Nathan Jones, a devout Christian, has several tattoos, from praying hands and the crucifixion on his left arm to Jesus Christ on his right bicep, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam across his back. Faith means a lot to Jones and a belief in the methods that have brought him this far is equally unwavering, despite six defeats in seven Championship matches this season. “I don’t know if I’ve trod on a black cat or something, but everything seems to be going against us,” Jones said, stumped, after losing to Bristol City last Saturday. At the final whistle, he briefly bowed his head and held his palms aloft to supporters in the Boothen End as if to say sorry, and thank you for sticking by him.
The most expensively assembled squad in the Championship – at more than £143m – sit bottom of the pile with one point. “I don’t ask for a ride in his [the owner’s] helicopter,” Jones said recently, “I ask for time.” Jones and the club’s hierarchy are confident the tide will turn but something has to change at Brentford on Saturday. Stoke, who have endured their worst start to a season for more than a century, have forgotten how winning feels; the last time they got three points was on 6 April and it is 200 days since victory before their home crowd. They have not won successive matches since October, when Gary Rowett was in charge and Dean Smith was still to replace Steve Bruce at Aston Villa.
Jones’s record of four wins from 30 matches (three from 27 in the league) is abysmal but the fact he has outlasted his predecessor Rowett, who won nine of his 29 matches (eight of 26 league games), speaks volumes for the support at boardroom level. The longstanding chairman, Peter Coates, a lifelong fan, recently told BBC Radio Stoke: “We didn’t expect to be where we are, we don’t expect to stay where we are and we’re working hard to change that. We’ve had a bad start [but] the world isn’t coming to an end.”
Last Saturday, 12 minutes in and with Stoke a goal to the good, Joe Allen picked up a red card which proved the catalyst for Bristol City’s win. It was a moment that can be added to a stack of setbacks and sores, along with the club captain Ryan Shawcross breaking a leg in pre-season. Jack Butland, left out of Gareth Southgate’s latest England squad, recently discussed a challenging period by fronting up following an error at Leeds, saying that it feels as if he is going to get “hit by lightning” every time he steps outside, but there is no scope for hard-luck stories. It has been a spectacular nosedive; in 2016 Stoke finished ninth in the Premier League for a third season in a row.
On the face of it, the Stoke squad is not short on quality. Even if Butland has been off-colour, they boast an international goalkeeper; the defender Bruno Martins Indi played in a World Cup semi-final five years ago; Allen and Sam Vokes are also Wales teammates; and Badou Ndiaye, a £14m signing who impressed last Saturday on his first appearance of the season, and Peter Etebo are key cogs for Senegal and Nigeria respectively. The starting XI last weekend cost more than £61m but that there are more than £50m-worth of players out on loan, including the club’s £18.3m record signing, Giannelli Imbula, and Kevin Wimmer, is perhaps the best indicator of where this malaise began. Then there is Benik Afobe, who, to rub salt into the wound, is enjoying a new lease of life at Bristol City. Others, such as Mame Biram Diouf, have not been allocated squad numbers.
Long before this summer Stoke, with the EFL’s profit and sustainability rules in mind, acknowledged the need to change tack having spent more than £100m on signings across the four previous transfer windows. They supported Jones, freshening things up with 10 new faces, the majority for no fee, and their biggest outlay was £4m for Tommy Smith, who captained Huddersfield to promotion in 2017. Lee Gregory, a free from Millwall, has been charged with leading the line but is yet to find the net.
Eight months ago Jones, who led Luton’s renaissance from the fourth tier to the second, was the fresh-faced coach with a burgeoning reputation, cherry-picked and determined to help the club back on the straight and narrow.
The reality is the post-relegation rebuild, and resulting cleansing process, has been a debilitating factor at Stoke for some time. That decay and rubble, Coates says, has been fully addressed but this summer was as much about trimming a bloated squad as anything, with players such as Ibrahim Afellay, Saido Berahino, Erik Pieters and Bojan Krkic moving on. “I had just left a group [at Luton] that basically would have run over their granny for a win,” said Jones, a former Brighton and Yeovil defender, last week. “When I came here [in January], that wasn’t quite the case.”
There has been no quick fix. Jones has been frank and when it was put to him that Stoke are in a worse position than when he took over with the team 14th, he replied: “If it was just results they wanted to improve, they probably could have gone for something else. The club is in a better position, the squad is in a better position, there is a better atmosphere around but, yeah, we are in a worse position in the league. Everything else, I feel we’re in a better position.”
The Guardian Sport