- Huddersfield and Stoke are bottom of the Championship with one point apiece
- New Terriers boss needs time to turn things around
- Stoke are under increasing pressure to improve – how much longer will Jones last?
- The Championship is an unpredictable league and these teams could well go down
Boxing Day 2017. While most of us were sitting in front of the TV and eating leftover turkey, Huddersfield Town and Stoke City played out a 1-1 draw in the Premier League. An early opener from Huddersfield’s Tom Ince was cancelled out by a second-half equaliser from future Terrier Ramadan Sobhi. Newly-promoted Huddersfield were enjoying life in the top tier of English football, while Stoke had become a fixture in the Premier League, first under Tony Pulis and then Mark Hughes.
But of course, it wasn’t to last. Stoke would get relegated along with fellow Prem mainstays West Bromwich Albion and Swansea City at the end of that season, while Huddersfield’s brief dalliance with the top flight ended ignominiously a year later. At the time of writing, they sit at the bottom of the Championship, each collecting one point from 21, four points from safety. What has gone wrong at these clubs?
Former boss David Wagner is still held in high regard around Huddersfield for taking them to the Premier League, and staying up against the odds in their first season there. Sadly, as we know, all good things must come to an end, and his managerial reign was no exception. Manager and club parted company in January, with the Terriers eight points from safety. Jan Siewert then became manager a week later, but failed to stop the rot, being relieved of his duties in August after one win in 19 matches. For his successor, Huddersfield decided not to look at Borussia Dortmund’s reserve team manager for a change, instead tempting Danny Cowley away from League One side Lincoln City, for their third permanent manager of 2019.
Huddersfield’s record from the start of the 2018-19 season onwards is, quite frankly, rotten. They’ve barely been able to buy a win, and to compound matters further talisman Aaron Mooy has been loaned to Brighton for the season – after he was so instrumental in their getting promoted three years ago. Midfielder Phillip Billing has left for Bournemouth, and the squad overall has been shorn of quality. The incomings and outgoings have been at best overwhelming, and at worst disappointing. There’s no more Jonas Lössl, Erik Durm, or Laurent Depoitre, while Reece Brown, Tommy Elphick and Kamil Grabara might be solid Championship signings but aren’t exactly going to set the world alight.
It’s a similar story the other side of the Peak District. After Pulis and Hughes, it was Paul Lambert’s turn, starting in January 2018. He lasted until May, as Stoke got relegated. Derby County’s Gary Rowett followed, but he would only last until the following January. Tipped by many for automatic promotion, the Potters were languishing in mid-table by the time of his departure. Nathan Jones came in from Luton Town, but Stoke could only manage a 16th place finish. Still, they were expected to really push on this season and be challenging at the top of the table. It just hasn’t materialised.
Squads need sorting
On paper, Stoke have plenty of talent in their ranks. Jack Butland was viewed as Jordan Pickford’s main rival as England’s number one not too long ago. Joe Allen made almost 100 Premier League appearances for Liverpool over four years. Bruno Martins Indi finished third at the 2014 World Cup with the Netherlands. Then there’s captain Ryan Shawcross, Sam Clucas, Scott Hogan, Badou Ndiaye – simply put, Stoke should not be bottom of the Championship. They have far too much quality. Altogether though, their squad is a curious mix.
Shawcross is the only remaining player from the Pulis era, while there’s a few Hughes signings still at the club alongside Rowett and Jones signings that have followed relegation. Giannelli Imbula and Kevin Wimmer have been shipped out on loan, but the club have been unable to shift the likes of Mame Biram Diouf.
It remains to be seen how much longer Jones will be allowed to try to turn things around. Nothing suggests that he knows his best team, and although they might have been unlucky at times, fans are getting restless. In their last outing against Bristol City, they took the lead through a Clucas strike four minutes in but had to spend the last 80 minutes of the match with ten men after Joe Allen’s sending off, losing 2-1. The Potters also took the lead against Birmingham in their previous match, but the Blues turned it around to win 2-1 at St Andrew’s.
Staying in the league
The Championship is an extremely competitive, and often crazy, league. A team that makes the play-offs one season can be in a relegation battle the next, and it’s never easy to predict; who would have had Norwich forward Teemu Pukki down to finish as top scorer last season? Relegation from the Premier League can often prompt a downfall in fortunes – just ask Sunderland and Wolves, who have suffered successive relegations in recent years. At Stoke and Huddersfield, a culture of losing has formed, and particularly in Stoke’s case, the squad is disjointed.
If both sides were to go down to League One, the expectation would be that they both come straight back up at the first attempt, but as Sunderland know, that can be easier said than done. Cowley needs to be given time to turn things around at Huddersfield – the Terriers haven’t got a bad squad by Championship standards but could do with raising morale. In contrast, Jones has had over half a year to raise standards at Stoke, and will be under severe pressure. Someone desperately needs to stop the rot, but who?