Stoke City fans were hit with a bombshell recently when it was revealed that idolised star Marko Arnautovic has asked to leave the club.
The 28-year-old reportedly handed in a transfer request last week, amidst strong interest from several clubs across Europe.
The Potters have so far rejected two bids of £15 million and £17m from Premier League rivals West Ham United and seem determined to keep their Austrian winger or at least ensure that they receive what they perceive the player to be worth.
That figure has been quoted by some media outlets at around £20m, yet whether the Hammers return with an increased bid to test their resolve remains to be seen. Stoke are under no pressure to sell immediately, given that the player is under contract until at least 2020.
While the Potters attempt to play hardball, Arnautovic’s brother and agent has shed light on the possible reasons for the Austrian’s desire to leave.
In an interview with The Sun, he revealed that the Potters had gone back on a promise that they made his brother when he signed a new four-year contract last summer. Quite what that agreement had been remains unclear but the talismanic forward has clearly had his head turned by interest from other parties.
For Potters’ fans the most frustrating aspect of the saga is that a switch to West Ham would arguably represent a sideways move, in that both clubs have finished in similar positions during recent seasons.
The player has recently been linked with moves to Champions League side Paris Saint-Germain and Italian giants AC Milan – and so a switch to the London Stadium would be particularly frustrating.
Losing their star player to a Premier League rival would certainly not improve an atmosphere at the Bet365 Stadium that has turned particularly gloomy during the last 18 months, as fans query the club’s ambition on an off the field.
Disappointingly apathetic and uncharacteristically weak performances left even the most optimistic of supporters questioning whether the team is headed in the right direction.
Arnautovic frequently cut an increasingly disconsolate and frustrated figure last season, as the team struggled for creativity and consistency.
What will worry Stoke most is that in losing the Austrian they lose their most creative player and quite how they replace him is difficult to see.
The mercurial winger led the club’s assist charts in the Premier League, laying on six goals for team-mates and finished as the second top scorer, netting seven times himself. Often in uninspiring team performances, Stoke relied on Arnautovic for a moment of magic and a creative spark.
All of those at the Bet365 Stadium, fans, players and officials alike, will be hoping that they can keep the Austrian for at least one more season, though failure to do so would not be the end of the world.
Young attacking talents such as Ramadan Sobhi, Julien NGoy and Thibaud Verlinden provide the silver lining. The departure of Arnautovic would likely open up the possibility for these prodigies to graduate into the first team and to continue their development.
Such opportunities have usually been sparse at a club that has perennially failed to use academy players in the senior squad.
Stoke also look set to make a healthy profit from any deal. The player joined the Potters in September 2013 for just £2 million.
It is a bit of a football cliché and it is increasingly anachronistic in the financially-inflated modern game but it is worth remembering that whilst Arnautovic deserves respect and gratitude for his efforts at Stoke – no one player is bigger than any club and that should Arnautovic leave, life at the Potters will go on.