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‘He is exactly what Stoke needed,’ says Liam Lawrence
Last Updated: 26/09/18 2:29pm
Gary Rowett has work to do if he is to turn things around at Stoke City but signing Ryan Woods is a good start. Adam Bate talks to Liam Lawrence, a former Stoke favourite and a one-time team-mate of the young midfielder, to find out why he can make the difference.
These are testing time at Stoke City. The pre-season favourites for promotion find themselves closer to the bottom of the Championship than the top half of the table, let alone the play-off places. New manager Gary Rowett has criticised long-serving captain Ryan Shawcross. Supporters are increasingly frustrated by events at their club.
But perhaps it is the very last of the summer signings who offers the brightest hope for the future. Ryan Woods has arrived from Brentford and the 24-year-old midfielder has immediately won over the fans. His range of passing, his confidence in possession and, more than anything, his appetite for the contest has stood out from the rest.
For one former Stoke player, this is no surprise. Liam Lawrence scored 14 goals for the club the last time that they won promotion to the Premier League a decade ago. But he later played alongside Woods as Shrewsbury Town won promotion to the third tier in 2015. It did not take him long to realise that he had the ideal midfield partner.
“The manager Micky Mellon had a couple of good young players and he was bringing me in to help them along,” Lawrence tells Sky Sports. “I remember seeing Woodsy in my first training session and thinking he’s decent, he’s lively, he’s sharp. He was just full of energy and right from when I started playing with him I knew he’d be a good player.
“For a lad playing in that league I was surprised how good he was on the ball. He was a special talent and he was brilliant to play with. He was in the middle with me and did all my running for me because my legs were on the way out then. We managed to get promoted and he had an unbelievable season. He was unlucky not to get player of the year.
“He just had a great attitude. He was one of the first in training and the last to leave. He was always up for the passing and shooting drills at the end and he was a winner. He just hated losing and if you had him on your team in five-a-side you always knew you had a chance.”
Rotherham vs Stoke
September 29, 2018, 5:15pm
It was for these reasons and more that Lawrence was delighted when it became clear that his former club had the opportunity to sign Woods from Brentford. Having picked up player of the year awards for the Bees in each of the past two seasons, his stock had risen since those days at Shrewsbury and Lawrence was surprised that a deal was even possible.
“I said straight away that they should sign him but I didn’t think he would be available,” he says. “He was doing well at Brentford and going on to bigger and brighter things. So when I saw Stoke had a chance I was buzzing and hoping that they’d get it over the line.
“He has been brilliant too. He was exactly what Stoke needed because he’s a midfielder who can get them playing football again. He proved that straightaway at Sheffield Wednesday.”
That was Woods’ first start since his switch – an initial loan deal that will be made permanent in January – and he was so impressive that Stoke fans were bombarding Lawrence on a radio phone-in after the game to heap praise on the player.
It was not just that he delivered an assured performance, it was that he provided some of the qualities that have been sorely lacking in Rowett’s team. Woods has brought greater control with his passing – he boasts the best pass completion rate of any Stoke player. But he is also inventive and intelligence in his use of the ball, encouraging the team to play.
“This season they have been missing that link from defence through midfield and to the attack,” explains Lawrence. “He links it perfectly. He sits, gets the ball off the back four and brings in the wide men and the forwards. He can play short or he can spray a 60-yard pass. He likes to get the ball out from his feet and switch the play and he is brilliant at it.”
The statistics highlight this key difference. In just four appearances, he has already hit more accurate long passes than any other Stoke midfielder in the squad. A number of the defenders have hit more but the quality of Woods’ delivery is a world apart. His long pass accuracy is 65 per cent – significantly better than anyone else in a Stoke shirt.
There were signs that Woods could spark a revival in that first start at Hillsborough, a 2-2 draw, and the cautious optimism grew when Stoke beat Swansea on his home debut. But a calamitous defeat to Blackburn has ramped up the pressure before Saturday’s trip to Rotherham and underlined the fact that one young man alone cannot turn it around.
Even so, Lawrence is adamant that Woods is part of the solution. “I know Stoke had Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri after I left but it has never been a club about star names,” he adds. “It was built on hungry and hard-working players. Woodsy fits into that mould perfectly. He is Premier League quality.” Stoke just have a lot of work left to do to get there.