What a difference one summer can make at a football club.
After finishing 14th during the 2020/21 campaign, their third consecutive season of mediocrity following their relegation from the Premier League, things looked gloomy at the bet365 Stadium for a club that seemingly had little direction from the point of view of many outsiders.
For a club that were sealing solid midtable finishes in the top flight not so long ago, it seemed as though the Potters would continue to fizzle away with no real hope of competing for a Premier League spot in the near future.
Have Stoke City had a higher or lower average attendance compared to these 23 sides this season?
But this summer was an extremely productive one in Staffordshire, both in terms of incomings and outgoings.
Kevin Wimmer was the first of many failed signings to depart the club permanently, with the likes of Lee Gregory, James McClean and Sam Vokes all sealing moves away from Michael O’Neill’s side to drop down to the third tier.
Though it wasn’t entirely his fault, the latter was a symbol of the Potters’ overspending of the past with little success on the pitch and for the sake of both the club and the player, it was time for him to move on.
The second-tier side may not have undergone a major rebuild like other EFL clubs including Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday, but they still offloaded a considerable number of players off their wage bill to make space for others to come in.
A total of 13 senior players left in the space of just a few months – and you have to say it was time for the vast majority of this exclusive club to ply their trade elsewhere.
Only Nathan Collins and perhaps John Obi Mikel were going to be key first-teamers this term – and in that sense – the departures felt just as satisfying as the signings in general.
Without sounding disrespectful to those who undoubtedly put their all in when playing for the Potters, they needed to flush out some of their previous expensive recruits if they wanted to make the changes to their system and mentality that they were ultimately able to.
Five players have arrived in return to help implement Michael O’Neill’s system, but it does feel as though there’s one man who should have moved on in the summer amid a huge transformation from Stoke.
That man is Tom Ince.
He was even left out of the club’s pre-season training camp alongside the likes of Gregory, McClean and Vokes in July to find a new club.
The writing looked as though it was on the wall for the 29-year-old despite coach Rory Delap’s backing, but no interested sides came in for him and he remained at the bet365 Stadium.
Privately, this was probably a major source of frustration for manager O’Neill, but this is no disrespect to Ince.
He will know better than anyone that this move hasn’t worked out after enjoying success elsewhere including Blackpool where he first made his name – and his £10m arrival in the summer of 2018 was one of several costly errors from the club during that window.
Like Vokes, he’s become a symbol of past transfer mistakes, and it’s getting to the point now where it isn’t even beneficial for him to remain at the club, even if he’s receiving a tidy wage package.
For a man of his ability, playing just once in the Championship so far this season must be demoralising and a real blow to his mental wellbeing after suffering a torrid past few years in Staffordshire.
At least when his side were mediocre, he could at least be comfortable in the fact he was one of many players who couldn’t step up to the plate. But with the team now improving vastly, it seems as though he’s just been left behind and a permanent move in January has to be a priority for him, even if he has to drop down a tier.
For Stoke, it’s another player they could look to get off their books and considering he joined for a ten-figure fee, you would imagine he’s one of the club’s highest earners.
His contract expires next summer so it may be hard to find an interested buyer in the winter window, but this is why Stoke officials need to be in contact with the 29-year-old now.
Whether Ince will be willing to take a considerable pay cut to join another side remains to be seen, but the Potters potentially being willing to let him go for free/a nominal fee could help to speed up that process.
It may be a huge loss to make on a player after seeing him join for £10m just three years ago, but that extra space on the wage bill could make room for a couple of players to come in during the winter window.
And with Stoke currently in the play-off zone, these winter recruits could make all the difference going into the latter stages of the season.