In the summer of 2016, Stoke City had just finished in the Premier League top half for a third season in a row under Mark Hughes and the transfer columns reflected their status.
Hughes was in for Jack Grealish, who had been in and out of favour as Aston Villa were relegated from the top flight; Alex Witsel, the Zenit St Petersburg and Belgium midfielder; as well as Robin van Persie, who was reportedly ready to quit Fenerbahce, and 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, who was apparently keen for a quick route to senior football.
There were also long-running sagas in the background about Saido Berahino and Nathan Redmond.
Stoke did end up signing Berahino, after Joe Allen, Wilfried Bony, Bruno Martins Indi, Ramadan Sobhi and Lee Grant.
Berahino, Allen and Bony were greeted with excitement. Grant was runaway player of the season, Martins Indi was popular on loan and Allen has gone on to make more than 150 appearances as a key figure over the last four years.
But you can’t help wonder what might have been if Hughes had been able to add real flair to complement and compete with Marko Arnautovic and Xherdan Shaqiri and a proper holding midfielder to go alongside Giannelli Imbula, who was already falling rapidly out of favour.
Stoke threw their hat in for Grealish, then 20, in May – bustling with Tottenham and Everton to get to the front of the queue thanks to his performances in the Toulon Tournament.
We reported at the time: “His reputation has fluctuated markedly during his short career at Villa Park. He burst onto the scene the season before last and particularly impressed during Villa’s run to the FA Cup Final. His form and potential was such that he was at the centre of a tug-of-war between England and Ireland.
“Grealish fell massively out of favour during last season, however, amid bad publicity regarding his off-field behaviour. He could do nothing to halt Villa’s embarrassing slide towards relegation and now wants out of the Championship club.”
Chairman Peter Coates kept his counsel on identifying individual targets.
But he said: “We are looking at players and we’ve got players we like – but you need to have more than one for each position you’re trying to cover because the failure rate is quite high.
“They (players and agents) play the field and somebody can come along that suits them better, that’s how it is.
“But rest assured we are working hard to try to make sure we get good players in the positions we are looking to strengthen.”
Grealish stuck with Villa in the Championship and their fans are currently debating whether he is their club’s greatest ever player.
Witsel was 27 and helping Belgium’s attempt to win a first major title at that summer’s European Championships.
A year previously, Chelsea and Manchester United had been told by Zenit to either cough up his £70m release clause or naff off when they expressed interest.
But by 2016 he had only one season left on his contract and Stoke had reportedly tested the water, with Zenit’s general director Maxim Mitrofanov saying: “There was an offer (in January) from the Stoke City.
“They offered about €15-16m. No other proposals took place. Our colleagues probably think we may ‘fail’ in summer.
“Witsel’s agents are dreaming of selling him somewhere but we will be happy if he continues playing in our team.”
Witsel’s move came soon enough – but he went to Tianjin Quanjian in China on a mega money contract.
He returned to Europe in 2018 to sign for Borussia Dortmund, having helped Belgium reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Robin van Persie
The former Arsenal and Manchester United talisman was just about to turn 33 and had been out in Turkey for one year, scoring 22 times for Fenerbahce.
His wage demands were apparently high but Middlesbrough, West Ham and Crystal Palace were all also mentioned as possible destinations.
A striker was clearly needed.
Captain Ryan Shawcross said three games in – a 1-1 draw at Middlesbrough, home pasting to Manchester City and 1-0 defeat at Everton: “We’re still missing that striker who’s going to score us 20 goals that we need to identify this week.
“We are performing well, but we can’t seem to hit the back of the net. We created chances, but we have to start making our own luck.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do over the next couple of days, but it’s something we’ve got to look at. We’ve been linked with a lot of players but it’s the most important part of the game to put it in the net.
“You could see the importance of Romelu Lukaku for Everton, how well he holds up the ball and what a threat he looks.
“It’s probably something we have to look at. It’s been going on for too long now that we haven’t had that guy who can stick in 20 goals.”
Van Persie stayed in Turkey and scored 14 in 35 games before returning for a swan song at Feyenoord.
He was only 17 but playing for the United States and Borussia Dortmund and he was tipped a few months previously by Geoff Cameron to be one of the huge new stars of world football.
Bild claimed that Stoke had tabled a £20m bid and general manager Michael Zorc refused to deny it.
The German press claimed the forward didn’t want his career to stall as he competed for game time with Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Shinji Kagawa.
But Pulisic’s dad insisted he was going nowhere anyway, then Liverpool have apparently had a £10m offer rejected.
He made 43 appearances that season and moved to Chelsea for £58m in 2019.
Who else was linked?
We have picked out four interesting ones but they were far from the only links.
Stories had Stoke in for Udinese’s Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu. Lille’s Soufiane Boufal; Roque Mesa, from Las Palmas; Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor, from Leeds United; Yakou Meite, from PSG; Bordeaux’s Clement Chantome; and Manchester United’s Michael Carrick.
There was right-back Terence Kongolo from Feyenoord too, Burnley defender Michael Keane, Hoffenheim hard man Ermin Bicakcic, Juventus’s Mario Lemina and Jose Angula, who has this year been on loan at Barcelona… in Ecuador.