Troubled Stoke City searching for new direction in life after Mark Hughes
Stoke City are not used to this. They had become the Premier League's great survivors by doing so much more than simply surviving. Since their surprise promotion in 2008, when a ferociously Tony Pulis-led team bludgeoned their way out of the second tier and into mid-table, they have upset the odds to the extent that relegation barely registered among their preseason concerns. Now it is at the front of everyone's minds and, as the club prepare to make their first managerial appointment since 2013, they sit at the kind of crossroads never encountered before.
Until now, theirs has been quite a success story, perhaps best highlighted by the fact that outside the established top seven (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton) Stoke are the only club to have been a constant Premier League presence. Mark Hughes can take plenty of credit for that, but the final 18 months of his four-and-a-half year tenure saw a marked tail-off and his departure, which was no surprise when it eventually came, leaves a previously steady ship battling a growing squall.
"My worry is, having been a stable club for the best part of a decade that hasn't really been involved in a relegation battle, do we have the nous?" asks Martin Smith, editor of the Potters' renowned Oatcake Fanzine, of the Premier League's 18th-placed side. "You could almost say we're not battle-hardened."
This is uncharted territory and for Stoke the next managerial appointment will bring a philosophical debate. They may be struggling on the pitch but there is a fair argument that, outside the Champions League contenders, this is the best job in the division.
Peter Coates is a sensible, locally-born chairman who loves the club dearly and gives his managers time; the club is in an excellent financial position despite posting a £10.2m loss in its most recent accounts; there has been nothing like the flux experienced by most of their rivals and whoever replaces Hughes will reap the rare dual benefits of patience and resource.
The identity of that replacement is the biggest issue. Do Stoke go where others have, thus far, successfully ventured -- bringing in an experienced head for the short term who, as Roy Hodgson has so effectively done at Crystal Palace, can steady the ship without necessarily fitting a longer-term plan? Or do they sketch out a vision for the future, building on the technical -- if slightly muddled -- base Hughes has left them and appoint a younger boss with a view to the next half-decade?
The former appears far more likely. Martin O'Neill is in the driving seat, with the former Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores also in the frame, and Smith believes Stoke are in a position that may demand "a pact with the devil" in order to rebuild properly in the summer.
"I don't think we can be dogmatic about style," he says. "We need to appoint the right person even if it's just for these next 16 games. You can take more leisurely decisions when you're safe. At the moment it has to be a man who can keep us up this season -- we've seen the ramifications of relegation are extreme."
The sense is that Stoke are being sucked into a troubling pattern that now consumes two thirds of the division. Staying up is such an imperative the merest flirtation with the drop sends long-term plans out of the window; short-term fixes often prove effective but many clubs simply find themselves starting over before they know it, tricking themselves into a hand-to-mouth existence that makes long-term planning almost impossible.
It means a manager like Graham Potter, the former Stoke player who has coached Swedish club Ostersund to extraordinary success both domestically and in the Europa League, is seen as too big a gamble even if the groundwork he might lay would create a greater chance of dividends down the line.
Potter was linked with the post and is thought to be receptive to a job in England. It appears unlikely, though, and Smith admits that present circumstances mean Stoke simply cannot take a gamble.
"I'd be astonished if they went down the Potter route," he says. "There's so much risk. I think it would be viewed by the club as an extremely negative step, possibly with one eye to next season.
"They seem to want somebody who's operated in the cauldron of the Premier League before and not some young up and coming manager. That might be a step to take if we were relegated but I think now they want someone with some top-level experience about them."
It seems probable the new manager will be appointed in the next 48 hours, with the situation reviewed next summer. Stoke have the means to stay up this season but even if they do, they need to be careful.
Swansea are an example of a club previously lauded for stable ownership that, after one serious scare, has lost its way and is now in grave danger. Too much chopping and changing could spoil 10 years' hard work that has made Stoke an example on and off the pitch.
"You could argue the let the Hughes situation drag on a little too long but they've got the best of intentions and they're not trigger-happy," Smith says of Coates and his board.
"It says a lot about the club that they value stability. We still pay the same price for a season ticket that we did in 2008, we provide free transport to away games, they like to look after things well. They do so many things right and that really has to appeal to somebody."
It should appeal to almost any out-of-work manager and many who, like O'Neill, currently have a job. When Stoke make their decision, the hope must be they have correctly balanced the demands of the present with the thread of planning that has brought them this far. In an increasingly loud and confused Premier League environment, it takes an increasingly rare level of courage to retain your own voice.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.