A couple of interesting little revelations from Michael O’Neill as he marked his first year in the job.
The Stoke City manager admits one of the biggest surprises he faced when returning to club management from Northern Ireland was the want-away attitude of some of the players he had inherited.
Badou Ndiaye and Peter Etebo were among the players who quickly told the new boss they saw their futures elsewhere – and they were duly dispatched away on loan in the January window while their teammates got on with the task of keeping Stoke in the Championship.
“I suppose I was taken aback and disappointed that some of the players who had come to the club and hadn’t been there very long were clearly wanting away,” said O’Neill in an interview for the club website.
“That was disappointing for me to see that. Players who had perhaps signed for the club in the Premier League and then as soon as the club had lost its Premier League status, for example, felt that they didn’t want to be part of a club trying to get promoted from the Championship. They certainly didn’t want to be part of a club that was at the wrong end of the table.
“Those things in particular were alarming for me and concerning because those players were on very good contracts. The club had invested heavily in them.
“The most important thing I learned in the opening weeks was trying to get a group of players together who had a common cause, for want of a better word, that saw being at Stoke as a positive thing and wanted to drag the club away from the position it was in.
“Game after game, week after week, you started to learn more about the players and the challenge was then to try to get that group in a better shape with a better mind set than when I was when I found it.”
Stoke eventually secured their safety in the penultimate game of the season, having enjoyed comfortably top half form under O’Neill, who had taken over the reins when Stoke were bottom.
But even he had moments when he wasn’t absolutely certain they could do enough to catch up from a rotten start which had left them with just eight points from 15 games.
He said: “I think we were strong before lockdown, we’d had a really good result, we were playing well and we could have maybe gone on that little run that would have seen us ease away from the bottom before we actually did.
“But when we came back post-lockdown it was like starting all over again and we didn’t start well. We lost two games – at home to Middlesbrough and away at Wigan – and we had to react to that.
“Thankfully in the next six we were only beaten by Leeds. I think we took 13 points from the next six games and that was enough.
“There were moments, particularly after the Wigan game, when I had serious concerns about whether we would be strong enough to handle the situation and get out of that situation.
“That’s when you have frank times with the players, frank meetings with the players and we got the right reaction when we needed it at that point in time.”
Nigel Gleghorn returns to Stoke City
Stoke City hero Nigel Gleghorn is returning to the club to help bring through the next generation.
Gleghorn helped Stoke win the Division Two title and get to the cusp of the Premier League as an influential midfielder under Lou Macari in the 1990s.
Now aged 58 and a highly-rated youth coach, he is joining the Academy on a part-time basis to work alongside Josh Brehaut at under-16s level.
Innovation and hard work ensures Academy carries on
Stoke City’s Academy is carrying on through the second lockdown thanks to its Category One status and exhaustive safety measures.
Coaches had needed to be innovative in the spring to offer sessions and support either online or over the phone, winning praise and thanks from players and their families.
But FA and EFL guidance has allowed all age groups to continue this month.
Credit due for Stoke City’s most underrated player this season
When we asked on social media who was Stoke City’s most underrated player so far this season the answers were almost all the same: Jordan Thompson.
The 23-year-old was hauled from Blackpool for a modest undisclosed fee in January as Michael O’Neill’s first signing, having worked together with Northern Ireland.
He had started out on the books of Manchester United then moved to Rangers before getting his break in senior English football at Bloomfield Road.
He’d actually been in and out of the Blackpool team in the first half of last season – partly due to League One carrying on while he was off on international duty – and was described as a midfielder who could play as a number 10.
But he’s had a decent amount of game time in the division above, making 15 appearances in the second half of 2019/20 and 12 out of 15 in league and cup so far this term.
Who’s impressed and who hasn’t in the first chapter of 2020/21
Stoke City have reached pretty much the quarter mark of their first full season under Michael O’Neill and it’s fair to say that it’s been hectic.
It’s also obvious that the club is in a much different place than where it stood when he took over the reins.
Stoke were on their fifth manager in under two years at that point – Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones had gone – and for the first time since 2014, they are in a higher position than they were the previous November.
So what have we made of it so far? What have been the highlights? What is there still to improve? Stoke reporter Pete Smith tries to find an answer.