COACH DAVE KEVAN admits his side are finding the new Under-21 league tough going in the wake of their 5-1 home loss to Newcastle United at the Britannia Stadium.
City struggled to contain a rampant Magpies team in the Premier League Group 2 match, with Bradden Inman's hat-trick the highlight for the visitors.
The defeat marked the third in as many games for City since the season got underway last month, and Kevan says his team's lack of experience compared to their opponents was clear.
"We're finding out that there's another big jump in the levels here from the Under-18s to the Under-21s," he said when he spoke exclusively to stokecityfc.com after the match.
"Two or three of Newcastle's lads have played in their first-team and it showed. We can't argue with the effort levels that our lads have put in, there was just a little bit of a gulf in quality.
"We need to keep the ball better and obviously we've got to tighten up at the back; that goes without saying. We're up against up some quality teams though and we're finding it hard to bridge that gap."
Kevan couldn't fault the attitude and commitment of his players, though, and says they will continue to improve if they carry on in a similar manner.
"I couldn't have asked for any more from them, it was just the quality of the opposition," he added.
"They have to keep going. We spoke about it after the game - there could be a few nights like this throughout the year, and we just have to keep learning, improving and trying to be better."
Two trialists formed the strike-force in the game and Kevan was impressed with their endeavours.
"I thought they both worked very hard and on another night, with a little bit more service, they could have shown what they could do in terms taking chances and creating chances, but it didn't happen."