There’s probably nothing worse for any football club than suffering the ignominy of relegation, and fans and players of Stoke City will have felt despondent after failing to beat the drop at the end of last year’s Premier League campaign.
However, even though there were sales (Xherdan Shaqiri departed for Liverpool, for example), the Potters kept a number of their influential figures, while adding a few big hitters, Oghenekaro Etebo included.
The club’s owners moved to secure the services of Gary Rowett after Paul Lambert’s resignation at the backend of a failed campaign as they moved to regain promotion at the first attempt.
"We are delighted to be able to move so quickly to secure Gary's services and we are now looking forward to working with him towards our objective of returning to the Premier League as soon as possible," owners Peter and John Coates said.
Despite being chased by a reasonable number of top-flight clubs across Europe, Etebo’s decision to move to the relegated outfit raised eyebrows, with many questioning his motive for switching clubs before the World Cup.
Can't help feeling Etebo might have been better served holding off on a move till after the World Cup. He can do better than the Championship.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) June 11, 2018
Ah well... Congratulations to him anyway.
On the other hand, arguments were made in the midfielder’s defence, owing to the club’s apparent ambition to promptly return to the big time.
In light of his impressive performance against Croatia, here’s why I reckon Etebo has been harshly criticized following Stoke City move. #UnstoppableSuperEagles #SoarSuperEagles #Team9jastrong. https://t.co/HgUxUVW1sF— Oluwaseye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) June 21, 2018
Notwithstanding, the Staffordshire outfit have endured a miserable year in the second tier, failing to live up to expectations and not even coming close to the playoffs.
Instead, they languish in the bottom-half of the table in 15th-place, closer to the bottom three than are to the top six - they trail Bristol City on 65 points with 14, while relegation-threatened Rotherham United are 12 points behind.
A bitterly underwhelming start saw Rowett lose his job at the start of the year with Nathan Jones replacing the departed Englishman. Results haven't improved significantly, with the Potters a place worse off under the Welshman.
For his part, despite showing flashes of his quality, Etebo has struggled to maintain a sustained level of consistency over the course of the season. In all fairness, it’s hard to constantly play at a high level in any league in your maiden campaign, more so in a division as gruelling as the Championship, so maybe the tenacious midfield man should be cut some slack.
After all, the entire team has underperformed all season; therefore it’ll be unfair to ask the Nigeria international to carry the can for a failed campaign.
While Stoke have underperformed relative to their quality, Rotherham have barely got going after promotion from League One last term. Their dearth of quality, especially defensively, has plagued them all season, and it’s no surprise they’ve struggled to escape the doldrums all year.
Although formerly with Arsenal, Semi Ajayi didn’t rise to prominence until a surprise inclusion in the Super Eagles side for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Seychelles, with many unaware exactly who the ex-Gunner was until Gernot Rohr handed him a shock call-up.
Like Etebo, it’ll be harsh to criticize the central defender (who’s been deployed in defensive midfield lately) for his side’s failings given they’ve, very often, looked out of their depth in the division.
It’s no coincidence that the present occupants of the relegation places are the sides with the leakiest rearguards; Ajayi and co. have let in 70 goals after 41 games, which is two and three more than Bolton Wanderers and Ipswich Town, the sides in 23rd and 24th respectively.
All their hard work often gets undone by their soft underbelly, something Paul Warne has struggled to solve all year. It was frustrating to see the Millers lose what looked like an advantageous position in midweek against an undermanned Aston Villa side that’d been reduced to 10 men following Tyronne Mings’ first-half sending off.
Semi Ajayi was unfortunately culpable against the Villans, inexplicably handling in the penalty area to concede a penalty that led to Villa pegging the home side back. The Millers eventually lost to an amazing Jack Grealish winner, but the ramifications of the loss will rankle.
JACK GREALISH, TAKE A BOW! pic.twitter.com/Bq2rTZQGYn— Football HQ (@FootbaII_HQ) April 10, 2019
On a night where fellow strugglers dropped points, a win would’ve taken Rotherham level with three other teams on 41 points (Wigan Athletic, Reading and Millwall). Instead, they were left to lick their wounds after a missed opportunity to end the gameweek as the biggest winners in a tight relegation battle.
Saturday’s meeting with Stoke represents a coming together between two sides who have equally struggled for goals this term. The Potters don’t have a single player with double figures for goals this season, and the fact Benik Afobe with eight is their top scorer is telling.
Etebo, who’s hit the back of the net twice, is their joint sixth highest scorer, and they recently went over six hours without scoring too, with Etebo’s strike in a 1-0 win at Blackburn Rovers last weekend ending their prolonged barren spell in front of goal.
To put their inefficiency in perspective, Rotherham, currently on 44 strikes this season, have netted five more than they have.
The Millers aren’t particularly a high scoring side either, with Ajayi top of that category with seven. That figure shot up significantly due to the defensive midfielder’s purple patch last month where he scored five times in four games.
Those strikes, especially braces in their 3-2 win against Blackburn and 2-1 success at Queens Park Rangers, were important too, given it’s kept the third bottom side in contention to still beat the drop. The other came in a 2-1 loss by Norwich City.
Deservedly, Ajayi won the PFA Championship Player of the Month Award.
However, such a run is unsustainable, and Warne will likely need someone else taking up the goalscoring mantle in the final weeks of the campaign.
Five goals in five games for @OfficialRUFC midfielder Semi Ajayi.— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) April 12, 2019
He deservedly picks up the #SkyBetChampionship Player of the Month Award for March.https://t.co/EQ4amtQrxc#EFL | #POTM pic.twitter.com/0CjuRt3TN8
All things considered, it’s been a second-rate year for Etebo at Stoke. While he’s had a decent campaign, it hasn’t been a good one collectively, given Stoke have failed to live up to their billing, and have nothing but pride to play for in the final weeks of the campaign.
For Ajayi and co., the alarm bells which have been ringing recently will get even louder if they fail to pick up a positive result at the bet365 Stadium.
With only five games left, time is certainly running out to save their season!