I’m calling it. I’m saying it right now. Stoke City will not be relegated this season.
Yes, I know the numbers are still too close for us to start getting complacent and, of course, I know that I’m seriously tempting fate with such a bold statement.
In all honesty, though, after the 5-1 romp against Hull City I can’t see how we can go down. We’re on 42 points right now and that leaves us seven and eight points ahead of Luton Town and Barnsley respectively.
Given our vastly superior goal difference to both of those two sides our lead over those pair is effectively eight and nine points.
I can’t see either of them managing to overhaul that lead of ours in the games remaining.
That basically means that, to avoid being relegated, we need to finish above just one of the other five sides down there at the bottom, and all currently below us, and I can’t see that not happening.
Barring a spectacular collapse from us in our 11 remaining games I don’t see how we can finish below Middlesbrough, Huddersfield, Wigan, Hull and Charlton.
True, we do still have to play Middlesbrough and Wigan (as well as Barnsley) but it’s hard to imagine that we’ll manage to finish lower than both Charlton and Hull.
It will be uncomfortable for us if we were to lose to, say, both Middlesbrough and Wigan, but the reason for my optimism is based squarely on our form since manager Michael O’Neill took over.
Saturday’s win saw us draw level with home victories over home defeats in the Championship this season. That may not sound like much of an achievement, but when O’Neill took charge of our club our home record was won one, drawn one and lost six of our first eight home games.
After Saturday’s win we now have a record of won eight, drawn three and lost eight.
That means that in O’Neill’s 11 games in charge at the bet365 we have won seven, drawn two and lost two.
For a team that was in such a wretched state when he took over, completely devoid of any form or confidence, that’s a mightily impressive achievement, and it sits well with a perfectly acceptable away record as well.
Along with the form has come a veritable feast of goals. Our manager may like to play just one out-and-out striker in his side, but that hasn’t stopped us scoring plenty of goals.
It’s hard to believe that a side which had failed to score three goals in a competitive fixture for almost 90 matches has now netted three threes, a four and two fives in O’Neill’s 22 league games in charge.
So marked is our improvement under Michael O’Neill that a form table of the Championship since Christmas Day, which was published by StokeonTrentLive, has us in third place, just behind play-off and promotion hopefuls Nottingham Forest and Fulham.
In fact we have a game in hand on Forest in that form table and if we won it we’d go above them!
That we can be in the top places of such a form table and yet still be mathematically embroiled in the midst of a desperate relegation battle bears testament to the sorry mess we were under Nathan Jones and the astonishing recovery we’ve made under Michael O’Neill.
All we need to do now under our Northern Irish manager is to keep up some semblance of the form he’s already overseen and not only will we avoid relegation this season, but I firmly believe we’ll lay a solid foundation for a much more pronounced improvement next season.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Stoke City if some joy and cause for optimism wasn’t accompanied by a reason to be depressed or concerned and it’s desperately sad to see that Saturday cost us the services of Joe Allen for, at least, the rest of this season.
I know that Allen is a player who divides opinion and is the cause for much debate among Stoke supporters, but the truth of the matter is that he has been the beating heart of our recovery and is going to be severely missed for the rest of this season.
Where will Stoke City finish this season?
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That we should lose him at a time when the other workhorse of the Stoke side, James McClean, is also out of the team is a serious blow for us and will test the physical and mental strength of the team in the remaining weeks.
All I can do is wish him a speedy recovery and to let him know that his contribution, ear-cupping antics aside, are appreciated.
His effort levels never drop below 100 per cent and his honest endeavours expose those players around him who don’t put in a similar workload.
We have pretty much managed to dig ourselves out of a major hole this season and I expect us to continue to show the kind of form which has got us where we are now.
You don’t execute that sort of recovery by being just a one or two-man team and I really think we’ll be okay, despite the loss of such a key, influential player.
It’s been quite some time since I felt good, or particularly positive, about a Stoke City team and while I can see there’s still plenty of work to be done with this one I honestly feel like we’re seeing the first chinks of sunlight breaking through the dark clouds which have been hovering for the past three years.
We are starting to look like a club which is developing a confidence in its abilities and a sense of what it’s trying to do and what it can do.
There’s one massive job still to be completed this season, but I seriously expect us to do it and I’m already looking ahead to what else might be achieved in the foreseeable future.