Is Michael O'Neill the hero Stoke City needs?
Background image: Einar Fond CC BY-SA 4.0
When Stoke City fired manager Nathan Jones nine months into his tenure, questions were asked about who should take the vacant position. Since the departure of Mark Hughes in 2018, the situation in Staffordshire has gone from bad to worse, a trio of managers presiding over a seemingly inexorable slide.
Stoke fans feared their club would emulate their red and white striped brethren Sunderland, tumbling through the leagues despite the best efforts of directors, coaches and players. Over at the Stadium of Light, Simon Grayson, Chris Coleman and Jack Ross tried in vain to halt the club’s slide. A similar outcome at Stoke seemed a very real prospect, after previously successful coaches Jones and Gary Rowett.
Into the breach steps Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, a man whose managerial experience at club level consists of short spells at Scotland’s Brechin City and the Republic of Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers before taking up the international position.
Some may argue O’Neill’s experience isn’t of the high calibre required to rescue an ailing Championship club. But every position the former Wigan and Newcastle winger took resulted in myriad achievements. Keeping Brechin City steady in the Scottish third tier may not sound like much of an achievement but look at them now; rock bottom in the SPFL and getting rinsed 5-2 by an amateur outfit. Managing a club like Brechin is no easy task.
His time at Shamrock Rovers was even more successful. A pair of title wins, Shamrock’s first in almost two decades, were followed by qualification for the Europa League group stages after a play-off victory over Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade in Europe. Shamrock haven’t won the Irish League or matched their historic levels of European success since O’Neill’s departure.
Guiding Northern Ireland to the second round of EURO 2016 was perhaps no greater achievement than his heroics at Shamrock, but it showed O’Neill could perform outside backwater leagues, taking his inherently hamstrung international side onto an equal footing with the likes of Russia and Portugal.
With all this experience under his belt, O’Neill is the perfect candidate to help save Stoke City. While Jones and Rowett had taken charge at well-funded clubs rising through the ranks, O’Neill is an expert at getting the best out of players with limited resources. While Stoke is hardly playing with chump change, O’Neill won’t be afforded the luxury of summer to bring in his own players, and he can’t twiddle his thumbs until the January transfer window. The squad needs to be firing on all cylinders, now.
The evidence that O’Neill can do a job at Stoke was there for all to see on Saturday when in his first game in charge he led Stoke to a 4-2 win over Barnsley. An immediate improvement under a new manager is hardly unheard of, but to go from a three-match losing streak to winning 4-0 away from home is some feat. A formation change, replacing the 4-3-3 with a 3-5-2, allowed more width and space for the forwards while retaining intensive integrity. Dropping veterans like Sam Vokes and bringing the likes of Ryan Woods and Bruno Martins Indi to freshen things up proved an inspired move, with Stoke’s four goals twice as good as their next highest tally this season.
It all points to what lies ahead under O’Neill. Perhaps not a bright future, but at the very least one in which relegation to League One is off the table. The new boss may not be the most glamorous figure. He isn’t accustomed to throwing millions about, bringing in star signings from across the continent. But what he can do, motivating players under the cosh to perform to the best of their ability is priceless. This move could well be the start of a revival for Stoke…and perhaps a career at the top of the game for the man who started out with Brechin City.