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Same old story for Stoke as Darren Fletcher joins on a free transfer

Darren Fletcher could be a savvy addition for Stoke City, but at 33, he won't add any needed youth to the roster.

In February, Stoke fans read the first of many newspaper reports suggesting the club were due to undergo significant surgery in the summer in order to lower the average age of the squad following a season of disappointment.

The story added: "[Stoke manager Mark] Hughes has the support of the Stoke hierarchy and remains on course for a top-10 finish, but there is a realisation at board level that the squad needs younger, more dynamic players."

It was music to the ears of supporters who had just watched their side concede four goals (a feat they repeated on seven occasions throughout the season) against Tottenham in a campaign when their aging stars were all too often brushed aside by the youthful exuberance of so many of their peers. Indeed, the Potters currently suffer the indignity of being the oldest squad in the league. Only West Brom and Chelsea gave fewer minutes to players under 23 all season.

It perhaps therefore came as somewhat of a surprise that since then that five players over the age of 30 have signed contract extensions: Ibrahim Afellay (31), Glen Johnson (32), Phil Bardsley (31), Stephen Ireland (30) and Geoff Cameron (31).

The dismay at those deals was only furthered on Thursday when the club announced their first signing of the season: 33-year-old Darren Fletcher from West Brom on a free transfer. The reaction to his arrival has been mixed to say the least, with fans understandably looking at it from a couple of valid viewpoints.

The first of which is to review the deal in isolation. He is an experienced Premier League title winner with buckets of pedigree who served Manchester United with distinction during one of the most successful periods in their history. He's a leader and motivator on the pitch and a player who is able to operate in a number of positions without letting his teammates down. There is also the added bonus that, in pinching him from the Baggies, the club have significantly weakened a team that finished above them last season.

On the other hand, though, it is nigh on impossible not to assess his signing in the context of the club's wishes to bring the average age down and every entirely contradictory decision they have taken since. The side's biggest Achilles heel is arguably their midfield, an area of the pitch that has not looked the same since the departure of Steven N'Zonzi to Sevilla in 2015 and one that was at the heart of the many maulings witnessed since then.

Cameron has been trusted there most (when he has been fit) but while he is capable defensively, his distribution when in possession is clearly an issue. Similarly, Glenn Whelan (33) has proved an almost immovable force in recent years, but he suffers similar limitations and as a duo they struggle to provide the kind of platform the side need to consistently excel.

Enter Fletcher.

There's more than an argument to be made for an old head in the middle, but the supporters are naturally nervous when they look at the current midfield combinations at the manager's disposal. The most positive pairing there would arguably be the new man alongside Joe Allen. However, despite the Wales international's early run of form, he is yet to fully convince. That option could well be a non-starter, though, should Hughes again opt to use Allen in the No. 10 role, despite Bojan Krkic and Xherdan Shaqiri being better suited there.

Of course, there's the hope that one or two of the existing group will be moved on, and in truth that is something that must surely happen if the manager is to make additions elsewhere as there simply won't be enough room for everyone (or their mobility scooters).

Fletcher could well turn out to be a clever and astute signing, but that really depends on what happens next. Given that contracts for the old guard continue to be handed out like confetti, while links to younger talents are nonexistent, it might well be a while until the Scot gets the welcome he probably deserves.

James Whittaker is ESPN FC's Stoke blogger. Follow him on Twitter: @northstokie

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