Stoke fans are split almost perfectly down the middle. The split has changed a bit of late, however.
There were a group who thought the club was stagnating under Mark Hughes, and change was necessary to take the club to the next level that they had flirted with in previous seasons. There were others who were accepting of a mid-table standing, and were pleased to be back in the top flight after decades in the Football League.
As boos echoed around the chilling Potteries air on Wednesday evening, there was a feeling of consensus. Chatter around the ground was that time was up for Hughes. A team that were once playing flowing, attacking football are set for a lengthy relegation battle, and hold the unwanted record of the league’s worst defence.
The venomous hilltop cauldron has become home to a swathe of indifference. As Erik Pieters gifted Mohamed Salah Liverpool’s third goal, red seats were more prominent than thick coats; Stoke’s famously loyal support walked out on their team long before the fourth official had lifted the board for stoppage time.
Beating Arsenal and drawing Manchester United lay the seeds of early optimism. Stoke’s reputation as the kryptonite to the top six was rebuilding after a disappointing 2016/17, but it disappeared before anyone realised it was back.
A 4-0 home defeat to Chelsea, and a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City obliterated any hope of a season as odds-upsetters. Then the 3-0 loss to Liverpool this week removed any inkling of a fear factor for teams visiting the west Midlands.
This weekend, Stoke have perhaps the most important match of their Premier League time. Swansea City, who are 19th with nine points, visit the Potters with the league’s worst goal scoring record, and having not won a match since mid-October. Paul Clement is under severe pressure himself, and this match borders on must-win for both clubs.
The Liverpool encounter might have seen the biggest rejection from the home fans, but it was the matches prior that have done the damage.
Conceding six goals, taking just two points from a run of Leicester at home, Brighton at the Amex Stadium and 20th-placed Crystal Palace away put Hughes in this predicament. That streak is what has shifted such a weight of expectation onto the visit of Swansea.
Trips to Tottenham and Burnley follow the clash with the Welsh club, before two more home matches against fellow bottom-half sides in West Ham and West Bromwich Albion.
Given their inability to keep goals out and reliance on the fragile Xherdan Shaqiri for creativity, Stoke’s chances at Wembley and Turf Moor are very slim. Failure to beat Swansea makes a mid-December spell in the bottom three a near certainty.
The Potters’ fans have every right to be concerned. Relegation has rarely been a threat in their 10 years in the Premier League, but their trajectory under Hughes is only dragging them towards the bottom three.
Plenty of Stoke fans wanted Hughes to be replaced long before it got to this point, but the recent form has converted many.
Keeping Hughes through a defeat to Swansea would not only anger an immensely loyal fan base, it would risk apathy amongst a group of supporters who have played a significant role in their blustery ground becoming one of the most hostile places to visit in England.
Giving in to fan support is often a mistake for club ownership, but the frustration spreading across the Potteries is not only merited, it is indicative of a club in need of a change before they reach early-spring crisis.
Written by Sam Cox
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_
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