Getting to know… Stoke City

Hours before Dom Gape smashed home that goal at Chesterfield, three divisions above, Paul Lambert’s Stoke had held Liverpool to a 0-0 draw at Anfield. It could have proved a vital point in their bid for Premier League survival… But it didn’t – so, only a couple of years on, we find ourselves gearing up for our first meetings with the Potters since the Lawrie Sanchez era.

Quick facts

Founded: 1863 (as Stoke Ramblers)
Ground: bet365 Stadium (since 1997, capacity 30,089)
Second tier seasons: 43 (+62 top flight)
Major honours: League Cup (1971/72)
Last season: 16th in Championship

2019/20 recap

One of 11 Championship clubs to end last season with a different manager to the one who started it, Stoke’s decision was one of the most justified. Things with Nathan Jones just were not working out at all and the board dispensed with his services in November, replacing him with Michael O’Neill – who would juggle the job with his position as Northern Ireland manager until April. Whether or not it was ‘new manager bounce’, it’s probably still too soon to say, but the Potters picked themselves up and climbed well away from the bottom of the pile.

They ended the campaign by effectively dashing Brentford’s hopes of automatic promotion before thrashing Nottingham Forest to push them out of the play-off places on a dramatic final day. Certainly in the case of the latter, the result said as much about Forest’s falling apart as it did Stoke’s improvement, but the season ended markedly better than it started: no wins in the first ten games. As with so many sides at this level, new foundations have been laid – and it’s time to build on them.

The gaffer: Michael O’Neill

Tadeáš Bednarz via Wikimedia Commons

Age: 51
Appointed: November 2019
Previously managed: Northern Ireland, Shamrock Rovers, Brechin City
Played for: Ayr United, Glentoran (Northern Ireland), Clydebank, Portland Timbers (USA), St. Johnstone, Wigan, Reading, Abderdeen, Coventry, Hibernian, Dundee United, Newcastle, Coleraine (Northern Ireland)
Stoke league record: P41, W12, D11, L18

Having first tasted success by back-to-back League of Ireland Premier Division titles with Shamrock Rovers, O’Neill really made a name for himself by guiding Northern Ireland to their first ever Euros – and their first major tournament in 30 years – in 2016, reaching the second round. In his eight-and-a-bit years in charge, the Green and White Army rose from 88th to 35th in the FIFA World Rankings – and during that time, O’Neill handed ex-Wanderers loanee Paul Smyth his first two caps. Now, it’s time for him to continue to show what he can do in club management after laying the foundations in the latter part of last season. As a player, he most prominently featured for Newcastle, moving to St James Park at the age of 18 and joint top-scoring as Willie McFaul’s side finished eighth in the 1987/88 First Division.

Fan thoughts (with City Analytica)

You had a bit of a brush with relegation last season but were comfortable enough in the end. Are you confident of pushing on under Michael O’Neill? Yes, O’Neill has done really well; since he joined the club, we have the eighth best record in the league. He’s brought good structure and confidence to the team and you can see improvements being made with each game. Last season, we finished strongly with wins against Brentford and Forest, so there is a shared confidence with supporters that we can carry on this form. Also, the individual performances have improved under O’Neill: Sam Clucas got 11 goals and James McClean produced his best performances of his career. When Joe Allen and Thibaud Verlinden return from their injuries, we should be a half-decent team.

The key reason for Stoke’s downfall in recent years is due to recruitment. Tony Scholes and John Coates run the club as sporting director and vice-chairman respectively, but rather than creating a recruitment system and database, they choose to rely solely on the manager and give him complete autonomy with transfers – an outdated model, especially compared to what is seen in Germany and in England with Brentford and Barnsley, for example. The club haven’t learned from their lessons and have entrusted O’Neill – who has been an international manager for the best part of the past decade – with transfers. New Head of Recruitment Alex Aldridge could signal a change, but if not, Stoke will struggle to return to the Premier League any time soon.

As a manager, what does O’Neill bring to the table that Nathan Jones didn’t/what has he done right that Jones got wrong? Or is it still too early to say really? I would like to say that I strongly believe that Nathan Jones is a brilliant manager but simply was the wrong man at the wrong club.He wanted to overhaul the playing squad and tactics when the club really needed stability. Ultimately, he made the wrong decisions when it mattered: after a poor start, he continued to trust Jack Butland but made huge changes to the outfield, and every game saw a different formation and usually five-six changes. If Jones had taken Butland out and consistently played his diamond midfield, I believe he would still be Stoke manager today.

When O’Neill joined, he employed a flexible and basic 4-3-3 and rarely deviated from it. He quickly identified the importance of team chemistry and tactical familiarity. Eventually, he would change between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1, and more recently a 3-4-1-2 – giving Stoke a plan A, B and C. O’Neill is far more composed than Jones, who is erratic but passionate. His calmness is contagious with the fans and players.

It’s been a fairly busy window on the transfer front so far. Is a big overhaul of the squad needed? We don’t need an overhaul, but some signings are necessary. So far, we have signed Morgan Fox – a solid left-back, which was necessary this transfer window. A new defensive midfielder was also required as we only have Jordan Cousins – he has been decent post-lockdown, but there are better players – so John Obi Mikel came in; he is 33 now but is tidy on the ball and will hopefully help us control games better. We have also signed Steven Fletcher, who is also 33 but an improvement on Sam Vokes and Lee Gregory.

[Centre-back] James Chester was with us last season on loan and, to put it simply, was below average. I’m surprised we’ve signed him as we have good youngsters in Nathan Collins and Harry Souttar who would be preferable over Chester for most Stoke fans. A new winger would be good, but we still have a very bloated squad with multiple players contracted but not training with us: Kevin Wimmer, Moritz Bauer, Badou N’diaye and Peter Etebo. Before we can sign anymore, I have to imagine these players would need to leave. In addition, other players might leave: Butland, [Bruno] Martins Indi, Gregory and [Tom] Ince wouldn’t be missed; youngsters [Lasse] Sørensen and [Tom] Edwards may leave on loan.

Who should we expect to stand out for you on the pitch in 2020/21? Tyrese Campbell is probably the best academy graduate we’ve had in a long while. He is a natural striker, but O’Neill seems to prefer him on the wing. He has a fantastic left foot and might be one of the finest finishers in the league already.

McClean was our player of the season. Seven goals and seven assists isn’t too bad, he works harder than anyone, and his crossing has been really important for us.

Allen was Stoke’s best player under O’Neill before he got injured just before lockdown. He won’t be fit by the time the season starts but will likely be a key player for us when he returns.

Clucas and Nick Powell are great midfielders at this level and that should continue next season, while Danny Batth is now a guaranteed starter for us at centre-back and is a huge threat at set-pieces.

Lastly, what can Stoke realistically achieve this season and what would constitute a satisfactory season for the fans? On paper, this is a good team, but the same could be said for the past two seasons too. This year, we should be far away from any relegation trouble and will be looking up instead of down. Automatic promotion is probably out of our reach, but the play-offs are achievable – O’Neill’s record so far plus with his first pre-season and summer transfer window will hopefully bring positive results. As we’ve signed pretty much every 30+ free agent available so far, this would indicate that we are going for promotion rather than building a team for the next two-three years.

That being said, I would be happy with a top half finish and I believe this would match the expectations of the fans too.

Previous meetings

It’s been 18-and-a-half years since we last faced Stoke – and recorded our only win over them. Jermaine McSporran settled it late on at Adams Park, but it didn’t stop Stoke in their quest to return to the second tier as they went up through the play-offs. Our only other points against the Potters came in draws in the 1999/2000 and 2000/01 seasons, McSporran again on target in the former at the Britannia Stadium, as it was then known.

Did you know…?

The legendary Sir Stanley Matthews became the oldest ever top flight footballer in his second spell with the Stoke, playing for the Potters at the age of 50 years and 5 days – quite astonishing even in the 1960s – and the only player ever to be knighted while still a professional.

Header photo: Matt Fascione via Geograph

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