Best wishes Michael O’Neill, the man to one day take Stoke City back to Premier League



News of Michael O’Neill’s positive test for COVID-19 this week brought an immediate reaction of shock and fear.

Not only for him and his family (which has to be the first consideration), but what it might mean for our club, and, by association, us. For O’Neill has come, in such a short time, to stand for survival, success and hope.

His work since his arrival in November has been diligent, understated, tactically sound and impressive. He has turned us from relegation certainties into odds-on survivors.

It’s been a joy to see and has brought us some fantastic games along the way; Barnsley, Huddersfield and of course those two late goals to defeat Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day.

I can’t imagine him not being our manager for the next five years at least.

In fact, in short, I just love the bloke.

Concerned with the unfolding events as news broke of the positive test, I turned to listen to the manager on the most immediate means I knew of:  the podcast ‘At Home with Colin Murray’ on the BBC iPlayer; you can also find it on all good podcast providers.

I took comfort from Michael’s voice and enthusiasm for the game, but also, as he ran through his career, some of the details which told us so much about the type of feller he is.

Amazingly we learned that Stoke’s is the first private training ground he’s ever had in 13 years of managing. Plus it’s also the first time he’s ever had more than one pitch to work on – even with Northern Ireland, as they have no national training centre.

Whilst manager at Brechin City his team once didn’t even have a whole pitch to train on; they just had one half, while Forfar Athletic trained on the other half.

When he started at Northern Ireland they had lost four in a row, were rebuilding their stadium, so had very few home games, and those that were taking place had only about 5,000 fans attending until Windsor Park was redeveloped.

At one point his team drew 0-0 in Cyprus and at home to Luxembourg. These were desperate times.

O’Neill was unsure of the depth of talent at his disposal, but certain that they could be as professional, competitive and determined as any of the top nations. He turned them around and made them into a team which qualified for the Euros in 2016 and then amazingly got out of the group stages into the first knockout round. His team then reached the play-offs for qualification to the World Cup and, of course, when Coronavirus struck he was due to lead them into another play-off for qualification for the 2020 Euros.

Now all that has gone for a Burton and he is concentrating on Stoke. As we learn, even when self-isolating, O’Neill is leading training via Zoom and planning tactics and team selection with his coached.

Thank heavens he isn’t developing, as far as we know, the truly awful version of this virus which has shattered so many lives in this outbreak.

At Stoke the level of talent O’Neill has to work with is arguably far higher than at Ireland. It’s been all the other aspects of being a competitive football team at Championship level which have failed us over the past few years. That is where O’Neill comes into his own; selecting players in their best positions, moulding a team, not chopping and changing, making sensible substitutions.

But at Stoke he has also changed the mindset, given belief; not only to the players but to the fans. And we give thanks for that.

When asked on the podcast why he chose Stoke after his successful reign at Northern Ireland, the timing of the opportunity was one key reason why O’Neill said yes. But also the stability of the club and the owners’ ambition to return to the top flight again.

Michael O’Neill is not here just to help us avoid relegation this season, but to build a squad to establish us back in the Premier League.

Bearing in mind O’Neill was the first man to get a League of Ireland club to the group stages of the Europa League whilst at Shamrock Rovers – he took them to a place they could not believe – if he achieves anything comparable to that then we can expect good times to return.

Provided he is well, of course.

This is a man well used to overcoming adversity. We stand with him.

We’ll be with you, Michael. Looking forward to having you back. Get well soon.





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