The Sky Bet Championship drew to a close this weekend and a party atmosphere greeted the players at The Bet365 Stadium. Promotion was in the air, and dreams of The Premier League were already in full flow. Sadly for Stoke City fans, it was the away supporters of Sheffield United who were creating all the noise, their promotion already confirmed before the final game of the season.
At the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Stoke City were the bookies' favourites for promotion. Over £40 million had been spent on the squad, bringing in the likes of Peter Etebo, who impressed at the World Cup for Nigeria and Benik Afobe, a proven goalscorer at Championship level. It seemed inevitable that Stoke City would shake off the lingering stench of relegation and set about propelling the club back to the promised land of top flight football. They had a new manager, promising fresh faces in the squad and a quiet expectation amongst supporters that their stay in the second division would be a brief pit stop. None of which lasted the entire season, however.
It has truly been a season to forget for The Potters, as they finished their campaign in 16th position, collecting a measly total of 55 points. Gary Rowett, the manager who seemed to be the right man for the job upon his arrival in the summer of 2018, survived only until January. His confidence and positivity brought a feel-good factor to the potteries, but his persona soon transmitted as arrogant and disconnected from the fanbase.
After shipping 3 goals at home to Wigan and Blackburn, his reign was clearly hanging in the balance, and he resorted to an incredibly negative style of football in order to stop the rot. From October until the end of December, Stoke lost only twice, but that run included an incredible 7 draws, as fans began to lose patience with his team selection and playing style.
The end of the road came for Rowett when he openly criticized the Stoke supporters for their negative attitude at home games, blasting them for booing players and substitutions. Rowett was right in some respects, as players appeared to visibly shrink after misplacing a pass or losing out in a tackle. However, it came as no surprise to anyone in Staffordshire when the former Derby manager was given his marching orders in January and the quest for the right man began once more.
On the 9th of January, Nathan Jones was appointed the new manager of Stoke City. In his short managerial career, he had taken Luton Town from the foot of League 2 to the top of League 1. It was his impressive record, energy and dynamic style of play which convinced chairman Peter Coates enough to prise him away from The Hatters mid-season. Unfortunately, It's safe to say that fluid football is yet to grace the Bet365 pitch.
Jones has managed only 3 wins in his 20 league games in charge, but did amass 11 Championship draws in that time. This handed Stoke City the rather unwanted record of the most draws (22) in a single season in Championship history. Within that record however, there may be some cause for optimism.
Jones continued Rowett's work to make Stoke a very hard-to-beat side, something they lost during their relegation season from The Premier League. He was also afforded the remainder of this season as an opportunity to evaluate his squad, blood some youth and snuff out the troublemakers. It's unlikely that Saido Berahino will ever pull on the Stoke City jersey again, after a season of off-field antics culminated in a visit to court for drink-driving.
Whilst big names such as Jack Butland and Joe Allen may depart Stoke-On-Trent this summer, academy graduates Tom Edwards, Thibaud Verlinden and Tyrese Campbell provide valid and exciting options to plug any gaps left in the squad. The Potters have shown glimpses of attacking intent during Jones' reign, albeit without the end product in the final third to match.
Supporters feel that this squad needs a culling of bad apples and players who are not up to the obligatory fight of an unforgiving division such as The Championship. Jones, on the other hand, is a man who seems very up to that fight. If he is able to convert those tight draws into 3 points next season, then supporters may be entitled to dream of celebrating promotion themselves at the Bet365 Stadium next May.