After finishing 9th in the Premier League under Mark Hughes, a new-look Stoke City delved into the transfer market with one clear aim for the future: to change their footballing identity.
Stoke City’s first six seasons in the top-flight had been fascinating to watch – perhaps for the wrong reasons. Their debut season in the league saw the introduction of Rory Delap, his infamous long-throw in and a ball drying routine which was simply unprecedented in the Premier League.
‘But can he do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke?’ became something of a phenomenon for football supporters who saw a trip to the Potters as one of the most unenviable away days in English football. A direct, rugged and yet extremely resourceful style of football enabled Tony Pulis to establish Stoke as a solid top-flight outfit; it was seldom pretty to watch but relegation never seemed a likely option.
But after five successful seasons in which Stoke finished no higher than 12th and no lower than 14th, Mark Hughes arrived at the club – an appointment which signalled the end of an era and brought about a transformation in an identity which was beginning to feel stale. The supporters had grown tired of Pulis’ brand of football and they were ready to move away from their dark-age approach.
Hughes was chosen to implement a style which valued possession more than his predecessor had cared for, and a club-record 9th placed finish in the Premier League in his first season proved that Stoke had diverged away from their iconic approach at exactly the right time.
Excitement at the then Britania Stadium reached tipping point in July 2014 as Stoke announced the signing of a boy wonder from Barcelona, namely Bojan Krkic. Football manager enthusiasts couldn’t believe their eyes as Stoke sealed a coup which typically only exists in virtual reality.
The price of the deal? Just £3 million for the signature of a player who was once dubbed as the next Lionel Messi, according to the Daily Telegraph. It was a deal which shocked the footballing world and supporters throughout the Premier League raged at their club’s failure to rival Stoke for his signature.
After all, it surely wouldn’t have taken too much to convince the Spanish wizard to settle in the capital; or Merseyside; or Manchester; or Newcastle; or almost anywhere other than Stoke? But complaints counted for nothing and Stoke flaunted a marque signing which promised so much at the time of his arrival.
Signing a player from Barcelona was one thing, but the fact he had been touted as one of the most exciting wonderkids just a few years earlier suggested that Stoke’s identity shift was nearing completion. However, despite the pre-season hype, Bojan scored just 4 Premier League goals from 16 appearances on his debut season before a cruciate ligament injury ruled him out for the rest of the season.
His return of 7 goals from 27 in the 2015/16 season didn’t represent much of an improvement and something seemed missing from his game. In truth, he never truly convinced the fans that he was worthy of his beaming reputation as a youngster.
Loan spells with FSV Mainz in the Bundesliga and a return to La Liga with Alaves have since followed, and he now finds himself back in Stoke and struggling to break into the first-team under Gary Rowett.
At 28-years-old it seems Bojan will go down as yet another one of those players who promised so much and delivered so little, and his mediocre career will serve as a quintessential reminder of how fine the margins are between capable and exceptional players at the top level of European football.
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