Season Preview

Posted by James Whittaker

It feels like an age has passed since I last saw Stoke in action but after an awful end to the previous campaign I’m once again full of hope as we look forward to our fifth consecutive season back in the top flight of English football.

It’s been a busy summer for the Potters which has seen some surprising departures from the norm. We have witnessed a number of players come in early, being involved in pre-season training and games which is a far cry from waiting for deadline day to unveil our signings who then spend a season getting ‘Stoke fit’. We’ve also seen our manager look beyond our fair shores for new talent which is entirely unheard of, the fact he is also looking at foreign players full stop is amazing, that some are even being lined up to play in their specialist position – astonishing. Let’s have a quick look at our new arrivals –

Jamie Ness – Jamie arrived following the sad demise of Rangers and Stoke were quick to take advantage by bringing the youngster in on a free transfer. Ness has struggled with injuries over his short career and indeed has not played more than 16 club games for Rangers. Despite that, he has received plaudits from many in Scottish football and was seen as one of the players Rangers could build their team around having impressed when he did manage to get on the pitch, including a piledriver in an Old Firm game. Jamie is predominently a centre midfielder but can also play on the left, this however did not stop Pulis trying him at left back in pre season, though when he was moved into the middle he showed much needed composure on the ball and an eye for a good pass. How much we will see of him this season is anyone’s guess, we have a lot of players in his position in Delap, Whitehead, Palacios, Whelan and maybe Cameron too. I just hope that he does feature and isn’t sent out on loan for years on end only to be sold to a championship side in 2014.

Geoff Cameron – I’m really excited about Geoff, he’s a late bloomer and has twice made the MLS All Star team in recent times. He is a versatile player who prefers to play centre back for his country but has featured in the middle and out wide for his previous club. Another giant at 6ft3, Geoff brings composure and drive to the side and has a penchant for playing defence splitting passes with the outside of his boot. I heard great things about him following his outing in Germany last week and the rest of the team have said he is fitting in very well indeed. In terms of how he will be used, I’d expect to see him feature in the middle or at full back, hopefully it will be the former. It’s a big move to come from the MLS to the Premier League but we’ve seen some great examples of US imports over the years with the likes of Dempsey, Donovan and Holden who have all impressed with their attitude and apllication so we’ll be hoping for more of the same with Geoff.

Michael Kightly – This is one we know a little more about. Having signed from non league football he went on to make a big impact for Wolves before being struck down with injury. He made his long awaited comeback last season and impressed on loan at Watford before being called back and finishing the season as one of Wolves’ better performers. A player that possesses pace, tricks and an eye for goal, he’ll be a great addition to the team and I can see him (rightly or wrongly) replacing Pennant on the right. One thing I would be interested in seeing is for him to play the Walters role behind Crouch, he has featured there for Wolves before and his skillset lends itself to that role quite nicely. Whether or not that’s something we will try remains to be seen, but seeing as he can play on both flanks, I’m sure we’ll see plenty of him.

Foreign left back – I have deliberatly omitted a name here as despite us announcing we were to sign Goran Popov, things have gone very quiet and I believe there may be some work permit complications. It looks like Pulis is happy to bring in a specialist left back from abroad, in fact we had another player, Boensich, on trial before opting for Popov. Even if Goran fails to finalise his move we can only be heartened by Pulis’ efforts to bring in a proper left back and finally get some balance down that side. People shouldn’t be expecting Ashley Cole esque runs from any new acquisition in that area but just having a comfortable, left footed player there will improve us immeasurably in my opinion.

I think it’s clear to see that there has been a ‘Coates shaped’ intervention of sorts over the summer following a disappointing second half of the season. The focus on the Academy, the foreign players, the tour of the USA were all welcome moves from the club and you can sense from the fans that we have recaptured that sense of excitement. I’m hoping that these changes are translated onto the pitch, that we see more round pegs in round holes and a more positive approach from the outset. Whether or not Pulis will take this on and do those things, I’m not so sure. History would suggest that he will do the exact opposite and set things up to fail to make his point, though given the changes seen so far including his words of apparent support, I’m willing to give him the chance to prove us all wrong.

It’s going to be a long, hard season with the squad seeing quite a drastic overhaul for the first time since our return to the top flight and the new additions to the league seem to be more than comfortable dishing out huge sums on players to cement their own place at football’s top table. There is massive pressure on everyone to stay in the league, the new TV deal is staggering and is not something to compromise with lack of ambition at this stage and I think that has been reflected in the deals we have seen thus far.

I’ll finish off with some typical pre-season preview type Q&A’s;

Player to watch out for? – I’ve got high hopes for Palacios this season having seen him return in fine shape and positively influence in the pre season games. I’m encouraged by his more svelt appearance and the fact that Pulis has started him in all but one of the friendlies hopefully signals his intention with respect to his involvement this season. When he first signed last year, I was more excited at the propsect of a proper midfielder than his team mate Crouch, so to have him involved this time around would be like a new signing.

Biggest concern? – That our style remains the same and we continue to play players out of position and persist with those struggling for form. Our front line is desperate for some help, if we’re not going to bring in some pace up there then we have to ensure we play with two wingers every game and play one of the new boys (including Palacios) in the middle to help us get success in the final third.

Who will be the boo-boy? – I think Walters will continue to frustrate should he remain up front but I think the one who will suffer more will be Shotton. The manager didn’t help his cause last season by saying he was a winger, his knack for losing possession and russian roulette like crossing ‘ability’ really came to the fore in those final months and a lot of Stoke fans are hoping we don’t see much of him in the league. Despite him winning the Young Player of the Year award, he is no kiddie and I think it’s best for all parties if we moved him on to a Championship side as despite having plenty of opportunities to impress he is still shy of where we need our players to be in order to push on

Where will we finish? – I think that we will see an improvement on last season and will say that we will finish 11th. We won’t quite break the top ten but hopefully some of the new lads will setle in, we’ll start to look a bit more comfortable on the ball and we might even have a decent cup run too.

Whatever happens, I’m delighted that we’re only a few days away from seeing the boys in the red and white (or purple and blue) take to the field again. It’s a momentous year for the club, let’s hope that the manager, players and fans all do it justice and give us plenty to smile about.

GOARRRRN STOKE!!!

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