I can forgive Michael O’Neill for making wrong call at Luton, but not some of Stoke City’s senior men – Simon Lowe


It always feels more like a defeat than a point gained when you concede a late equaliser, but to do it in the manner Stoke did at Luton Town just adds salt to the gapingly open wounds.

Having taken another early lead away from home, Stoke looked as if they could hold out against a relatively toothless home side – unlike at QPR recently.

Things were pretty comfortable, but the manager then took the decision to shut up shop to secure all three points by bringing on a defender for an attacker.

Many times since he arrived in November, Michael O’Neill has got things absolutely right. He even started the day well when his decision to bring Sam Vokes in for Tyrese Campbell paid off with the big Welshman scoring Stoke’s seventh-minute goal.

O’Neill has, somewhat miraculously, brought us 31 points from 20 games now, so you can’t knock him too much.

But on this occasion conceding territory and the initiative went badly wrong, especially when he used all three substitutes without bringing Campbell on to stretch the Luton defence on the break. Instead, the ball just kept coming back at Stoke time and time again.

Holding on for the win would have seen us rise to 18th place. Instead, following the draw, we sit just one position and two points above the relegation zone, with Middlesbrough playing at home tonight. We could be in the bottom three at the end of this round of games. Gulp!

It wasn’t just O’Neill making misjudgement that cost us, though.

James Chester was brought in to be the cool head of experience in defence during a fraught run in. He started well, but has made a few errors in recent games. The incident which led to Luton’s late penalty was one such mistake.

True, Callum McManaman would have been awarded 9.5 in the Olympic springboard diving competition, especially for the last twist he added into his acrobatic tumble.

But you can’t criticise opposing players who take advantage of our defensive naivety too much. Sure, it hurts, but if Chester had used his noddle instead of sticking his foot out for McManaman to fall over then we’d be celebrating a crucial three points.

That it was the experienced defender being drawn in to such a rookie mistake will bring the inevitable question of whether he should be starting in place of Nathan Collins, who did nothing wrong at all in impressing at Blackburn in midweek, when Stoke held on for a clean sheet and a vital point.

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Even then, Chester had only conceded a penalty. It had yet to be scored. But did anyone think for a moment that Jack Butland was going to read James Collins’ spot-kick and save it?

Butland has been much improved recently, but there was zero chance of him saving the day as the drama unfolded in the 95th minute.  In fact, the only time you would put your money on him coming out well in a penalty situation is if he was taking one, not facing one, which is what you get when your club’s best penalty taker is your goalkeeper and your club’s best penalty saver doesn’t even make the matchday 18.

Meanwhile, another reason why it wasn’t to prove Stoke’s day was an inability to take clear cut chances. Tom Ince was the main culprit in this game, and his goal return of just two in the league this season simply isn’t good enough.

This was a day for heroes to stand up, and it didn’t quite work out at either end of the pitch for a number of crucial players, plus the manager.

Clearly, that has to happen in each of the 10 remaining games for Stoke to be successful in this relegation battle, not least because all of the other teams down at the foot of the table are turning up week after week. There’s rarely been a division like it for teams pulling off surprise results.

Stoke face four massive games in March, each one of them a crucial relegation match up. We need to emerge from them with at least eight points (two wins and two draws), and for that we need our experienced heads to turn up from first whistle to last.

Anything less and Stoke will be facing the unthinkable.





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