Can’t start a fire, can’t start a fire without a………

24th May 2015…..

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon. Over 25,000 Stokies had just witnessed one of the greatest Stoke City displays of our lifetime. Five-nil up at half-time to the mighty Liverpool in their greatest ever player’s last game. Okay, so that Brendan Rodgers ‘vintage’ wasn’t particularly brilliant, but they were easily good enough to beat us., and for many a Stokie this was payback for all the trouncings that we had witnessed first hand from The Reds.

“Can I just say thank you, lads, for one of the greatest days of my lifetime watching Stoke”.

I was talking to Mark Hughes and Mark Bowen about an hour after the final whistle had blown. Yes, it was a bit cheesy, but it was the truth. We were the talk of football that night. Pictures of Steve Gerrard with a smacked-arse of a face at half and full time set against the backdrop of the scoreboard were everywhere. He fittingly scored on his last performance in a Liverpool shirt, but it was more fitting on the day that Peter Crouch had ensured that we had the last word on such a memorable day that we had bossed.

Fast-forward two and a half years……….

In fairness, two and a half years is a very long time in football. Indeed, if you’re a Crystal Palace manager then it can seem an actual lifetime. And in double fairness, I don’t think anyone could really expect us to massively improve on what we were in May 2015. We had a cracking team, and we had the sight of an injured Bojan grinning ear-to-ear with Messrs N’Zonzi and Arnautovic at the end of that game as the players were thrown scarves, love and plaudits galore as they did the yearly lap of hour. We were ready to be a force in English football.

Fast-forward again……this time to our last lap of honour, against Arsenal in May 2017……..

We’ve gone from a team on the edge of Europe and great things to one of the edge of relegation, and one that receives absolute beatings on a regular basis. We’ve gone from a team just one or two players away from possible silverware to one that if you take Messrs Butland and Shaqiri out of it would struggle to finish top half of The Championship if that league is, as they say, based on doggedness and sheer bloody mindedness.

Frightening, isn’t it? So, has been 25,000 staying behind to applaud the team on the last day to a couple of thousand.

But let’s forget the manager for a minute – and quite a few are trying to. This is the state of play: Stoke City Football Club simply can’t afford to be relegated. We’ve just spent umpteen million quid on ground developments, and just spent a decade in the Premier League. And never mind as a football club, our city needs a team in the top league, too. Apparently, around 150 Sunderland employees lost their job at the end of the season, and you can add onto that millions lost in sponsorship, TV deals, tickets and merchandise revenue etc – and it would also be worrying times for our Cat 1 academy, too, if we went down.

No, at the heart of all of what’s going on, we do feel that as supporters we have a duty to support the team as we simply can’t go down – and isn’t that what supporters do anyway? Supporting Stoke City isn’t a lifestyle choice. Indeed, it shouldn’t be a choice. No Stokie should ever want us to lose to sate their manager-sacking appetite. Because we have to stay in this league.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, if we go down I’ll still be here – and so will countless others. There are any number of cracking aways in The Championship (albeit more expensive, ticket-wise!) and more local rivalries, too. But I couldn’t see our current squad returning to the top league the following season, I really couldn’t.

So, we need to keep getting behind the stripes. Indeed, we need to do so more than ever. Isn’t it easy to support in the good times? We find out about ourselves in life when we face tough situations. Let’s tuck our chins into our big coats and get belting out our choruses in homage to the lads.

“Happy clapping, *******!”, I hear you say. Far from it. Please read on……

No-one is happy with what’s happening on the pitch at Stoke at the minute. Indeed, you can trace it back over the long rather than short term. And once again, Liverpool feature.

We knew that all that Stokealona garbage wouldn’t last. Massively cringey. But Christ, it was bloody good whilst it did! We were always going to get figured out, and Liverpool did it by pressing our back four in the League Cup semi final first leg at our place. But before that night we’d gone to The Hawthorns with it seemingly obvious what kind of game it would be and which of our players seemed to need a rest. We ran into a Tony Pulis ‘masterclass’ and we started the new year on a negative. A few days later we met Liverpool, and our false nine blueprint was in tatters. After ten minutes it was obvious we had to change the personnel and shape, but we didn’t. Indeed, we were lucky to get a 0-1 if truth be told.

Saying that, we were bloody unlucky to not go through to the Final after a superb showing at Anfield in the return leg. Indeed, we were the width of a post from doing so. The sight of a distraught Muni on the pitch being consoled and serenaded by 5000 Stokies was one I won’t forget in a hurry, and that night hit us and the squad hard.

But was there any need to almost totally go against what we had built up over Sparky’s first two seasons in charge almost overnight?

As a support we were flattened by that night at Anfield. It knocked us for six, so heaven knows what it did to the lads in the stripes. Those final few months of the season were understandably solemn ones. Wounds were licked but we unbelievably limped to 9th place, as we leaked at least 3 goals in a game five times after that Anfield penalty shoot-out heartache. A portent of things to come.

That’s when we needed to stick to our guns and go again.

What we got was a start to the following season that saw us win not one of our first seven games, finally getting three points against the relegation fodder that was Sunderland, and being kept off the bottom three by Derby’s reserve team keeper. The writing on the wall from the previous Spring was now more prominent. It’s now written in IMPACT font, in block capitals, in marker pen, and fills the page.

I’m not one for data and stats. I tend to rely on my own eyes, common sense and experience of watching and playing football for my context. But have a look at some of the info below. Most are based on defensive stats – because isn’t that the first port of call when things are going badly?

  • 0-3; 0-3; 0-3; 1-4; 0-4; 0-4; 1-4;0-4; 0-4; 1-3; 1-4; 2-4; 0-4; 1-4; 0-4; 2-7; 0-3; 1-5…….
  • Since that first leg against Liverpool we’ve let three goals or more in on 18 occasions. Or half a season’s worth of games. That’s simply dreadful. Even JLS haven’t got a record that crap! And by regularly getting hammered you can’t help but call into question the work we do defensively on the training ground, and how we set up for matches.
  • At present we have the worst defensive record in the Premier League – and that’s after signing two centre halves for around £25 million this summer. For Stoke City, that’s big money.
  • Three at the back and zonal marking. Seriously, don’t get me started on either. Please don’t. We continue with both despite the facts and figures above, and despite not having one player who is a genuine wing back, too. The one game we’ve looked half-solid in during recent weeks and win, we then go back to a back three at Spurs and get tattered a week later. Wow!
  • In the calendar year of 2017 we’ve won just 9 out of 37, and let in 63 goals whilst scoring 37.
  • Remember when we all made fun of Tony Pulis’ ‘Bonus games’? Well, against the top six teams we’ve let in 54 goals in our last 18 games. White flag, anyone?
  • And how about this…….we’ve let in 35 goals so far this season. That’s the most we’ve let in at the same stage of the season since 1984/85. And didn’t that year go swimmingly?
  • We’ve spent massive fees (for us) on Messrs Imbula and Berahino, both of whom seem/are surplus to requirements.
  • Losing to Championship reserve teams in the cups. Indeed, getting outplayed by them in the process.
  • Loanees: do we really think Bojan, Imbula and Muniesa would produce less than what we’ve seen from quite a few this season? Indeed, Muniesa is tailor made for the left side of a back three and yet we replace him with a player who only really got close to Spurs players when he was hugging them at the end of the game?

There are a number of other criticisms that can be levelled at the management, too, but my fingers are hurting. As is my head and heart.

Hughes out? That’s not for me to say. I have my own views, but I’m mindful as co-editor of a magazine that my view may not be that of others. I don’t represent anyone else and respect everyone’s opinion. I can categorically say though that I want the current malaise turning around. I have severe doubts that the current manager can do that, but I hope he does, and I still feel that the powers that be will give him some more time. I also hate it, and my stomach churns, when a manager’s head is called for. It means we’re doing badly. That’s never good.

I’m all for loyalty, and I detest the drive-thru mentality of modern football, but I also realise that at most other clubs the bullet would have been fired long before now. Some say it’s a gamble to get rid mid-season, but when does it become a bigger gamble to stick with the hand you’ve got?

All I want is for a manager to right obvious wrongs. The figures show that this hasn’t been addressed, has it?

All I want is for a manager to make the best of what he has available. Again, should a squad with several Champions League winners and many internationals be so beige and rudderless?

All I want is for Stoke City to have an identity on the pitch, and to show it matters. I expect the odd hammering – it’s an unforgiving league. But 18 in just over two seasons, and players coming out and questioning desire and effort of others?

And the players don’t get away scot-free in all of this. I don’t care if players don’t play for the manager – play for us bloody lot, then! Those 3000+ who spent a good proportion of their wages journeying through dreadful winter weather to watch another capitulation. Give it your best for them lads, and if a really good team beats you 5-1 then we can accept that. Hardly putting a tackle in we can’t, and won’t.

“Be grateful for what you’ve got”, other supporters say about us. Shut up and mind your own bloody business, folks, ta. Our club is nowt to do with you, and you don’t spend your hard-earned following Stoke. I have no interest in the plight of other clubs, absolutely none. Why? Because I don’t support them. I support Stoke City FC. That’s why I’ll be singing my heart out at Turf Moor tomorrow night in sub-zero temperatures along with 1300 or so others.

I want my club and team to be as good as it can be. Three top half finishes showed that it could be done, so why can’t we aspire for 8th place and a cup run? Failing that, just doing our level best is always good enough.

I don’t expect us to win games. I never have, or will. We are Stoke City, after all. I just want us to give it a go and to make the best of what we have. I’ve seen countless average-to-useless managers and the off cracking one. I’ve seen relegations, promotions, and countless false dawns. I’ve never shouted for a manager’s head purely because it’s nowt I can ever control – and I also hate anyone losing their job, I really do. But gone are the days when I want my club and city to settle for average or satisfactory. Our last ten years and recent City of Culture bid has shown us that we should be blowing our own trumpets. No-one wants Stoke City to win at Burnley tomorrow more than me. But I’m also a realist and I’m not totally tick, either.

Mark Hughes has given us some great times. That’s only fair and right to say and I am grateful for those days and nights we’ve witnessed. But we’re talking mainly past history here – and unless we find the plot we’ve so evidently and obviously lost, history is what he and we’ll be.

ANTHONY BUNN