Author Archives: Ollie Hopewell

Basquing in Talent: What if England’s Regions used Bilbao’s Transfer Policy?

The Basque Country of Northern Spain is home to a culture of fierce independence supported by a partisan adherence to an ancient and idiosyncratic culture, something which has very much ran into the culture and identity of the regions football.

In 1912, Bilbao-based Athletic Club implemented their now famous “Basque-Only” transfer policy after claims that ineligible players had been fielded for the team in their 1911 Copa del Rey triumph. This self-imposed restriction, though an unwritten rule, limits the club to only signing players born or raised in the Basque Country.

This is a transfer policy which stands tall in the face of globalisation in modern football, preserving Basque identity and culture without forcing notions of Basque superiority. The policy also dictates that players are eligible if they have Basque parentage or if they spent a substantial amount of time in the regions youth academies, though exactly how long is still disputed.

Athletic Club have had a separatist transfer policy for well over a century.

Today we explore this anti-globalist policy by applying it to a context better suited for our English readers; what if English football clubs could only sign local players?

Rather than going on a team-by-team or city-by-city basis, we take a regional approach on the matter so as to best match the conditions imposed of the Basque club. This also saves on making 92 starting XIs for you to trawl through, as the nine regions of the UK are much more manageable than England’s 51 cities or the English Football League’s 92 clubs.

Before we begin, it is worthy of note that players are often eligible for more than one region (David Beckham was born in London but came through at Manchester United) however, we have tried to avoid putting a player in more than once.

So, without further ado, here are the strongest 18-man squads assembled under a Bilbao-like policy from the nine regions of England.


Location: North East
Manager: Sir Bobby Robson

Players foreign to England are able to represent the region they spent time in a local club’s youth system.

Not the strongest of starts for this experiment, but the second smallest region by area and smallest by population does have a fair few stars in its lineup. Pretty average across the board, but by no means weak with starman Jordan Henderson taking the armband for a team comprised mostly of hardmen.

Starting XI: Jordan Pickford, Paul Dummett, Steven Taylor (Academy), Dael Fry, James Tavernier (A), Sean Longstaff, Jordan Henderson, Josh Maja (A), Kazenga LuaLua (A), Andy Carroll, Sammy Ameobi.

Bench: Tim Krul (A), Matty Longstaff, Conor Hourihane (A), George Honeyman, Adam Armstrong, Adam Reach, Cameron Jerome

Special Mentions: Lee Cattermole, Jack & Bobby Charlton, Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer

READ MORE FOOTBALL: INEPT MANCHESTER UNITED CRASH OUT OF FA CUP


Location: North West
Manager: Bob Paisley

A team full of international regulars and England hopefuls, this team strikes an excellent balance between youth and experience.

A dramatic rise in quality here as football and cultural powerhouses Manchester and Liverpool join the fray. I’d argue that this team could challenge for the current Premier League title with the variation and abundance of talent available.

Marcus Rashford wears the armband as he has proven what an incredible leader he is on and off the pitch. The region also boasts a tremendous amount of players now deemed to be legends, just imagine if we had assembled an all time XI…

Starting XI: Kasper Schmeichel (A), Kieran Trippier, Conor Coady, Chris Smalling, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Paul Pogba (A), Scott McTominay, Phil Foden, Dwight McNeil, Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling (A)

Bench: Sam Johnstone, Ben Mee, Phil Jones, Nick Powell, Tom Davies, Ross Barkley, Kelechi Iheanacho (A)

Special Mentions: Lee Dixon, Wayne Rooney, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary & Phil Neville, Nicky Butt

READ MORE FOOTBALL OPINION: MICHAEL O’NEILL, STOKE CITY’S GREAT REDEEMER?


Location: Yorkshire & The Humber
Manager: Neil Warnock

Solid across the board with youth and experience blended together, this team truly would be the pride of Yorkshire.

Going from strength to strength here as we leave the North West for God’s Own Country, and what a team it has! Erling Haaland was famously born in Leeds and qualifies on this basis, despite representing Norway at international level.

This is an absolutely solid team with quality and experience in every position, this team absolutely does not shy away from a strong challenge and has the greatest shithouse strike partnership imaginable; these lads would be a joy to watch. Despite the error in the graphic, James Milner is the obvious choice for captain here.

Starting XI: Aaron Ramsdale (A), Danny Rose, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, James Milner, Kalvin Phillips, Daniel James, Jamie Vardy, Erling Haaland, Mason Greenwood

Bench: Bailey Peacock-Farrell (A), Ben Godfrey, Charlie Taylor, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Aaron Lennon, Fabian Delph, Lewis Cook

Special Mentions: Gordon Banks, David Seaman, Dean Windass, Kevin Keegan, Nick Barmby, Paul Robinson, Gary Speed

READ MORE FOOTBALL OPINION: THE CHAMPIONSHIP: PROBABLY THE BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD


Location: West Midlands
Manager:  Sam Allardyce

Jack Butland’s time spent in the academy at Birmingham qualifies him for the role of number one ahead of former England goalkeeper Joe Hart.

The Midlands has a reputation for being both industrialised and beautiful, and I like to think the team which represents my home region would play some industrious and beautiful football, especially with that disgusting double pivot between Bellingham and Maddison in midfield.

This team isn’t the strongest we’ve seen so far, but it is by no means the weakest; the weakness of this team really boils down to it’s defence. Sturridge was also the best striker available here. Luckily, though, the experienced striker will be receiving plenty of service from his peers. Our special mentions also include the winner of the inaugural Ballon d’Or award in Sir Stanley Matthews, but the stand out player really is Omar Bogle.

Starting XI: Jack Butland (A), Rico Henry, Danny Batth, Connor Goldson, Nathan Ferguson, James Maddison, Morgan Gibbs-White, Jude Bellingham, Jack Grealish, Daniel Sturridge, Nathan Redmond

Bench: Joe Hart, Tom Edwards, Rekeem Harper, Jarrod Bowen, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Andre Gray, Callum Wilson

Special Mentions: Sir Stanley Matthews, Micah Richards, Ashley Williams, Lee Sharpe, Omar Bogle, Gareth Barry, Lee Hendrie, Robbie Keane, Stan Collymore, Carl Ikeme, Andy Griffin, Andy Wilkinson, Bryan Robson, John Eustace

READ MORE FOOTBALL: PICKING ENGLAND’S EURO 2020 SQUAD


Location: East Midlands
Manager: Sean Dyche

This side boasts a few Premier League winners, though Wes Morgan and Andy King don’t really have a shot at getting into the starting XI.

A noticeable difference between the East and West of the Midlands here as this team is much stronger defensively, despite having a weaker goalkeeper, and pretty poor in the midfield and wings, not to disrespect “oooooooh Harvey Baaaarnes”.

Although there is something about the work rate of that Hendrick-Hughes midfield, the linkup play between the two could be scintillating. With Toney and Bamford up top this team is destined to flop at some point in a season, though the pair have been spectacular for their respective clubs this year. Captain Cahill was the easiest choice I have had to make so far.

Starting XI: Karl Darlow, Ben Chilwell (A), Gary Cahill, Jamaal Lascelles, Max Lowe, Jeff Hendrick (A), Will Hughes (A), Harvey Barnes (A), Patrick Bamford, Ivan Toney, Max Gradel (A)

Bench: Lee Camp, David McGoldrick, Andy King (A), Wes Morgan, Tom Cairney, Sam Clucas, Che Adams

Special Mentions: Chris Kirkland, Russell Hoult, Ian Bennett, Simon Francis, Jermaine Pennant, Liam Lawrence, Emile Heskey (God), Jermaine Jenas


Location: South West
Manager: Ian Holloway

Perhaps the weakest side yet, sadly most of the South West’s football clubs are in the national leagues or below.

The South West of England is absolutely massive, but it doesn’t really scream football talent. This team has a very strong defence but that’s it really, just a bit of a dead team. The 3-4-3 formation is due to a distinct lack in fullbacks of any discernible quality from the region, meaning that the whole team will have to pitch in defensively.

With a midfield of Matt Grimes and Eric Dier, one can only imagine the disasterclasses in midfield while that front three really isn’t that convincing. All of this while Ian Holloway sits at the helm of the team, absolute toilet. Jack Butland would qualify for this team, but his services were used elsewhere. Ben White takes the armband just because he’s hard.

Starting XI: Mark Travers (A), Ben White, Tyrone Mings, Lloyd Kelly, Scott Sinclair, Matt Grimes, Eric Dier, Ollie Watkins, Kieffer Moore, Bobby Decordova-Reid, Ashley Barnes

Bench: Christian Walton, Sean Morrison, Jack Stephens, Dan Gosling, Sam Vokes (A), Sam Surridge, Tyler Roberts

Special Mentions: Matthew Etherington, Lewis Haldane, Cole Skuse


Location: South East

Manager: Eddie Howe

Asmir Begovic came through at Portsmouth, relieving Alex McCarthy of his duties in goal.

This team serves as a reminder of just how good Southampton’s academy is. A front three of Walcott, Ings, and Bale would have sent defences wild a few years ago, but a combined age of 91 shows that this attack is slowing down. I think it is fair to argue that this is the best midfield we have seen so far too; the passing and shooting range of the midfield is actually bringing a smile to my face despite this team being entirely hypothetical.

The team’s weakest area is at RB, but it is more than likely that Captain Dunk will run a tight ship at the back of the team. Kevin Russell, Tim Sherwood, and Gary Monk were contenders for role of Gaffer, but Eddie Howe has seen the most success of the bunch in recent years. The bench is absolutely stacked too.

Starting XI: Asmir Begovic (A), Luke Shaw (A), Lewis Dunk, Steve Cook, George Baldock, Mason Mount, James Ward-Prowse, Dele Alli, Theo Walcott (A), Danny Ings, Gareth Bale (A)

Bench: Alex McCarthy, Calum Chambers, Matthew Targett, Matt Ritchie, Dominic Solanke, Eberechi Eze (A), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

Special Mentions: Matt Le Tissier, Alan Shearer (A), Wayne Bridge, Dennis Wise, Kevin Phillips, Gylfi Sigurðsson (A)


Location: East of England

Manager: Gareth Southgate

Not a bad team by any means, but certainly one marred by injuries and inconsistencies.

Assembling this team really annoyed me; there are players all over this pitch who are, or have been, excellent, but never for more than a season. A very inconsistent team under the divisive England boss Gareth Southgate with little-to-no firepower up top, this team’s star player is Nick Pope in goal.

Ashley Young is captain because that is exactly what Southgate would do with this team. It is also worthy of note that Curtis Davies is still playing professional football aged 35 at Derby. My head has fallen clean off.

Starting XI: Nick Pope, James Justin, James Tomkins, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Ashley Young, Jack Wilshere, Harry Winks, Adam Lallana, Todd Cantwell, Britt Assombalonga (A), Sheyi Ojo

Bench: Angus Gunn, Jamal Lewis, Curtis Davies (A), Max Aarons (A), Glen Kamara (A), Jordan Rhodes (A), Adebayo Akinfenwa (A)

Special Mentions: Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Chris Hughton, Matthew Upson, Gareth Southgate, Danny Shittu, Rob Green, Craig Bellamy, Dave Kitson, Jamal Campbell-Ryce, Paul Robinson, Darren Ward, Chris Eagles, David James, Tim Sherwood, John Ruddy


Location: Greater London

Manager: Harry Redknapp

Well here it is folks, the final team on our list, and what a team it is. An excellent goalkeeper, defensive power, fast fullbacks, a strong but creative midfield, fast and tricky wingers, and a total powerhouse upfront, what doesn’t this team have?

Though it comes as no real shock that Greater London has such an awesome team, I’d say that the capital region has only just clinched the title of “strongest team” from the likes of the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber. The amount of quality, and the sheer quantity of it, is staggering and, for me, places this team above all others.

Bolstered by the academies of the Arsenal and Chelsea, this team only suffers slightly in goal, but that is being very picky. This team is excellent, and while the likes of Stuart Pearce, Lee Bowyer, Alan Pardew, Frank Lampard, Roy Hodgson, and Scott Parker could have managed this team, but I can think of no man better suited to the job than Harry Redknapp.

Mark Noble captains the team because he is exactly what the squad needs, it’s also what ‘Arry would want me to do, and who am I to deny the wheeler-dealer maestro?

Starting XI: Wojciech Szczęsny (A), Bukayo Saka, Joe Gomez, Fikayo Tomori (A), Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Declan Rice, Emile Smith Rowe, Mark Noble, Serge Gnabry (A), Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho

Bench: Freddie Woodman, Andreas Christensen (A), Reece James, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Grady Diangana, Wilfried Zaha (A)

Special Mentions: Frank Lampard, Scott Parker, Andy Cole, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Niall Quinn, Sol Campbell, Peter Crouch, Jamie Redknapp, Harry Redknapp, Ledley King, John Terry, Graeme Le Saux, Robert Huth, Carlton Cole, Ray Wilkins, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Ince, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Moore, Jermain Defoe


Which team do you think was best here? Did we miss anyone from the teams? Let us know in the comments and replies.

The Championship: Probably the Best League in the World

We are living in strange times as elite football passes the halfway point this season. Empty grounds, extortionate pay-per-view streaming, and socially distanced celebrations tearing the soul out of the beautiful game. So, think back, if you will, to simpler times and let us tell you why the Championship is the best league in the world.

What’s the name of the game?

Being on the frontier of modern football, the Premier League is always going to be open to criticism for trying to innovate the game both on and off the pitch. It is this innovation which has many a fan feeling like they, and their idea of what football should be, are being left behind.

Multimillion pound transfers, soulless stadiums, and disinterested club owners have disconnected supporters from their clubs. However, only one league down, the Championship feels much more grounded in reality and is far more connected to the fanbases who make the division so great.

From Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds allowing Aston Villa to score an equaliser after a controversial goal at the other end, to Manuel Almunia’s double penalty save and resulting Troy Deeney 97th minute winner, the second tier of English football is rarely short of drama and mayhem, something all too often lacking from England’s topflight.

READ MORE FOOTBALL OPINION: MICHAEL O’NEILL, STOKE CITY’S GREAT REDEEMER?

The Football Class Divide

No, this isn’t a political piece, I promise. This class divide refers to the gulf in skill between Premier League teams. For example, last season saw Manchester City thrash Watford 8-0 and literally everybody knew an outcome like this was coming far before a ball was kicked.

Performances like Manchester City’s 8-0 win over Watford aren’t a surprise anymore

Yes, Aston Villa did manage a huge upset in their 7-2 demolition of Liverpool, but this result was anomalous and has occurred in the most open season of the Premier League since Leicester’s shock title grab in the 2015/16 season. The Premier League has become far too predictable to be enjoyable in recent years, though this has rarely been an issue just one division down.

Okay, the Prem has been unreal this season; a wide-open competition featuring several teams performing far better, and several far worse, than expected has made for superb viewing. This though is a rare occurrence and does not happen consistently enough to present steady entertainment, especially not when compared to the Championship.

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From QPR upsetting promotion-chasing Cardiff 6-1, to Wigan beating Hull 8-0 in a relegation scrap, the Championship does not extend the formality of predictability and it certainly does not disappoint entertainment-wise.

This roll-of-the-dice style results in meteoric rises and treacherous falls and can certainly make for frustrating viewing, though it is rarely boring. You can lose 25% of your games and still make the playoffs, as Swansea did last season, or finish middle of the pack only to steamroll the league the following year.

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Great examples of unpredictable form can be seen everywhere throughout each season, with Sheffield Wednesday finding themselves chasing promotion by Christmas of 2019, only to capitulate around Boxing Day before falling into the throes of a relegation scrap where they remain today.

Last year’s middle-of-the-pack Reading now fancy themselves reaching the playoffs, as promotion favourites Derby languish in the relegation zone. This league is anyone’s game, and each fixture is ripe for the taking by even the most unlikely of candidates. This makes the entertainment factor of the league greatly surpass the predictability of England’s topflight, and there is a lot to be said about the way in which the game is played too.

Substance Over Style

An argument against lower league football is that the lower you go the worse the quality gets, which, to a certain degree, is true, but the Championship serves as an outlier in this trend.

Rather than playing a traditional 4-4-2 formation as teams in leagues One and Two so often must, the Championship displays tactical innovation and strategic masterclasses not possible in lower league football due to even more finite resources.

Rivalries like Derby County v Nottingham Forest make the second tier special

These practices are crafted and honed in the Championship alongside managers who must truly be experts at their jobs as they cannot rely on the expensive signings or abundance of wealth prominent in the Premier League.

It doesn’t matter how many passes you can string together in an attack; when you’re losing 1-0 at home in a midtable clash you need to score to survive in this league, and it is by any means necessary. The old school pressing football and long balls ever-present in this league are a tried and tested method of scoring goals, so if it isn’t broken, why fix it?

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This style of play will always have a place in my heart because it’s what I grew up watching and it’s what made me fall in love with football. The scrappy midtable games on a pitch more akin to a pigsty than a professional football pitch will always be a cherished memory to me, and watching the Championship is like watching nostalgia in real time.

The football seen in the second tier is so far removed from the stat-padding safe-in-possession play seen all too often in the Premier League, with the Championship feeling far more traditional in play than other leagues in England.

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Managers can try their hand at Gegenpressing or that once-coveted “Barҫa style of play”, cheers to Andy Tate for that one, but ultimately disregarding this and resorting to hoofing it forwards to a massive striker with a massive head and hoping for the best is something both common place and refreshing as it serves as a reminder of the no nonsense football we often play ourselves. Can you imagine players like Troy Deeney and Andy Carroll breaking through the youth ranks in today’s game? Neither can I.

If you haven’t seen what I’m hinting at, here it is in plain text; the Championship is better because it retains the highest quality of football while still being more relatable and replicable than any other league in the EFL.

Crowds, Teams & Players

Crowds are usually a lot smaller in the Championship than they are in the Premier League, so when you have a sold-out fixture you really notice the attendance and resulting atmosphere. Full grounds usually signify the start of a season, a big derby, or your team storming the league. Lovely stuff.

I would also strongly argue that the Championship is full of clubs that are the perfect size for communities to form within each team’s fanbase, though my dreams of seeing ultras presenting pyro shows and tifos in the UK are still far-fetched.  

I’m talking about how Stoke fans were able to make the game “unplayable” against West Brom by booing their every touch of the ball through communicating almost exclusively online. How Leeds seemed to have an unlimited number of smoke bombs for every goal they scored in their promotion season. How Crystal Palace somehow managed to sneak a drum into their stadium, and continue to do so, years before their promotion to the topflight.

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These communities form through the tribalistic love for the surrogate religion that is football, following their club home and away through thick and thin. Most of the fanbases in the lower leagues don’t support their local team because they’re any good, they support local because of the importance that team has to their identity and to their community. You’ll never hear someone call a Wycombe Wanderers fan a “glory hunter”.

This league favours the unfancied and there isn’t really a “Big 6” like you would have in the Prem, rather 24 teams who don’t really care all too much for each other. A lot of kicking and shouting with very few hugs and handshakes, this league is Roy Keane’s wet dream.

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There is also a point to be made about the teams occupying the Championship, teams like Blackburn, Forest, Wednesday and QPR, all of whom I associate to a classic era of the Premier League which I grew up watching.

A great aspect attributed to most championship teams is the diversity of their stadia. From QPR’s traditional stadium, a big square box surrounded by council houses, to Huddersfield Town’s sleek arched Kirklees Stadium, there is a lot of diversity across the league in grounds.

Some evoke football heritage and history, such as Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough, while others feel like a clad iron shed assembled on a windy carpark, the BET365 Stadium springs to mind.

The Championship is also a hive for unfancied and forgotten players who can perform away from the pressures of £100 million deals and ludicrous paycheques. Playing football for the love of the game is far more connected to real life and that is exactly what you’ll find here, a league where there is an immense satisfaction in signing a total unknown from the fringes of world football and said player becoming a fan favourite.

I doubt anyone has backed Teemu Pukki as top scorer for Norwich after he joined for free from Brondby, but what a player he’s been for the Canaries since his arrival.

And in what other league could the “Hundred Goals Club” be comprised of David Nugent, Ross McCormack, Billy Sharp, and Jordan Rhoades? Not to mention undeniable ballers like Adel Taraabt, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Matěj Vydra, George Elokobi, Matt Jarvis, Ricardo Vaz Tê, Wes Hoolahan, and Bobby Zamora who frequented the division.

I can think of no stat to better summarise the experience of the second tier of English football than Portsmouth’s Guy Whittingham scoring 42 goals in the 92/93 season in which Portsmouth failed to gain promotion. Like I said, football heritage.

For the Love of the Game Money

Money shouldn’t be the “be-all and end-all” in football, and in the Championship it really isn’t. A good example of this is the record transfer fees for a Championship player going to the PL versus a topflight player going down a division. The players in question are Nathan Aké and his £40 million move to Man City versus Benik Afobe from Wolves to Stoke for ~£12 million.

Transfers like Nathan Ake’s £40m move to Manchester City have become incredible common in the Premier League

Scrimping and saving is the name of the game, so relying on youth to step up when players are in poor form or injured is key, whereas the Premier League approach to fixing an issue is just to throw money at a it and then sack your manager 18 months later, something known as the Chelsea model.

The Premier League is rife with an overabundance of money, allowing top teams to sign £50 million players just for them to sit on the bench, stagnating their careers. This is certainly not the case in the Championship, however, as the only “super subs” you’ll find here are the likes of Peter Crouch, Glenn Murray, or Adebayo Akinfenwa, players who are synonymous with coming on after the 70th minute to nick a scrappy goal and close out the game. All three players also have somewhat of a cult following, though I am unsure if this is just coincidence.

Closing Thoughts

The Premier League is looking to be a classic competition this year, but you shouldn’t let that distract you from the great theatre constantly available just one league below. The Championship makes for excellent viewing and there are always more great games and goals to enjoy than anywhere else, so take a seat, sit back, and relax as you watch all the action from the best league in the world.

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!

READ MORE: THE SORRY STATE OF SOUTH EAST ASIA SOCCER’S RESTART