Far removed from his relative fastness at Kenilworth Road former Luton Town manager Nathan Jones has in the first few weeks of taking the Stoke City hotseat been left in no doubt of the enormity of the task ahead.
Chastening home defeats to Shrewsbury, in the F A Cup, and Preston North End bookended a welcome victory over Championship pacesetters Leeds United, but the topsy-turvy nature of Jones’ start to life in the Potteries highlight a lack of consistency brought about by an in parts ageing, but well-remunerated squad.
After all but establishing themselves in the Premier League Stoke tumbled out of the top division as a result of poor recruitment and misguided loyalty to several players – situations that Mark Hughes and then Paul Lambert failed to adequately address. Today many of these players remain at the club and whilst contractually agreed reductions of salaries have been activated on relegation, significant amounts of money are still sluicing from the club to honour agreements that should have been terminated on demotion, rather than simply rounded down.
The likes of Peter Crouch, Charlie Adam, Bojan, and Darren Fletcher, to name only a few, account for a sizeable chunk of Stoke’s wage bill that will need to be underpinned for the next few seasons by Premier League parachute payments. There is though a school of thought that suggests that the top division’s golden goodbyes should be used to invest in the future of the club, be that in the playing staff by lowering the average age of the squad and youth development, as well as the updating of infrastructure. In short, everything Blackpool Football Club failed to do after their short but electric stay in the Premier League was undermined during, and subsequently since, by the business models of the Oyston family that ranged from grasping to the ultimately ruinous.
Frittering away countless millions on the salaries of those already occupying punditry roles or who seem set to soon do so makes little sense and perpetuates one of the reasons why Stoke dropped out of the top division with barely a whimper. A ten year stay around the top table has inevitably skewered expectations amongst fans who inevitable demand an instant return to the Premier League but in reality very few clubs can expect to occupy a spot by right amongst the nation’s top 20 sides, although the estimated £41 million Stoke are expected to receive this season alone, intended to sweeten the pill of relegation, gives them an in theory head start over larger, but poorer sides in the Championship such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds, Birmingham City, and Sheffield Wednesday. With such an appreciable drop in matchday and television revenue it is therefore vital to use their Premier League spoils with prudence.
Stoke City in many ways have a squad dynamic with the experience and mindset of a Premier League outfit but without the overall quality to if not maintain top division status, then to mount a credible effort to return at the first time of asking. Quite possibly the world’s toughest division from which to get promoted the Championship isn’t the place for heavy reliance upon mercurial individuals, those capable of flashes of brilliance and elan but all too familiar with drifting out of games that haven’t yet been drifted in to. Wheeling out the 37(38 in two days time) year old Peter Crouch as a high-impact substitute smacks of desperation and posits a game plan predicated otherwise on very little else but lumping it long to a target man. Nobody could accuse Crouch of milking his contract but when a club should be looking to rebuild for the future, relying on him and the likes of Adam, Fletcher, Mame Diouf, and the volatile James McClean is surely not the way forward.
Nathan Jones’ ‘to do’ list for the remainder of the season must surely include steadying the ship and divesting it of its unwieldy ballast; any incursion into the end of season play offs might only serve to heighten yet further already unrealistic expectations and cruelly expose Stoke’s lack of top-flight quality. It is next season therefore by which Jones should be judged, when the 45-year-old will have had chance to adapt the remains of the current squad with additions of his choosing to a free-wheeling style of play so evident during what was a prolific tenure at Luton Town.
An extended stay for any side in the Premier League inevitably brings about the acquisition of foreign players who are at the Stokes of this world more for staking their claims to a lucrative stay in England, however brief, than for ‘the project’ of playing for one of the lesser lights based in a working class, arguably down at heel provincial town. Jones will surely seek to meld local talent with experienced, but not over the hill exponents already versed in the realities of everyday life in the English Football League. In other words those whose work-ethic mirrors that of Jones, a devout Christian, who can “do it on a wet night in Stoke” and perhaps even know an oatcake when they see one.
Nathan Jones can be the right man to revolutionize Stoke City by severing the many umbilical cords maintaining lifestyles of those whose futures lie elsewhere or even in retirement. It is though far from being determined whether chairman Peter Coates and the Potters’ supporters will give him the length of time he deserves, to not only stamp his authority on the club but also to exorcise the many wrongs of the past that still hang over it. The sooner everyone at Stoke City Football Club comes to terms with the fact that they are no longer a Premier League club, the better.