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May 8, 2014

Stoke season one to remember

The emergence of Marko Arnautovic is one of the many reasons why Stoke are poised to finish in the upper half of the table.
The emergence of Marko Arnautovic is one of the many reasons why Stoke are poised to finish in the upper half of the table.
Stoke fans are no strangers to the ill-informed reporting of their club from much of the established press since their return to the spotlight, so it came as little surprise that those who spent years deriding former manager Tony Pulis would be so quick to attack the fans as they started to do the same towards the end of his tenure in the Potteries.

- Whittaker: Stoke City - Pride of the Midlands

"Be careful what you wish for," they said with a tone that suggested they might actually know what they were talking about. The name of Charlton kept being thrown into the mix as an example of another club who wanted more; "look what happened to them" they would scoff. That the situations were entirely different and the comparisons ridiculous did little to quell the rising tide of support for a manager they so loved to criticise in previous years. That worn-out platitude would be repeated by almost every commentator who probably knew little of what was actually going on as they jumped on the bandwagon of attacking the Stoke supporters who likely did.

Once Pulis and Stoke parted company, and Mark Hughes was instated as manager, the Potters quickly became most newspapers' favoured prediction for a bottom three place. However, what actually transpired was something very different: A Premier League campaign that turned out to be the side's most successful in their history as Hughes transformed the club both on and off the pitch. The task he was set was ambitious for a club the size of Stoke; to take them into regular top-ten contention but do so with a fraction of the money available to Pulis, and in doing so move the club towards of position of self-sustainability.

Nevertheless, he set about his work quietly and brought in a number of signings to help plug some of the gaps in the squad, most notably at left back which saw the arrivals of Erik Pieters and Marc Muniesa. In his quiet yet authoritative interviews, he would continually talk about moving the club on, playing up the fans' hopes instead of knocking them down; expectation was no longer a dirty word, it was positively encouraged. What took place on the pitch was a whole new ball game that was alien to fans and players alike. The stands started to erupt with cries to get the ball forward; such was the indoctrination of the previous ways of playing.

It was a slow but sure progression for the side; the manager and players were clearly still learning about one other as they strived to find the balance needed between attack and defence -- between new system and old. Things really started to tick around the time of the January transfer window with the introduction of much needed pace in the shape of Peter Odemwingie. His impact coupled with Jon Walters' suspension and Marko Arnautovic's coming of age in the Premier League meant that Stoke were starting to attack with purpose and winning games not just comfortably, but convincingly.

Added to that winning combination in recent weeks has been Oussama Assaidi, culminating in the dropping of Peter Crouch and a front four lining up against Fulham that had Stoke fans feeling an emotion they haven't for a number of years: Excitement. That front four tore shreds into the Fulham back-line in Stoke's most complete attacking performance since their promotion: four Hughes signings working in tandem and personifying his positivity in approach. The 4-1 win was the perfect send-off from the most exciting season yet at the Britannia, one which saw more home points than any other before it in this league.

The record breaking doesn't stop there though. Stoke now head into their last game of the season against West Brom on 47 points, their highest ever return from a Premier League season; in 10th position, their highest ever placing. Add to that the fact that they also finish the season as the top side in the Midlands for the first time in their long history and the scale of improvement Hughes has overseen is there for all to see -- or at least it is for those who want to.

Be careful what you wish for indeed.