Michael O’Neill, Stoke City’s GREAT REDEEMER?

Stoke City spent a decade in the Premier League, and in that time they rarely featured in the picks to be relegated come May. Despite that stint ending just three seasons ago, it feels a distant memory for many Potters fans.

During their time in the EFL Championship, the club have looked more likely to be relegated to the third tier than be promoted back to the top. Recently though, that has changed, especially after this weekend’s 3-0 away victory against league leaders Reading.

How it got to this point is a fascinating story that has culminated in a manager that the supporters of the Midlands club are really getting behind.

Prelude and pre-ramble

Being manager of Stoke City has never been seen as an esteemed role in the world of football. In fact, it is often regarded as something very unsavoury; Stoke fans seemingly have a tendency to despise their new manager well before the appointment is made official.

I remember when Tony Pulis, a man responsible for saving the Potters from relegation, re-joined Stoke there was immediate disdain for the man now often regarded as the greatest Stoke City manager of the Premier League Era.

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Pulis’ successor, Mark Hughes, didn’t fare much better either, with a now infamous “Hughes Out” van being parked outside of the Britannia Stadium before Hughes had even signed for the club.

Hughes guided Stoke to their highest ever Premier League finish, 9th for three consecutive seasons, before leaving the club in disarray in the January of the 2017/18 relegation season.

The notorious “Hughes Out” van appeared before the 2013/14 season

Despite this, I cannot remember seeing any negativity around the appointment of Michael O’Neill as manager. I assumed the disdain for Nathan Jones was still so great that the Stoke faithful chose to continue to release its anger on the former manager rather than targeting the club’s newest appointment.

An immediate air of positivity seemed to emerge around the club, and no one quite knew how to react, but was Stoke’s trust in MON well placed?

The Appointment

O’Neill joined Stoke City on 8th November 2019 following the dismissal of Nathan Jones one week prior. A quick note on Nathan Jones for some context; Jones was the least successful permanent Stoke City manager since 1923, only managing to win 7 of his 38 games in charge over two seasons at the club with Stoke failing to score in 15 of these games. Perhaps this is why Michael O’Neill received no abuse upon his appointment.

O’Neill came to Stoke following a 9-year stint managing the Northern Ireland National Team, a role MON initially continued alongside his duties at Stoke before resigning on 22nd April 2020.

Upon joining, Stoke were rock bottom of the Championship and struggling for form in recent seasons, having failed to score three goals in any game under any of the club’s three previous managers (Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones).

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That duck was immediately smashed in O’Neill’s first game in change. The Potters managed an emphatic 4-2 away victory against Barnsley only one day after his appointment.

Now, you may immediately chalk that down to coincidence or the fortunate timing of his employment, but O’Neill went on to repeat this feat seven times in the same season.

If that hasn’t convinced you of his quality, then perhaps this will; MON has a win rate of 46.88% from 47 games compared to Nathan Jones’ win rate of 15.79% in 38 games.

For more context, Pulis managed a win rate of 35.88% and 36.64% on his return to the club, Mark Hughes earned a 35.5% rate, while Gary Rowett’s 31.03% sees him in fourth place of the five managers selected.

The 2019/20 Season

As previously mentioned, O’Neill found immediate success over Barnsley, but Stoke only took 7 points from the following seven games, finding themselves in the relegation zone on Christmas Day.

Then came a day many Stoke fans see as the turning point of the season. A dramatic 3-2 victory over promotion-chasing Sheffield Wednesday, with two goals in injury time, saw Stoke claw their way out of the relegation zone with 22 games remaining.

A 1-0 loss to eventual play-off winners Fulham was amended two days later, as on New Year’s Day Stoke thrashed Huddersfield Town 5-2 away from home, a performance followed by victories over promotion-hopeful club rivals West Brom and Swansea.

Sadly, Stoke’s 5-1 “mauling” of Hull City on 7th March was followed by the suspension of football in the UK only six days later. as the Coronavirus swept across the world. A break in the season was the last thing Stoke wanted.

The return to football on 20th June was a welcome one but Stoke initially struggled to replicate their earlier form. The remaining 9 games saw Stoke win four and draw two. Stoke ended the season in 15th place. Had the league begun upon O’Neill’s appointment, Stoke would’ve finished in 6th place.

The 2020/21 Season

At the time of writing, Stoke currently sit 8th in the Championship after taking 18 points from 11 games following a rampant 3-0 victory over league leaders Reading, the ideal way for Michael O’Neill to celebrate a year at the club.

Stoke have averaged far less possession, usually less than 35%, and fewer shots than their opponents so far this season. However, the Potters have moved the ball around effectively when in possession.

This often leads to Stoke blockading their own box for 80 minutes of a game only to counter-attack at frightening speed once the ball breaks free.

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O’Neill has also ensured that his squad make the most of set pieces and training ground routines. This shows that Stoke are benefiting from well-orchestrated moves compared to previous tactics more akin to smashing the ball upfield and hoping for the best.

These tactics have perhaps been most noticeable in EFL Cup games, as Stoke have recorded victories over Blackpool, Wolves, Gillingham, and Aston Villa. Stoke will face Spurs on the 23rd December, having qualified for a cup quarterfinal for the first time since the 2015/16 season.

Our upcoming league fixture is Huddersfield Town on 21st November, following the international break.

Transfers

Michael O’Neill bought fellow countryman Jordan Thompson and Spurs prospect Tashan Oakley-Boothe into the midfield to bolster the team’s core. In addition, MON has signed the experienced centre-half James Chester on loan from Aston Villa, a signing he would later make permanent.

At the start of the 2020/21 season, O’Neill found his starting XI injury-ridden and lacking leadership, so the acquisition of experienced players was crucial. Morgan Fox, Steven Fletcher, and, most notably, John Obi Mikel, joined the Potters for free in the first window.

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Creative winger Jacob Brown joined from Barnsley for an undisclosed fee. The Stoke boss also saw to reducing the wage bill at the club, cancelling the contracts of several loanees while allowing Peter Etebo, Badou Ndiaye and Ryan Woods to leave on loan for the season to reduce the burden.

Closing Thoughts

Perhaps Stoke-on-Trent will never see the enigma that was “Stokealona” again, but a quiet revolution is happening under the patient and nurturing guidance of Michael O’Neill.

This is a managerial appointment which seems to be inspiring faith in his players and restoring hope, a feeling often dismissed at Stoke. Mixing youth and experience with a generous amount of “shithousery” has got everyone paying attention to Stoke again. Here’s to the next year of Michael O’Neill!

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