When Brek Shea arrived in the Potteries there was considerable anticipation and excitement and while most Stoke fans knew little of him, the prospect of a Major League Soccer star joining his impressive fellow countryman Geoff Cameron in the ranks was an intriguing one.
Unfortunately, injury, form and countless other reasons mean that Shea has some way to go if he's to rival the impact seen from his colleague. In fact, some sections of the support believe he shouldn't even get the chance to and have already decided to write him off. Whilst I’ve been disappointed not to have seen more from him, I'm of the mindset that there is more to come from a man whose mullet puts that of former coach Gerry Francis to shame.
The fact is that Shea arrived at Stoke on the back of a long-term injury and was rushed into the side for his debut did little for his confidence or indeed fitness. In his fleeting appearances that season fans saw good and bad from him, his apparent lack of positional awareness at one end of the field paralleled by his direct running at the other.
Rumours persist as to whether his arrival was Tony Pulis' decision or that of the club but what perhaps can't be argued is that Stoke's former manager liked to sign proven attacking options. His offensive signings such as Kenwyne Jones, Peter Crouch, Matthew Etherington, James Beattie and Jermaine Pennant all have one thing in common: they had already learned their craft and excelled. There is little technical coaching that needs to be done with such players, something I feel Shea is in need of.
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When I asked American colleagues about Shea the same word kept coming up: raw. He is a tremendous athlete and despite getting rave reviews in MLS in a number of positions including at centre-half -- maybe he was a Pulis signing after all! -- they felt he needed to specialise in one role and be taught how to play it within the context of one of the toughest leagues in the world. Hughes is certainly a better fit as manager in that respect and Shea seems to be a project he's looking forward to: "I feel he's a player of potential and it's up to me and the staff to bring that ability to the fore so he can make an impact in the Premier League." It was under his new gaffer that Shea perhaps made his most telling contribution for Stoke to date, facing the Philadelphia Union on the Potters' pre-season tour of America. Shea had only joined up with the squad the day before, having just won the Gold Cup for his country, and this was the ideal opportunity to get a look at him in red and white in what would be his first start for the club.
He made an impressive driving run through the middle of the pitch in the build up to Stoke's first goal and went on to score the second himself with an accomplished finish before a poor challenge ended his game. It transpired that tackle would see Shea miss not only the rest of pre-season but much of the early stages of this campaign too. In fact, it's only relatively recently that he has been taking part in full training sessions and both player and club had high hopes for his loan spell at Barnsley.
Hit-and-miss games, and an unfortunate incident while on loan in South Yorkshire, has seen a premature end to that stay though and he now finds himself potentially available to Hughes. For that to happen the club would need to formally "recall" him so that he was eligible to feature and with the current suspensions of Charlie Adam and John Walters, that remains an available option.
The question, though: is Shea ready to step into a relegation battle and make a meaningful contribution in the Premier League? The jury is obviously very much out given the lack of game time, and therefore the fans' ability to judge, but I’m certainly in favour of him at least having the opportunity of making the bench. Hughes himself had earlier in the season spoken of Shea in glowing terms, stating that "until the injury, he looked very bright, very dangerous and appeared to have a real understanding of what his role was on the left-hand side of midfield."
Whether or not that early enthusiasm has stayed with the manager as he plans how best to manage those absences is another matter entirely. Shea, of course, will be hoping for a positive answer and if he's fit and eager, recalling an unknown quantity into the ranks could prove a shrewd move by Hughes as he seeks to outmanoeuvre his peers.
The problem is that he's largely an unknown quantity to his own club too. Over to you, Mr Hughes.