Michael O’Neill is approaching the final furlong with his players ahead of next week’s long-anticipated return to action.
He does so with genuine optimism and the confidence of Stoke supporters after a fine start to life as manager at the bet365.
His success has been based on sound decision-making at the right moment, often big moments, and here are five of the best which have helped drag the club off the bottom of the table and within sight of safety with those nine remaining games to go…
1) James McClean
From day one, O’Neill torpedoed the `McClean-at-left-back’ experiment of his predecessor and made a big statement by returning him to the left wing where he belongs.
Thereafter, McClean undoubtedly recovered his mojo and began delivering something like his true self in his true position.
To the point where he is now a genuine contender for player-of-the-season.
2) Changing from 4-3-3
He says he remains a 4-3-3 man long term, but he was flexible enough to change things – and how – when he put out a new-look team at Huddersfield on New Year’s Day.
He accommodated Nick Powell and found room to re-introduce Tyrese Campbell to re-ignite their seasons in the process.
Both have since become key players in Stoke’s fight for survival and for their prospects going forward into next season.
3) Campbell contract
O’Neill made it his mission to keep Campbell at the club long term instead of losing him for peanuts in the summer.
It was a huge statement and a huge show of faith in Campbell’s evident potential, if he’s handled correctly, and the decision soon began reaping rewards.
The episode was also an encouraging insight into O’Neill’s man-management skills with younger players.
4) Cutting ties with certain players
O’Neill was desperate to lighten such a bloated squad and retain only those players he was certain would bust a gut for the cause.
Loan players were more expendable than others and so out went Cameron Carter-Vickers, Scott Hogan and Mark Duffy, while the overseas market was exploited to send Peter Etebo and Badou Ndiaye on their way, albeit temporarily for now.
With Gary Rowett showing an interest in Ryan Woods, there was another opportunity to reduce his numbers by dispatching him to Millwall.
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5) The Belfast Boy
Now it’s ridiculously early to start banging the drum too loudly for Jordan Thompson, but the early signs suggest he’s made of the right stuff and possesses a flexibility that should serve the squad well.
This is important for O’Neill because he stuck his neck out on this one after enjoying a sneak preview of his talents in the Northern Ireland set up.
O’Neill’s eye for a player won’t be defined by the success or failure of one player, of course, but Thompson’s progress won’t half help.