The race for the Premier League title has never been so fierce, but Mark Hughes is the real winner of pre-season

Grand designs: Mark Hughes hasn't stood still at Stoke

Grand designs: Mark Hughes hasn’t stood still at Stoke

This has to be one of the most exciting times to be a Stoke City fan.

Barely a day has passed by since the 6-1 end-of-season fireworks display against Liverpool that there hasn’t been a paper in the Potteries linking a big-name with these parts, the path from the bright lights of Barcelona has never been so well-trodden.

Ibrahim Afellay became the fourth player to arrive from the Camp Nou since Mark Hughes took charge in May 2013, following in the footsteps of Bojan Krkic, Marc Muniesa and Moha El Ouriachi earlier this summer.

Much has changed since the managerial merry-go-round of the late 1990s that began when not long into the club’s debut season at the Britannia Stadium, Lou Macari was replaced by Chic Bates and then Chris Kamara, before he too was shown the door.

The overhaul proved too great and Stoke were relegated to the third tier on the final day of the 1997-98 season.

Road from Catalonia: Ibrahim Afellay has become the fourth ex-Barcelona player to join Stoke

Ibrahim Afellay has become the fourth ex-Barcelona player to join Stoke

Neither Brian Little nor Gary Megson could galvanise the club until the Icelandic takeover pulled it up by the bootlaces in November 1999. Under Gudjon Thordarson, the Potters won the Football League Trophy in 2000, and two years later, they had achieved promotion back to Division One after two narrow misses in the play-offs.

Stoke’s tendency to see a change in hierarchy as the only means of evolution brought Steve Cotterill into the hot seat following five years at Cheltenham Town, but any sense of a new dawn in the Potteries was given an unwelcome jolt just 13 games into the reign when Cotterill decided to become the new assistant manager of Sunderland.

The slice of misfortune would turn into one of the club’s most important appointments as Tony Pulis then arrived to stave off an immediate return to the third tier, before building a swirl of optimism around the area in his first full season in 2003-04 that was further fuelled by the ambitious Icelandic board.

Tony Pulis paid the price in his first spell for failing to attract foreign names

Tony Pulis paid the price in his first spell for failing to attract foreign names

It would prove Pulis’ undoing at the end of the 2004-05 season, when the Welshman was sacked after a campaign that had seen the club stagnate. The owners brought in the Dutchman Johan Boskamp, who had won three Belgian First Division championships with Anderlecht, but was still relatively obscure.

But another season of mediocre results led to the Icelandic consortium putting the club up for sale, resigned to the fact that their dream of steering Stoke back to the top flight following years in the wilderness had diminished.

Peter Coates returned to the club as chairman, and he found the perfect man who shared a sense of unfinished business in Staffordshire.

Asmir Begovic became a mainstay of Pulis' second era in goal

Asmir Begovic became a mainstay of Pulis’ second era in goal

Pulis had been keeping himself busy on a project at Plymouth Argyle, who had given a good account of themselves in the Championship, but the lure of returning to the Britannia proved too great, and Pulis was re-appointed in June 2006.

Now Stoke had a board that would allow their manager to fully develop his footballing philosophy and this approach enabled Pulis to end the club’s 23-year absence from England’s top table in 2008, where they have proudly sat ever since.

Having only briefly flirted with relegation in the 2008-09 season, Pulis eventually decided to call time on his Stoke managerial career in 2013, but only after having guided them to five mid-table finishes, an FA Cup final and to Europe having broken the club’s record transfer fee on several occasions.

The arrival of Bojan at the Britannia last summer was seen as a coup

The arrival of Bojan at the Britannia last summer was seen as a coup

It left Mark Hughes with enormous boots (or should that be cap) to fill, with the popular belief being that Stoke’s industrial playing style had gradually been counteracted by their Premier League opponents.

Hughes had previously enjoyed a spell at Blackburn Rovers, which earned him a plum job of managing Manchester City just before the club was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United investment group in September 2008.

Subsequent spells at Fulham and QPR had done little to help Hughes enhance his reputation following his sacking at City, and so Stoke was seen as the Welshman’s last chance to prove himself as a British manager worthy of his place in the Premier League.

Pulis’ first spell at the Britannia had ended on the grounds of his failure to ‘exploit the foreign market’, and while Hughes has a solid core of home-grown players built around captain Ryan Shawcross, it is the ambition he has shown in luring the likes of Bojan, Marco van Ginkel and most recently Afellay away from more glamorous European cities that has propelled the club from merely consolidating to far more loftier heights.

In the same way that Bryan Robson brought his illustrious playing career to the table during contract negotiations at Middlesbrough during those Samba days of the 90s, Hughes is revered globally for his achievements with Manchester United.

Steven N'Zonzi has left but Stoke are no longer perceived as a small club

Steven N’Zonzi has left but Stoke are no longer perceived as a small club

Back-to-back ninth places in the Premier League have made a mockery of any suggestion that Stoke had hit a glass ceiling under Pulis, and the club’s recent trip to the Far East only serves to strengthen belief that this is only the start of the club realising their aspirations.

Not even the loss of Steven N’Zonzi, Asmir Begovic and the return of Victor Moses to Chelsea, appears to have had any such sobering effect, with the money re-invested in eight new recruits, and the hope that Jack Butland can now establish himself as first-choice goalkeeper.

While lavish spending at United has done little to assuage manager Louis van Gaal’s fears that his squad lacks speed and creativity going into the new season, there cannot be a coach happier with the state of his playing staff than Hughes.

Rumour has it that Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko is next on Hughes’ radar, and you wouldn’t bet against him landing his man.

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