Sheffield Wednesday face pre-season promotion favourites Stoke City in the Championship at Hillsborough on Saturday. The Potters, relegated from the Premier League last season, haven’t made the start most people expected and are in 18th spot, seven places behind the Owls. We spoke to the Stoke Sentinel’s Martin Spinks to get the run-down on the visitors to S6.
Are Stoke City looking more like a top-half or bottom-half club on the evidence so far?
I’ve got to be brutally honest and say bottom half, at the moment at least, because they simply haven't re-adjusted to the greater pace (and maybe intensity) of football in the Championship compared to the Premier League. It's also a new side being built after nine summer signings, while some of those remaining behind, if they were being honest, would probably admit they still have a bit of a chip on their shoulder after relegation and are feeling a little sorry for themselves.
Who has caught your eye in the Stoke line-up?
Tom Ince and James McClean (now injured) have had their respective moments, but Peter Etebo probably deserves the biggest shout-out. An energetic midfielder who seems to have a bit of everything, he impressed in the World Cup for Nigeria before taking up residence in the Potteries. He suffered (along with many others) on the opening day at Leeds United (3-1 defeat), but has since fought his way back into the team and certainly has the potential to make the grade. You just hope a 46-game slog doesn't do for him in the long run.
There's a bit of a new look to your forward line this season?
Yes and no. Benik Afobe was brought into head the attack and, as mentioned, Ince and McClean have been deployed as the wide men when fit. Afobe has been a disappointment so far, however, and lost his place a couple of games ago to Peter Crouch, but could be back at Hillsborough. Saido Berahino has re-emerged after a torrid 18 months, but in a slightly deeper `number 10' role and is holding his own at the moment.
How is your new manager, Gary Rowett, regarded by the majority of the Stoke faithful?
He was a very popular appointment because most seemed to want a break with last season and saw Rowett as a manager on the up who knows the Championship inside out. Results and performances have set him back in the eyes of many, but you'd hope the silent majority have got plenty more patience, which he will probably need on the evidence so far.
The mood among travelling Stoke fans will presumably be pessimistic ahead of this weekend's clash given their team's poor start?
Yes, unavoidably after the first six games. Leeds away was an eye-opener in the first game, whilea 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion away last time out was a kick to the nether regions because successive wins in the league and the League Cup left many of us thinking (hoping) a corner was being turned. Stoke were comfortably outplayed once more at The Hawthorns. So it's with plenty of trepidation that Stoke fans will journey north this weekend.
What about the mood in general. Are the play-offs seen as realistic, or is it now a season of consolidation?
Some seem to have given up on the top six already but despite such a shoddy start it's way too early for such pessimism. Stoke are a team in transition, albeit a more painful one than anybody envisaged, and so there has to remain hope that the top six is still within reach. But maybe those anticipating a top-two finish would be well advised to re-assess.
What’s your prediction for the big game then, Martin?
Here's hoping that the introduction of Ryan Woods from Brentford in a deep midfield slot will help stabilise Stoke and contribute towards a first clean sheet on their travels, so 0-0 or maybe even 0-1.
Finally, which three clubs do you see being promoted and which three do you see going down?
I’ll stay loyal to my pre-season predictions, so Middlesbrough, Stoke and Aston Villa to go up, Bolton, Reading and Rotherham United to go down.