Wind the clocks back to Stoke City’s final game of 2021, a 2-1 home defeat to Derby County, and things were looking a lot better. The Potters had won 10 of their first matches and sat in eighth, eyeing up a spot in the play-offs, which were just four points away. As of now though, Stoke have dropped to 13th, 10 points off the top six, having won just four times since New Year.
It’s certainly been a disappointing campaign for a side that had been hoping to build on last season’s flirtation with the top six. Stoke looked to be challengers for Reading’s place in the playoffs at one point, but ultimately fell away and finished 14th.
Potters fan Ben Rowley, founder of Stoke City podcast The YYY-Files, spoke about that drop-off. We also asked him about Stoke’s finances (which haven’t looked particularly pretty recently) and a couple of former Royals you may be familiar with...
How would you sum up your season so far?
So far, relatively disappointing. At the start of the season, I was hoping for a play-off push at some point in the season, an eventual top-half finish and to have fun along the way. Sadly, only the first of those seems to be achieved.
We had a great start to the season, which began with a victory in a good game against yourselves. Injuries have taken their toll throughout the season and we’re yet to see our three best players (Harry Souttar, Nick Powell and Tyrese Campbell) play together; they’ll struggle to have played 46 games between them this season.
We’ve dropped off massively though, to the extent where injuries cannot justify the collapse. It’d take a final flourish to achieve the targets I set out at the start of the season.
Stoke posted some heavy financial losses recently - £55m for 2020/21, on the back of £87m the previous year. How concerned are you about the club’s financial future?
Weirdly, not particularly. From an FFP point of view, the board seem to be happy that they’ve satisfied the rules this season. It should also be easier to satisfy the rules going forward, with big wages off the bill and our income stabilising following our reducing parachute payments and Covid.
From a balance-sheet point of view, the owners have practically written off £160m of debt. That astounding reduction should see Stoke (as a business) in a safe place, even if the owners do decide to pick up and leave (they won’t).
I can’t see Stoke being able to spend ridiculous fees on players in the near future (despite the will of the owners), but perhaps a more sustainable future is best all round anyway. It’s almost like Stoke have been reborn, finally having paid the price for the mistakes they’ve made years ago.
How’s Liam Moore got on?
Let’s be real: Stoke have been terrible as a whole in 2022. Moore’s come in and showed his experience when we desperately needed some and I can see why he had the reputation that he had. He’d certainly benefit from being match-fit and having a settled defensive partnership, neither he’s experienced at Stoke.
I do wonder whether Stoke would offer him a permanent contract if Reading do decide to release him; he could bring an older head to a defence which is likely to look extremely youthful next season.
And what about former Royal Lewis Baker?
Now this lad is class, isn’t he? Before this weekend, only Aleksandar Mitrovic (a freak of nature) has scored more league goals since Baker (7) made his Stoke debut. If that wasn’t good enough, he’s also been a crucial catalyst for the improved form of his midfield partners, including the second coming of Joe Allen.
He’s clearly a committed, experienced, talented player and I’m delighted Stoke have managed to get him permanently. I’ve almost no doubt that he’ll be captain next season and he could be the player Stoke build around to actually forge a promotion push next season.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this Stoke side?
Our strength is a conclusion I didn’t think I’d be coming to at this point in the season: our team spirit. It sounds daft, but it’s the reason why we’ve managed to turn our fortunes around in the last couple of games and why Michael O’Neill is still in a job.
Some Stoke players have been individually poor for some time now, and it’s led to poor results and severe frustration from inside and outside the club. But the squad seems to have kept their heads in the dressing room and focussed on recovery, rather than wanting change. We’ll be rewarded for that spirit once players come back from injury and confidence is lifted.
Our weakness is that conceding a goal is genuinely the end of the world. We haven’t won a league game in which we’ve conceded since September, we’ve dropped around 30 points from winning positions and only gained eight points from losing positions this season.
Our togetherness may be a strength, but our collective heads drop once the ball hits the back of our net. It’s a mentality that needs to be dropped if we ever want to have serious ambitions of getting to the Premier League.
In short, both our greatest strength and weakness is all in our heads.
How will the rest of your season play out?
This is really tricky; we’ve lost to some pretty shoddy opposition in recent weeks, but performed well and won against play-off-chasing Millwall and Sheffield United in our last two.
Our run-in looks to be difficult on paper and that could actually prove to be an advantage on a number of fronts. We seem to be stepping up against the higher-placed teams, those teams still have a lot of pressure to get results (especially compared to Stoke) and we could end up leap-frogging some of the teams that we’re due to play if we can get a good run going.
My heart hopes that we take satisfaction from ruining a few play-off hopefuls’ chances this season (a la Nottingham Forest in 2020) and that we manage to secure a top-half finish. My head suggests that our inconsistency will rear its head again, and we’re destined for another upper-bottom-half finish.
How will the game go, and what will the score be?
There’s a lot of pressure on Reading to get a result here, which I think will suit Stoke more. Our confidence is stabilised with recent results and we seem to have a decent away record this season. Add to the fact that Incey’s losing his son for this game as we’re still his parent club, I think Stoke could be on course for a comfortable 2-0 victory. But, don’t forget: if you guys score then you’re basically guaranteed at least a point.