It’s taken several years, any number of column inches, public outcry and derogatory comments from ‘experts’ and pundits, plus an army of know-nowts moaning about how “Stoke City were ruining football” and “a rugby team”……but now it looks as if Stoke City, my Stoke City, our Stoke City, are finally being noticed and accepted for what many a footballing snob sees as the right reasons.
It doesn’t really sit right: and it feels akin to going in a brothel and ordering a hug (so I’ve been told!), but we’ll take it. As Stoke City are, whisper it, kind of begrudgingly respected, if not liked, by some now. Usually the ones that have seen Stoke play, it should be said. Because Stoke City really can play! But shhhh, don’t tell the others, eh?
The signing of Xherdan Shaqiri for a club record £12 million isn’t a statement of intent the club say, As manager Mark Hughes said at Shaqiri’s first ST4 press conference today, “it’s not that we did this to shout it from the rooftops. We’ve been trying to move forward for the past two years. It’s about increasing the quality”. Yes, but it’s caused quite a stir nationally and internationally over the past three days. Shaqiri is box office.
So, increasing the quality……
Now there’s something many a rival supporter would have guffawed at during the time it has taken for Stoke City to go from Premier League newboys in 2008, to FA Cup finalists, to getting to the last 32 in the Europa League. But not anymore.
Rival supporters are no longer fearful of getting a bombardment and “seeing if they could do it on a cold and wet Tuesday night in Stoke”. They are now fearful they won’t see the ball for long periods of the game and leave ST4 having been outplayed.
Stoke City are no longer seen as the land of the giants, reliant solely on set-piece mayhem amongst a cauldron of noise. And that is primarily down to Mark Hughes.
Not only has he brought about record points tallies and highest finishing positions, he’s also brought about a sea-change in the mindset of the team, and the style in which Stoke City play their football. All in just two years.
Building on the excellent foundations laid by Tony Pulis, Hughes quickly set about forging his own ideology. And Xherdan Shaqira? Well he is the ‘Rock the city’ signing that that supporters have dreamt about for so long.
It’s not hard to see what was a major factor in why Shaqiri signed for Stoke. You only need to look at how he acts in Hughes’ presence and the words he eloquently comes out with in front of media from all over Europe. And Stockton Brook.
“We met a lot and spoke a lot”, states the record signing whilst glancing to his right at his new manager. He’s said this quite a few times already in his short time in the Potteries. Hughes seems almost bashful by responding, “If I helped, then I’m delighted, but there are lots of reasons why a player would want to join this football club”.
Hughes’ may play down his role in Stoke’s startling success in the transfer market in recent times, but names like Bojan, Affellay, Arnautovic, Van Ginkel, Muniesa and Diouf haven’t arrived at the Britannia Stadium because of their love of pottery. The manager’s relationship with his ex-club Barcelona must be stronger than one of his trademark volleys, as the quality of player that he has brought into the football club has been astonishing.
Whilst those players weren’t regulars in Barca’s first team, all have undeniable pedigree and ability, and Hughes has brought out the very best in them.
Bojan in particular was seen as ‘the next big thing’ as he started life at the Nou Camp. The way Hughes has reinvigorated the beautiful-to-watch Catalan’s game then perhaps this mantle will now transfer to The Potters if he can do likewise with Shaqiri?
Shaqiri seems excited with the quality of the squad. “Stoke play some really good football, and even on Sunday (in Stoke’s 1-0 reverse against Liverpool) I saw some really good things, and remember, not everyone played for us that day. It was nice to be in the stadium. The game was not important (in his eventual signature) as I knew I wanted to be here”.
They seemingly aren’t merely words to tow the party line or say the right thing at the right time. It’s clear that Shaqiri is impressed with his new manager and new surroundings.
“Yes, I’m happy and excited to be here. As far as I’m concerned it’s the perfect decision. I’ve always dreamed of playing in the Premier League, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best in the world. I want to go forward with this club”.
So does Shaqiri see much difference between the Premier League and Serie A?
“Yes, they are very different. Over here it is very fast and very offensive. But I am a player who can integrate very fast. For a player like me it is the best league in the world to play in!”.
Hughes knows the conundrum he now faces: he has a plethora of attacking talent, big name players, five Champions League winners, and an increasingly expectant crowd, but as he states “it’s never easy to get the balance right, but my job is to get on the pitch the right players for the right games”.
Sunday’s defeat against Liverpool showed why the Premier League can be an unforgiving place and why Stoke chased Shaqiri for several months. Philippe Coutinho’s outstanding late strike was the difference between the two teams, and Stoke’s new Swiss international forward nods as Hughes adds “You need a sprinkle of stardust to change games at this level”.
Still only 23, the ‘Alpine Messi’ has plenty to prove after stagnating somewhat at Inter (the player didn’t want to go into any details about his time at the San Siro), but he undoubtedly possesses the ‘stardust’ that his manager spoke of. When asked about fitness, Shaqiri speaks firmly about being his high fitness levels and how hard he has trained, to which his manager smiles and says with the slightest hint of a smile on his face, “Yes, he was not bad in training today”.
Stoke City’s ninth signing of a productive summer might be the last one before the transfer window shuts. But it’s a marquee signing, and one that saw the club shop frantically scurrying around to get enough Q’s to satisfy the demand of the queues in the club shop, all wanting the number 22 and the new signing’s surname on their new tops.
And that was that. Camera crews and journalists stayed behind a while to interview fans and file copy, and the record signing and his manager departed the packed press room.
Whilst Stoke City have been unjustifiably tagged in the recent past – what with players of the quality and ball-playing ability of Etherington, Fuller, Tuncay, and Pennant on their previous team sheets – it is fair to say that whilst success is never guaranteed in football, wherever they finish, Stoke City fans will be royally entertained this season.
Will the acquisition of Xherdan Shaqiri change Stoke City, per se? As if…..
Well, just before Shaqiri and Hughes’ entrance into the press conference, the club’s Supporter Growth and Services Manager Anthony Emmerson and Angela Smith from the Supporter’s Council addressed the attendant media throng, and gleefully unveiled the club’s introduction of another signing: oatcakes to be sold within the stadium on matchdays!
Xherdan Shaqiri and bacon and cheese oatcakes!!!! That’s why it will always be my club, your club, our club.
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