The away campaign rolls on for Millwall this Saturday, as we approach a busy Christmas schedule looking to secure a first win on our travels this season before the turn of the year.
Standing in our way are Gary Rowett’s Stoke City, who sit 11th in the Sky Bet Championship and remain in the hunt for an immediate return to the Premier League having lost just one of their last 13.
Stoke City are the world’s second-oldest professional football club, having been founded in 1863 – a year after Notts County. Founder-members of the English League in 1888, The Potters have spent a vast majority of their time competing between the top two divisions. The club are currently in the midst of their first Championship campaign since 2007/08, when they were promoted as runners-up and since managed three consecutive ninth-place Premier League finishes, along with their first FA Cup Final appearance against Manchester City in 2011. Stoke have also reached three Semi-Finals of the Cup, and lifted their solitary League Cup in 1972 after triumphing over Chelsea at Wembley. Despite relegation last season, the club have been able to retain several of their key players, and under Rowett are looking to creep up the Championship table following a sluggish start.
Ones to Watch
Jack Butland (#1) needs little introduction to English football fans, having been part of Gareth Southgate’s World Cup squad in Russia during the summer. Despite his role as understudy to Jordan Pickford, Butland has shown on numerous occasions his capability between the sticks for The Three Lions and for Stoke since his arrival at the Bet365 Stadium in 2013. The goalkeeper has seemingly been around for a long time despite his age of 25, starting his senior career with Birmingham City before making the short trip up the M6. Loan spells with clubs such as Barnsley, Leeds United and Derby County followed, before Butland became number one at Stoke. Goalkeeper for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics, it has been widely considered to be one of Rowett’s best pieces of business to keep Butland at the club amid strong top-flight interest, with the goalkeeper playing every minute in the League thus far.
Joe Allen (#4) has been one of Stoke’s most significant contributors this season, and has taken his first Championship campaign in seven years well into his stride. The diminutive midfielder has so far claimed five goals and four assists in the League this season, and is relied upon to be a consistent lynchpin in the club’s promotion bid. Allen has enjoyed an impressive career, making his debut for local side Swansea City aged just 17 in 2007. Going on to play 150 times for The Swans and earning promotion from League One in 2007/08, Allen moved to Liverpool along with manager Brendan Rodgers in 2012, coming very close to winning the Premier League title in 2014. The 28-year-old joined Stoke in 2016 and has become a star player for the side, also earning over 40 Welsh caps as well as joining Butland in the 2012 Team GB squad.
Tom Ince (#7) has shown his exciting attacking talent for numerous clubs in recent years, and last season got his regular Premier League opportunity with Huddersfield Town. A move to Rowett’s ambitious Stoke side followed in the summer, where the forward has joint-top-scored with six League goals this campaign. The 26-year-old is an agile, unpredictable player who has predominantly operated in wide areas, although can be deployed as an inside forward or even a central striker. Signing professionally with Liverpool – one of father Paul Ince’s former clubs – in 2010, Ince went on to seek regular football with Blackpool, making over 100 appearances. The former England U21 international then represented Hull City and enjoyed a longer spell with Derby County, before last year’s spell in the top flight with Huddersfield. Whilst at Blackpool in 2012/13, Ince won the Football League Young Player of the Year award.
Benik Afobe (#9) experienced a rather unorthodox transfer to the Bet365 Stadium in the summer. The former Bournemouth striker initially signed a contract with Wolves – with whom he had returned to from a previous spell when he joined on loan February, but was quickly sold onto Stoke just days later for a reported £12million fee. Afobe is another who has – albeit briefly – turned out for Millwall at The Den, with a loan stint from Arsenal cut short due to injury in 2013. Whilst the forward was prolific in Arsenal’s youth setup, he was unable to stake a claim for the first team and following several loans, moved to Wolves in 2015. Signing for Bournemouth the following year, Afobe earned his Premier League chance and hit 10 League goals for The Cherries. The 25-year-old DR Congo international has six goals to his name this campaign, and his proven instinct in front of goal has seen him become one of the Championship’s most dangerous strikers in recent years.
In the Dugout
Gary Rowett joined Stoke before the start of this season, shortly after guiding Derby County to the Play-Off places last term. Despite a shaky opening to the season, Rowett’s Stoke are playing some dangerous football and are finding their feet in a division the club had been absent from for a decade. The 44-year-old began his management career with Burton Albion in 2012, steering them into the League Two Play-Offs, before taking Birmingham City from relegation candidates to promotion contenders during his time in charge – then being controversially replaced by Gianfranco Zola in 2016. Rowett’s next job was with another of his former clubs as a player – Derby – before moving to The Potters. His managerial promise and pedigree have seen his stock rise in recent years, and Rowett is expected to lead the club to a Premier League push in 2019. As a player, Rowett played as a defender for his first three managed clubs along with teams including Everton, Leicester City and Cambridge United.