Replacing a managerial legend? Not a problem for Mark Hughes, as James Fielden writes...
It was always going to be interesting to see how Stoke adapted in the first season post-Pulis and after a shaky start, Mark Hughes’s side finished well. True, they finished closer to the relegation zone than they did to the Europa League qualifiers – their pleasingly round total of 50 points was 17 more than 17th-placed Norwich, 19 behind sixth-placed Spurs – but it's probably as good as they could have hoped for.
For all the talk of a new dawn under Hughes, the new man resisted the temptation to bring in too many new players for Stoke’s sixth consecutive Premier League campaign – but the majority of his recruits impressed. Marko 'Arnie' Arnautovic and Erik Pieters made good impacts, Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi periodically popped up with moments of brilliance, while the January captures of Peter Odemwingie and Stephen Ireland increased the Potters’ goal threat and creative guile respectively.
What Hughes didn’t change was Stoke’s impressive home record: in fact, the side gained more points at the Brit than in any of Pulis’s seasons. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United all left the Potteries pointless, edged out by a single goal.
Ten of their 13 wins came on the windy industrial estate as Stoke displayed home form bettered only by the league's top five. And as the team settled into place as spring progressed, the Potters continued to improve: they lost just three from the start of February and won seven of their last 11 games.
Off the pitch, the club used the mounds of extra TV cash to give something back to their fans, as they laid on free travel to each of their 19 away games. It's set to be an interesting summer in Staffordshire, as Hughes continues to evolve his squad.
Would they have taken this in August?
Yes. For all the desire to improve on the Pulis style, nobody knew how this season was going to pan out; their highest Premier League finish yet was probably beyond all expectations.
Would they have taken this in January?
Yes, especially as the month wore on. Stoke got one point from a possible 12 in January, ending it three points above the drop zone. Then came the big push.
The home win against Hughes’s old side Chelsea. With the score at 2-2 going into injury time, on-loan Liverpool winger Assaidi boshed one into the corner from the edge of the area to ensure that it was going to be a lively night out “up 'Anley duck”, as the locals would say.
In a season of few lows, the 1-0 defeat away to Pulis's new side Crystal Palace wasn’t a special memory. It was it in the middle of a four-game January losing streak and we all know what it's like trying to get home from Selhurst Park...
Hero of the season
Mark Hughes. Sparky took Stoke to their highest league finish since 1975 and brought the good times back at home. Fans also claimed their side were far more watchable on the road, and with Villa and West Brom struggling further down the M6, the Potters finished the season as the highest-placed Midlands side for the first time in their history.
Villain of the season
Kenwyne Jones. The night before Stoke faced Liverpool in January, the giant striker flicked Hughes a text saying that he was unavailable for selection (no LOLs or emoticons involved). The club fined him two weeks' wages and soon after stopped his pocket money altogether by swapping him for Odemwingie.
The season in microcosm
Stoke 4-1 Fulham. Another home win and one that included quality goals and chances that they probably wouldn’t have created last season. Albeit against a dreadful Fulham side, three of the goals were fast, free-flowing moves, something the home fans had started to forget actually existed.
B. Much promise shown by a fast learner aspiring to be among the best.