Potters fan, podcaster and writer Ben Rowley paints a picture of Stoke City that’s all too familiar for Reading fans. Saturday’s opposition are “reaping what [they] have sown”, with years of mismanagement over the years coming back to bite them in the form of a dire 2022/23 campaign. With Stoke hovering perilously over the bottom three, things could get worse yet.
So what’s gone wrong? Ben told us about Stoke’s managerial change - swapping Michael O’Neill for Alex Neil in late August, the Potters’ habit of gifting goals to the opposition and plenty more. Of course we also asked him about former Royal Josh Laurent who headed to Staffordshire at the end of his contract last summer.
You can find Ben on Twitter @benarowley. He’s also the founder of Stoke podcast The YYY-Files (@theyyyfiles) and wrote an excellent in-depth piece on the Potters’ decline which you can find right here.
Stoke sit perilously close to the bottom three - what’s gone wrong this season?
We are reaping what we have sown, all the way back from 2017 up until today. Overpaying for players who’ve made no impact, hiring and firing managers and failing to engage supporters through a testing time has resulted in a long-term decline.
This season, however, has been especially bad. Sacking Michael O’Neill after only five league games and with only a week left of the summer transfer window was surprising at the time, and seems all the more stupid in hindsight. The squad looks poor now: not only have players been recruited by departed managers, no players can work together to make any system work.
Performances can be promising from time to time, but we are still far too easy to score against and our conversion rate up front is tragic. It’s a step backward so far, that’s for certain.
How’s Alex Neil doing so far in the dugout?
Right now, his arrival has made things worse. As mentioned, the players do not suit his style of play and he declared them unfit when he arrived. Only Dijon Sterling is a recruit of Neil’s and he’s been injured for the majority of the campaign. Other than speaking frankly and with confidence, he’s doing very little to warm himself to anybody, least of all the fans.
He spoke of how impressed he was with the way Stoke have rebuilt themselves over the last four years, only to now have torched those foundations by freezing out players, sacking coaches and restructuring the hierarchy in his vision. It may turn out that all these changes result in a positive outcome and progression in the end, but right now Stoke are midway through an extensive transition and there’s been nothing to show for it as it’s been unfolding.
How’s former Royal Josh Laurent getting on?
Josh impressed when partnering with Lewis Baker early on in the campaign: allowing Lewis to push further forward and become top goalscorer and assist-provider very early on. He’s been injured for most of the time Neil has been at Stoke and, while we’re trying to figure out what our best side is, Laurent’s inclusion in the latest lineups has been sparse.
For me, a midfield of Laurent, Baker and Powell is optimal when considering our current options, and I think keeping Josh in a more defensive role will allow our other midfielders to thrive. Neil hasn’t seen him this way, playing him across the midfield and even up front when trying to snatch a last-minute goal at the end of one particular game.
He’s been underused and misused for me, and we’re a better side with him in the team. It’s a damn shame he suffered an injury layoff when Alex Neil arrived.
What are the main strengths of this Stoke side?
Josh Tymon. Out of all the difference-makers in our squad, most neutrals would probably overlook Josh as the most influential. He’s been the only player to consistently cause problems and create good chances for our strikers. His work rate is fantastic and his delivery is top quality. He’ll be the one to look out for at the weekend.
Sadly though, this danger is not replicated on the other flank: many thought Dujon Sterling would be able to provide a similar threat to Tymon, but he’s been injured and on-loan centre back Harry Clarke and (arguably player of the season so far) Ben Wilmot have been shoehorned there. It’s caused a literal imbalance and an over-reliance on Josh, who must be tired (both physically and emotionally).
Alex Neil calls them “moments”. We gift goals to teams - you only need to watch the highlights of the reverse fixture to see Jack Bonham 30 yards off his goal line to gift yourselves the lead - and we do it far too often to give ourselves a positive platform in games to build off.
We also have some of the least clinical strikers in the league - typified by Championship hero Dwight Gayle being yet to score for Stoke, despite making 22 appearances in league and cup. We aren’t able to create quality chances that suit our strikers, hence Liam Delap being recalled and sent to Preston. We can boss games at times, but we are unable to set the scoreline in our favour on most occasions.
How will the rest of the season play out for you?
It’s a relegation battle, plain and simple. Those around us are strengthening and Stoke (at the time of writing) have lost two first-team players and signed none. A couple of inspired signings, which have been few and far between at Stoke, may well kickstart our season. But I believe Alex Neil’s rebuild will continue to generate friction and we’ll probably just about scrape enough points together to survive.
We may well go on to have a little cup run (we have Stevenage in round four of the FA Cup) and that may be my only wish for the season to come true. We won’t reach top half. We won’t blood our talented youngsters during a difficult period. We won’t get even one convincing result (we don’t score enough). Our matchday experience won’t get any better - mostly in part due to a toxic atmosphere among the fans. As you can see, my positivity is radiating.
How do you see the game going on Saturday and what will the score be?
1-0 Reading. Tom Ince. From 30 and with less than 20 minutes to go. Shirtless celebration in front of the Boothen End. Another crap home match day for Stoke City. Enjoy!