Michael O’Neill has performed minor miracle at Stoke City – but mess he inherited leaves no room for error



Michael O’Neill raised a slight smile when he was asked last week about an upcoming big match. All matches, he said, have been big matches since he arrived at Stoke City .

He’s right, of course and it’s been no mean feat that he has risen above the hype and the nail-biting in the last 20 games. He’s not been too high when Stoke have won, not been too low when Stoke have lost.

He inherited a mess and anyone would have snapped their hands off if, with just EIGHT points in the bag from the first 15 matches, to be up to 39 at this stage.

Stoke felt doomed in the autumn. Defeats to Birmingham, Huddersfield and Millwall were the Championship equivalent of being kicked up the backside, kicked in the groin and kicked into the gutter.

O’Neill grabbed a club that was falling into the pits of League One – with fans in complete despair at the disaster they had watched unfold over the previous four years – and got down to brass tacks.

He’s a manager who has prioritised the basics, from team shape to how to defend throw-ins. Following the doomed short reigns of Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones, he seems exactly what was needed.

Only Derby (seven) have conceded fewer goals at home in this division than Stoke (10) since O’Neill took over. It is no coincidence that those twice-weekly mentions of game-changing individual errors have gone down.

Now it’s in their own hands and it has been weird listening to a series of neutral pundits not even mention Stoke in discussions about the bottom three. They are seventh favourites to go down with some bookies, 10th with others.

But that terrible start – for context, it was 14 fewer points from the first 15 games than Stoke picked up in 1997/98, the last time they were relegated from this division – leaves so little room for error.

A win against Hull on Saturday would be ginormous.

They leapfrog Hull, who haven’t won in 11 in all competitions since New Year’s Day, and grind them down. They could leapfrog Charlton and Wigan too and possibly Huddersfield if, for once, results elsewhere are favourable.

The form book and the bookies back them to do it – but a dodgy red card, a silly penalty, a smash and grab raid or Hull suddenly turning into Brazil 1970 and the next few days and weeks might just be unbearable.

So yes, all the games since Michael O’Neill took over have been big.

But this is probably Stoke’s biggest since they hosted Crystal Palace in May 2018 needing to win to stay in the Premier League.

Let us hope that we are not saying that the following week too… and the week after that.

CHAMPIONSHIP FIXTURES THIS WEEKEND

Friday: Nottingham Forest v Millwall

Saturday: Barnsley v Cardiff, Birmingham v Reading, Brentford v Sheffield Wednesday, BristoL Ctiy v Fulham Charlton v Middlesbrough, Leeds v Huddersfield, Preston v QPR, Swansea v West Brom, Wigan v Luton Town

Sunday: Derby v Blackburn





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