Tyrese Campbell’s reinvention as an outside forward has come as a no bigger surprise than to himself.
The 20-year-old had come through the ranks with a prolific scoring record at Manchester City and then Stoke, with flashes of his potential at senior level.
But if 2020 is his real breakthrough year, it has come as Michael O’Neill – who persuaded him that staying at Stoke was best for his development – has found him a new role.
O’Neill wanted to protect him from the physical battering he might expect Steven Fletcher or Sam Vokes to handle – but still wanted him in his front line.
So Campbell has come into his own particularly on the right – “Not a winger, a wide forward,” says O’Neill – and he has five assists to his name as well as four goals in the first chapter of this season.
Campbell said in an interview with Radio Stoke: “I’d never played out wide until the manager came in and I played there at Huddersfield in the New Year’s Day game (and scored twice). Since then I’ve played left, played right and played up front. I’ve been mixing and matching and as long as I’m getting minutes I’m happy. I feel comfortable.
“It’s nice that I’ve got more than just one position where I can play.”
He added: “If you ever asked me (about topping the Championship top assists charts) when I was younger I would have probably laughed. All I was bothered about was scoring.
“But now I’m playing in a different position but it’s a position I enjoy and it helps me a lot. It allows me to dribble at defenders and get in one-v-one situations, where I might not get that as a centre-forward being watched by two centre-backs.
“I’m really enjoying it and it’s nice to be able to bring some end product as well.”
That assists statistic is no fluke.
A quick look at Campbell’s figures show he was setting up, on average, 0.37 shots per game for his Stoke teammates before that Huddersfield game.
That jumped to 0.58 in the second half of last season and is currently 0.92 for his 13 appearances so far this term.
His number of crosses per match over the same periods have gone up from one to 1.6 to 1.9.
His all-important goal return has gone from one in 704 minutes under Nathan Jones to 12 in 2,167 under O’Neill.
Michael O’Neill won’t let up in trying to coax out all Tyrese Campbell’s potential… but it’s clear he’s very pleased with how his star asset is coming along.
The manager said after the win at Reading: “He’s developed a lot and there’s a lot more to go still.
“Tye has got fantastic natural attributes in terms of his speed, his physicality and he’s a great finisher. Those are three boxes to tick.
“He needs to find a little bit more in certain areas and I’m constantly at him but it’s terrific to see him progress.
“We’ve found a way to get him into the team as a wide forward, not a winger, a wide attacking threat.
“I don’t think he’s ready to play as a lone striker but when he plays up with Fletch (Steven Fletcher), he seems to enjoy it as well.
“I’m delighted with the progress he’s made.”
The minutes column is interesting too considering Jones’ frequent referral to ‘durability’.
Campbell averaged 36.8 minutes on the pitch under Jones last season. That increased to 63.2 post-Jones and has gone up again to 72.8 over the last chunk of this season.
He said: “I think as any player would tell you, you can only get match fit by playing games and with the previous manager I was very restricted with that.
“When I came in I was blowing up around 60 or 70 minutes.
“Now I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’ve had a good run of games consistently playing and I feel like I’m getting to a level when I can perform at my best. I feel great and I definitely feel that there’s more to improve on as well. It’s all positive.”
He added: “There’s no real running or training that compares to the running of a game. You could do four weeks of pure fitness and you’d still be blowing after 20 if it’s your first game back because there’s no sort of running that compares to the game.
“Getting some 90s in and playing 80s or 90s, the more I build it up, the more I increase my distances and speeds.”
Campbell has still had to fight for his place – competing with Lee Gregory, Vokes and Jacob Brown for a starting shirt, as well as Tom Ince – but his partnership with Fletcher has been a big positive as Stoke went into the international break one point outside the play-offs.
“The start of the season maybe wasn’t as good as I would have planned for myself,” he said. “I mean, I felt I could have played more minutes than I did but obviously now I’m getting the minutes that I want and I’m reaping the rewards for it.
“It’s better to have competition – and it’s healthy competition really because if there’s none sometimes you can get comfortable, not desperate to better yourself each game.
“I think at Stoke at the moment we’ve got that great balance of support and competition. Everyone wants to play and there’s a lot of good players in the attacking positions who are battling for places.
“It’s great that I’m playing and consistently performing and repaying the manager’s faith.”