Remembering 'Stokelona': When Mark Hughes Raided La Masia In Search Of Glory

Stoke City gave us one of football's great periods of madness
14:00, 25 Jun 2023

Five Champions League winners and one player who would go on to lift the famous trophy. The man who now leads the line at Real Madrid as heir apparent to Karim Benzema. Players who had won league titles in Spain, England and Holland. A League Cup winner from Manchester United. A Netherlands World Cup standout. A superstar attacker signed from Inter Milan. Two AFCON winners. A surefire recipe for Premier League glory, right?

Wrong. This was the concoction that took Stoke City to two ninth places and a 13th placed finish under Mark Hughes. Welcome to the magnificent madness of “Stokelona”.


Stoke City had just finished 13th as the 2012-13 season closed. They ended on a 1-1 draw with Southampton that would also serve as Michael Owen’s final game in professional football. More than one era ended that day at St Mary’s.

Now a Premier League fixture, their fans were growing weary of the dance partner who had led them to the ball. Baseball-capped Welshman Tony Pulis had got the club promoted and kept them in the division with an uncompromising, physical style that relied on long-throws and longer-balls. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective enough to give Arsenal aesthete Arsene Wenger conniptions. Stoke weren’t here to play nice, they were here to battle for their lives.

But supporters had begun to turn. While grateful for their journey under Pulis, they longed to watch a style of football that would illuminate their weekends rather than act as an endurance test. The manager left by mutual consent at the end of the 2012-13 season.

Pulis was replaced by countryman Mark Hughes, the former Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers manager. Tellingly, he had also been on the books at Barcelona as a player. More than any of his other allegiances, which included spells at Manchester United and Chelsea, this would figure heavily in the years that followed.

The first indication that this reign would not be like the previous regime was the summer capture of Marc Muniesa. The highly-regarded La Masia graduate joined on a free transfer having been part of the Barcelona squad that won the 2008/09 La Liga and Champions League. While he hadn’t played in those triumphs, he had appeared subsequently in continental competition. The capture of such a promising youngster was seen as atypical considering Stoke’s usual business.

He was joined by mercurial Werder Bremen forward Marko Arnautovic and PSV Eindhoven’s Dutch Cup winner Erik Pieters. This more upwardly-mobile Stoke finished ninth in the Premier League, as Hughes integrated his new men into a more attractive side.


The following summer crystallised the 'Stokelona' myth as Bojan Krkic arrived at the Bet365 stadium. The latest in an already-growing line of “next Lionel Messi” prospects, this was no fringe player. Bojan had made 163 appearances and scored 41 goals during his time at Camp Nou. Three La Liga medals and a brace of Champions Leagues accompanied him to the Potteries. Fans were understandably excited as a genuine talent with many lucrative options chose their club.

While 'Stokelona' is the banner term for this period in the club’s history, Hughes continued to cast his net wide. Former Manchester United forward Mame Biram Diouf arrived from Hannover 96 while Victor Moses, a future Premier League champion, came in on loan. Again, these signings were a world away from the agricultural fare Stoke fans had tired of under Pulis. While they finished in ninth again, the football on show drew plaudits.

The following season saw yet more world class talent sought and it was no surprise when two such signings arrived from Camp Nou. Ibrahim Afellay had been chased by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, but the Stoke City tractor beam pulled in another potential superstar. Teenager Moha El Ouriachi followed, though he would never play a senior game for the club.

They were joined by a pair of players with connections to their El Clasico rivals. Striker Joselu had been a Real Madrid youth product and signed from Hannover 96 while Sergio Molina directly swapped the Bernabeu for the Bet365. 

As usual, this injection of some of the world’s most exciting young superstars led to Hughes securing…ninth place. It seemed that no matter which world powers were plundered, from Barcelona to the Bundesliga, Stoke had hit their ceiling. The 2015-16 vintage did also reach a League Cup semi final, which they lost to Liverpool on penalties. But beyond this it was business as usual.


Business wasn’t quite conducted as usual the following summer as Barcelona went un-plundered for new signings. Bruno Martins Indi joined, an impressive cog in Louis van Gaal’s Dutch machine at the 2014 World Cup. So too did Joe Allen, Liverpool’s Welsh midfielder. Saido Berahino’s capture from West Bromwich Albion was seen as a coup, given he had harboured Champions League ambitions at one stage. 

Berahino’s struggles mirrored Stoke’s as the once-touted forward failed to score in 13 Premier League games. That unlucky number would be matched by his side’s 13th place in the league, as the streak of ninths ended with the streak of signing Barcelona players. Was the Blaugrana bloom off the rose?

Hughes wouldn’t darken Barca’s doors again but still punched above his weight to bring Paris Saint-Germain’s Jese Rodriguez in on loan. He also permanently signed Schalke firebrand Eric Choupo-Moting. On paper it looked like he’d stopped the slide. But Hughes was sacked in January with the club languishing in the relegation zone. His replacement, Paul Lambert, couldn’t save them. Stoke were relegated in 19th place and the 'Stokelona' dream was over.

The club haven’t been back to the Premier League since. But the ghosts of 'Stokelona' have gone on to have a big influence on the game nonetheless. Choupo-Moting has won league titles at PSG and Bayern Munich. Jese never made good on his potential, but he did lift Ligue 1 in Paris. Joselu has just secured a dream move to Real Madrid at 33 years of age. Shaqiri became a Premier League and Champions League winner at Liverpool. Saido Berahino scored eight league goals for Sheffield Wednesday. Okay, you can’t win them all. 

While Stoke City don’t have any silverware to show for their dalliance with some of the world’s best prospects, they do have the memories. Bojan is a club legend at the Bet365 Stadium and many matches and moments from the Hughes era are fondly remembered. The team may not have been as La Masia-heavy as the popular myth suggests, with almost as many players boasting Real Madrid or Bundesliga connections. But 'Stokelona' as a concept and a heady period of joyous football madness will never die.

stoke city to be promoted in 2023/24: 6/1*

*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change

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