bad decision to go with Manchester City.

City were at the beginning of the Sheikh Mansour era, their “project” still in the embryonic stages, and on the strength of his work at Blackburn, Hughes was brought in to oversee the rebirth of the Manchester Blues. But putting a manager who is trying to find his feet at the top level with a club who are also testing the water was never going to go well, and after spending millions of pounds on some fairly duff players and finishing 10th in the league he was dismissed midway through 2009-10.

If anyone felt sorry for Hughes after the City episode, their sympathy was quickly extinguished by his conduct during the short-lived Fulham debacle, when a number of inauspicious stories made the circuit, including one alleging that he declared his office to not be big enough. And the less said about his tenure at QPR, when his penchant for spending millions on deadwood was briefly revived, the better.

So there we have it: A fairly good manager with an unfairly bad reputation, but whose big-money buys can be very hit-and-miss.

Now we have the man he was brought in to replace, Tony Pulis.

Having already been unfairly let go by the club during his first spell there (“failing to exploit the foreign transfer market”, despite an obvious lack of funds being Gunnar Gíslason's reasoning), which lasted from 2002 to 2005, Pulis was rehired by new owner Peter Coates in 2006.

With an average final-placing of 13th and a net spend of £88,905,000 over the six seasons that Stoke have been in the Premier League, it’s not hard to see why the board decided that Pulis wasn’t taking the club forward, but he has to be commended for turning the Britannia into one of the least-desired places to visit in the football league.

But no clue has been given as to the actual reason for his sacking, other than a smokescreen reference to him leaving by mutual consent after a meeting with Peter Coates in which Pulis stated that he was disappointed with the chairman’s decision.

So, if the reason is that the results don’t match up to the outlay, why, out of all the managers on Earth, have they gone with Mark Hughes?

Granted, during his time at Ewood Park Hughes might have achieved a degree of success, but every job since has been a struggle at best. He frittered away pots of money with little result at City and QPR, while he left Fulham—who were not so financially well-endowed—after only 11 months to then launch a veiled swipe at the club for what he perceived to be a lack of ambition.

The Stoke board can only realistically want one of two outcomes: A higher league-placing that justifies the outlay, or the same position but with lower spending. And with Hughes, there is a chance that they will get that, particularly if we look at his past of bringing a smaller club with money into Europa League contention. But there is also the more distinct possibility of him throwing wads of cash at players who turn out to be either past their best or simply not good enough. Effectively, it might end up with the whole thing going up in flames.

And that is what he will most likely do—he has to.

If we go back to the quote at the top of this article, Hughes has vowed to bring more attractive football to the Britannia, and to do that he is going to have to have a major shake-up in his squad. He has already got started with Pulis-breed players (punt-and-run) such as Rory Delap, Jermaine Pennant and Dean Whitehead, among others, getting the heave and more skillful individuals such as Marc Muniesa of Barcelona B and Juan Agudelo being brought in on free transfers. In fact, he has only spent money on one player so far, bringing Erik Pieters in from PSV Eindhoven for £3,000,000. Then again, of the 12 players he has let go, excluding the retired Michael Owen, all were released for nothing.

Going on this, if Hughes wants to have anything near a full squad that can make a decent run of the exhausting Premier League season he will have to bring in another three or four players this transfer window. And if he’s serious about playing good football then those players are going to cost money—money that the board will not be keen on spending.

That is where it seems likely to come apart; Mark Hughes and the Stoke City board have shown that they have different opinions of how much money is needed to create a good team. More importantly, it seems as though it is a matter of who will crack first. A run of bad results could leave Stoke too close to the relegation zone for a second-consecutive year, but Hughes could equally just pack up and leave if he feels that his requirements are not being met.

Taking Stoke from what they showed us under Tony Pulis to the average fan’s idea of “good” football is the managerial equivalent of nailing jelly to the ceiling. But as shown by his willingness to take on the City and QPR jobs, Hughes doesn’t shy away from a challenge…as long as there’s money to burn.

All stats and transfers are courtesy of Transfer League unless linked otherwise.

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