Ahead of tomorrow’s clash with the Potters of Stoke, Anita has been chatting to Stoke City blogger and the former Stoke ‘voice’ of The Metro, Matt Meir.
Hi Matt, thanks for being kind enough to answer my questions. So…
Stoke join us at Carrow Road off the back of an unbeaten eight league and cup run. You’ve had an inconsistent start and, although you were successful against Bolton on Tuesday, you still haven’t managed a win away from home or back to back wins since January 2017. (Nice research Anita; not used to this – Ed).
How are Stoke finding it this time around in the championship?
MM: I think a fair assessment would be tougher than anticipated.
During our time in the Premier League, we did a wonderful job of attracting fresh faces to the fanbase – unfortunately, this meant that they also hadn’t suffered the severe lows since the late 70s. They hadn’t lived through the relegations of the 80s and 90s. They hadn’t survived in level three of the pyramid. They hadn’t travelled to the far-flung places of Grimsby, Brentford, Carlisle or Plymouth.
With a real sense of “belonging” in the Premier League, it’s easy to understand how these fans believed the Championship would be a walk in the park. The older generations though remember how difficult it was last time we were in the Championship – scraping 1-0 wins, fighting to avoid relegation with on-loan strikers and gaining promotion as runners-up.
This has resulted in a split fanbase – some believing we’re entitled to Championship victories every week and others who are stating that it was never going to be easy. The split is causing some problems off the pitch, and it’s to be hoped it won’t extend to on-pitch issues and performances.
Gary Rowett has recently said that “this is the hardest period I’ve had in my management career”. He’s also been quoted as saying “we could do better”. Have you noticed improvements from your opening games and has Rowett found his best starting XI?
The simplest answer to this is no!
Fortunately, Gary R has come to realise that “the old guard” are not necessarily the best options – and has chosen to drop a few of those names.
He hasn’t – in my opinion – found his preferred starting eleven, yet. It’s coming, and the players are finally coming to terms with how he wants to play in terms of tactics, set-pieces and formations, but there are still names on that team-sheet each week that can easily be replaced with youngsters or sidelined players.
As you alluded to, after your relegation you’ve found yourselves with a lot of talented but high-wage players, some of whom have been benched. This was also a big problem for NCFC when we suffered the same plight. We now seem to be building a good squad with players from abroad and youngsters being brought in from our Academy (having also managed to make a good profitable sales)
Our more positive fans have called this a ‘work in progress’ while others have not given the new regime their backing. Do you feel you will need to offload some of your high earners? Or can Stoke survive a season of high-pay demands?
The biggest issues we face aren’t with the wages (not yet, anyway) but with the attitudes of those top talents. It was important that the lackadaisical and indisciplined approach of our final two seasons in the Premier League didn’t continue into the Championship.
Has Rowett removed them? Probably, with a bit of help from the previous incumbent, Paul Lambert, towards the latter end of the season. Additionally, we’ve already offloaded some of our ‘bigger’ names with, apparently, poor attitudes: Giannelli Imbula, Jesé, Choupo-Moting, Shaqiri – they’ve all departed, along with a handful of others.
Do we need to offload more? Personally, I don’t think so. The January transfer window should see us bringing in a few more players to add some much-needed depth, but I don’t envisage wholesale changes.
The summer of 2019 may be a different story, though.
On the back of that, Jack Butland has just had another England call up and will be joined by former NCFC star James Maddison.
Southgate has raised doubts about selecting players outside of the Prem, so do you feel Butland will be looking for a move come January?
Fortunately for Stoke, Jack has already indicated he’s happy and willing to fight for his place both in the team and national setup whilst in the Potteries. There were a few suitors interested during the World Cup who, if rumours are to be believed, couldn’t turn his head away from the bright lights of Stoke-on-Trent. Failure to gain promotion by the end of the season may see new signing Adam Federici become number one as Jack is then likely to head off to the upper echelons of English football.
Also, Tom Ince is a big player for you with Championship experience and it looks like he’s managed to find his scoring boots at this level before and got into double figures. Looks like he could be a crucial player to help in promotion. Who else do you feel crucial to get you that instant route back into the Premier League?
Tom needs to justify his price tag – and recently is beginning to do that. There are another handful of players who are important to this season – Butland aside – and they are Saido Berahino, James McClean (love him or loathe him!) and Sam Clucas.
Now, some of those names might leave fellow Stoke fans a little mystified – but Berahino and Ince could be influential in bagging us the goals, whilst the midfield strength of Clucas and McClean could prove highly beneficial in taking control of the game in the middle of the park. Ryan Woods, too, has made a positive impression to-date – and could prove to be another influential player come May.
Do you feel that immediate promotion can be achieved? The Championship is a difficult league and sometimes sucks you in and is incredibly difficult to get out off.
Do you fear being another Villa, QPR or even Sunderland?
If you’d asked me in August, you’d have heard me say that we could gain instant promotion – albeit potentially via the play-offs. That wasn’t me being naive – we have the basis of a very good, solid, squad. With a couple of additions, and had we managed to keep hold of some of the bad apples from last season (and given them an attitude transplant), then top-two would have been very achievable.
Do I envisage us being in a relegation battle come April? No. I think we’ll be comfortably top-ten by Christmas, and push on in the latter half of the season and be there-or-thereabouts come matchday 46.
So come on… what is your prediction?
I’m obviously backing Norwich for a home win 🙂
Carrow Road is never a comfortable place to go and still has the feeling of the “traditional” English football league ground. Had we played a couple of weeks ago, I’d have backed a home win – but, with the recent change of fortunes, a couple of clean sheets and Rowett getting ever closer to his preferred eleven, I’m going for a stalemate with a couple of goals: 1-1. And Tom Ince bagging his fourth for the Potters.
Many thanks Matt, for your time and effort.
The midweek draw saw three – YES, THREE – of our panellists correctly predict the scoreline. It also marks the first time that all of the panel have more points than the random score-line generating application, Siri. Could it be that we know what we’re talking about?
Penney predicts: Absolutely vital we don’t lose this one. I’d take a point right now but Stoke are much changed and have defensive problems. My neck sticks out and says 2-1 City.
Andy assumes: Stoke are improving, and as good as we looked against Derby, we also had a lot of tired legs who go into the game with a day less rest than the opposition. 1-0 Stoke.
Gaz guesses: This will be tricky. Despite their stuttering start and despite being managed by Gary Rowett, Stoke have plenty of good players. Fatigue could be an issue. I’ll go for an attritional 0-0.
Cookie concludes: Another of the pre-season favourites who have struggled to live up to expectations. Signs that Stoke might be getting their act together and undoubted quality in their squad so it won’t be easy but I’ll go 2-1 City.
Stew suspects: Expect Stoke to be like Middlesbrough. But I won’t underestimate City as I did against Boro. Why not the same scoreline? I’m going 1-0 City.
The oppo’s opinion: I’m going for a stalemate with a couple of goals: 1-1.
Siri says: Norwich 2, Stoke 0
Join the ‘fun’ by adding your predictions in the comments below.