Mark Hughes overstayed his welcome at Stoke
It is a sad sight seeing a long-serving Premier League manager look broken. Patience is always advisable but there comes a time when there is nothing for it but to put the man out of his misery. This season it has happened more than once. Tony Pulis at West Brom. Paul Clement at Swansea. Slaven Bilic at West Brom. Most recently it was Mark Hughes' turn. After a disastrous 2-1 defeat to Coventry in the FA Cup, he was finally let go by the Potters.
Upon arriving at the Bet365 stadium in 2013 Sparky was expected to breathe fresh air into a team that had transformed staying in the league into an ambition. Stoke was famed for its pragmatism under Tony Pulis. The ground, then known as the Britannia, had become a legendary fortress. Many felt Hughes, a striker in his playing days, would raise the bar. For a time, he did. This season though the Potters are on the relegation bubble. They've only scored 22 times while conceding a mammoth 47 goals. It's amazing chairman Peter Coates took so long before sending severing ties with the Welshman. That said, Hughes lasted five years, an eternity in the instant gratification age.
While success for Coates is neither winning the league nor reaching The Champions League, he expects Stoke to establish themselves in the top half of the table. Hughes managed that for three straight years. He had performed a Jekyll and Hyde with the team's playing style. Gone was the dreary Stoke that relied on physicality and the stadium's windy confines to frustrate opponents. Sparky envisioned then installed a squad that keeps the ball on the ground. His lineup boasted former Champions League winners and World Cup internationals. Formerly it had been said Lionel Messi couldn’t display his magic on a wet and windy Tuesday night in Stoke. Xherdan Shaqiri begged to disagree.
Surrounded by free-wheeling players such as Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Ibrahim Afellay and Saido Berahino while backed by Bruno Martins Indi, Geoff Cameron, and Kurt Zouma, the Swiss ball wizard attacked relentlessly and without fear. But Stoke finished 13th in 2016-17, its worst performance under Hughes. Then Stoke couldn't maintain a strong early start this campaign that included ending Manchester United's perfect beginning. It continued to descend down the table. Hughes looked a defeated man on the touchline. His body language didn't inspire confidence.
Stoke is a team that should be comfortably mid-table. Instead it has wallowed in mediocrity. A tough Christmas period found its nadir after a 5-0 drubbing at Stamford Bridge. Hughes had started a rotated lineup to rest his best XI for an eminently winnable match against fellow underachievers Newcastle. In a battle of managers backed into a corner, Rafa Benitez emerged the winner.
Hughes needn't worry. He will soon be mentioned as a candidate for another post. Sparky remains a Premier League quality manager although he may step down to the Championship in order to return to work immediately, like his Stoke predecessor Pulis. Ironically, that job might be with a relegated West Brom. The former Manchester City boss could have stepped right into the Wales job but has ruled himself out. If that doesn't make it clear he has a point to prove in the Premier League, what does?