The season was always going to be one of transformation for Mark Hughes. He inherited a group of players drilled in playing a limited style of football not conducive to his own methodologies, so fans’ expectations were quite low. Many had reached their wits' end with the previous regime and were willing to give the new manager time to do things his way. Hughes impressed in such a short space of time -- avoiding relegation with a better brand of football was the wish, so to finish ninth and break some club records in the league is a dream come true for many.
Glenn Whelan. Stoke’s Irishman in the middle is not a headline-maker and indeed left the club awards night with little more than the makings of a hangover. His assured and consistent performances this season have been instrumental to the side’s progression as they look to implement a new way of playing. He is a player who has thrived with the releasing of the previous manager’s shackles and is playing with more positivity. That confidence will only grow into next season, and to see him given the armband in Ryan Shawcross’ absence was just reward from a manager who has learned to depend on him.
Kenwyne Jones. I always stuck up for Jones as I felt he had a rough ride with the arrival of Peter Crouch and the fact he never had a look in from that point on. That support disappeared, though, the minute he made himself unavailable for selection against Liverpool; an unforgivable act that ultimately sealed his fate in the Potteries. That the player he was swapped for, Peter Odemwingie, has gone on to make such an impression in his short time at the club is brilliant. The fact that Jones didn’t and now faces life in the Championship only adds to the enjoyment.
Hughes has done brilliantly since he arrived a year ago this month. From the first preseason game I saw, I knew it would be a huge change for fans and players alike, and while he was perhaps a little too ambitious with the style in the first couple of months, he was humble and savvy enough to mix the side’s play to find the right balance. The ambition of his words is matched and manifested by the same on the pitch, and his confidence has not only been transferred to the players but the fans too.
Final grade: A-
Simply put, this season’s achievements have been beyond the fans’ wildest dreams or expectations. The change in style is exactly what was needed after years of attrition and the introduction of players who get fans off their seats a welcome return of the excitement that has been missing for so long. Improving the side’s away results will be top of Hughes’ agenda for next season to make sure that home form isn’t relied on too heavily. To do that, he will need to work his magic in the transfer market again, and if he can find more players in the mould of those he did in the summer then the club will only go from strength to strength.