The opening gambit in the press conference for new managers at any football club is usually the same.
Once the pleasantries are out of the way, there follows the killer question: ‘Why this club?’. Rarely does the ‘why’ matter so much than for handful of managers brave enough — some would say mad enough — to make the step into the dugout at Stoke City since their relegation from the Premier League in 2018.
Former Plymouth Argyle boss Steven Schumacher is the latest, following in the footsteps of Gary Rowett, Nathan Jones, Michael O’Neill and Alex Neil to take on the challenge in the belief that they can be the one to turn things around at a club that seems to have lost its identity along with its top flight status.
The past is always going to loom large at a club that saw the highs of ninth in the Premier League in a decade of brilliant, boisterous and entertaining football. Everyone knows what Stoke were: hard to beat and packed with cult players like Rory Delap, Steven Nzonzi, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and more over the years.
It makes the gradual loss of that identity all the more jarring because in recent seasons, regardless of manager, they have been easy to beat in successive finishes between 14th and 16th in the league over the last five seasons.
Stoke have tried nearly everything. Following relegation they spent big, then in Nathan Jones’ time at the club he hinted at much-needed off-field work taking place only to see his tenure turn into a disaster on the pitch. Under Michael O’Neill, they were more frugal with their spending, even if they still recruited in numbers. Across the last four summer transfer windows they have signed 42 players but rebuild after rebuild has done little to lift them back to their former glory.
They have even resorted to signing players who look and sound like other success stories in the Championship — you could be forgiven for confusing lanky central midfielder Wouter Burger for lanky central midfielder Sander Berge (formerly of Sheffield United, now at Burnley).
This summer, 19 new arrivals represented the latest wave of hope at the club but Stoke find themselves languishing in 19th after defeat to Tony Mowbray’s Birmingham City, which was Schumacher’s first league defeat as the club’s manager. It is not enough to rock the mood of optimism about the new coach in his seventh game in charge. Schumacher’s standing is extremely high, having guided Plymouth to the League One title with 101 points last season before leaving them in 16th when he moved to Stoke. It is an interesting career move, not least because few in his position have left the club with their reputations in good health but the draw for managers to try and reform Stoke remains.
Schumacher’s ‘why’ was the simple explanation that he “wants to build a team that resonates with the fans” after his appointment in December and there are signs of improvement, even if there is much work to do if they are to become a club capable of challenging for the top half.
Birmingham, chasing a first away win since a mid-December victory over Cardiff, were well on top in the first half, going ahead with a cool Jay Stansfield finish before Juninho Bacuna’s free kick just after the break gave Schumacher’s side a mountain to climb. A triple change on 58 minutes injected life into Stoke, who pulled one back through Jordan Thompson before pushing hard for an equaliser in the final 10 minutes.
Crucially, Stoke’s performance was lacking quality where Birmingham had it in two moments of clinical attacking play — but the simple numbers point to a slower move to something resembling identity. With 71 per cent possession, 22 shots and 13 corners it would be easy to think the match was wholly one-way traffic in Stoke’s favour. Their increased intensity has been an improvement, but there is still an edge that Schumacher needs to find to lift them from their mid-table slumber.
A first league defeat, taking his tally to nine points from six league games is “no need to panic”, and Schumacher has made his principles clear that “the players will give 100 per cent every week”. Their early progress was enough to impress visiting manager Mowbray, who has had his own uplift on a languishing team since taking over from Wayne Rooney.
“First half, the game plan was good, we looked like we could break through and score and obviously Stansfield did,” Mowbray said. “We had opportunities but we were playing against a team that I would say was playing the best football Stoke has played in a long, long time. Steven deserves some credit for that, because generally they are not a ball-retention team. They were good today, Stoke, and second half we went into protection mode.”
Schumacher will need to end the unwelcome record of Stoke failing to win at home since October with new recruits Luke Cundle, on loan from Wolves, and Daniel Iversen, on loan from Leicester, bolstering the squad this month. The mood is up and the 39-year-old’s style and principles are clear — the challenge is for him to make it click in a way that so many of his predecessors failed to achieve.
(Top photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)