Whisper it in Belfast but sad news for Northern Ireland is great news for Stoke City.
Michael O’Neill has confirmed that he is standing down as international manager to concentrate on club football. It seemed inevitable he would be forced into a decision on now, rather than after the Euro 2020 qualifiers, as the calendar just kept being pushed back. He had always insisted juggling two jobs was not possible in the long-term.
To be fair, no one could question that he hasn’t been fully committed to Stoke over the winter after walking into all the turmoil which had been boiling up for a couple of years – but this is one less big thing for him to worry about.
Stoke have given everyone enough to worry about on their own for long enough!
It has quickly become clear that O’Neill seems like the right man to lead Stoke forward, steadily, when football does come back, whenever that may be. If survival is assured, however that may be, they will be ready for a new chapter, a fresh start.
This might be his first job in English football but he’s still an experienced pair of hands; the right personality with the right credentials.
The hardest thing for any manager is to go into a club which is heading in the wrong direction. When you have been gaining momentum in a bad way, there is an urgency to stop that and push back against the tide.
To do that there will be some decisions that fans won’t see – and might not even like.
When there were defeats in November or December, there will have been a lot who felt that the players needed an earful.
But a good manager will know that there are often reasons why players are not performing, there are relationships that haven’t worked and that you have to create something in that dressing room to get things right. You have to forge a bond.
Screaming the paint from the walls after a deflating loss at Cardiff or Hull would have been the popular option but it probably wouldn’t have had right effect. Far better to build trust.
It is amazing the impact it can have when you know a boss who has faith in your ability and won’t be ripping things up after a bad day.
I remember Alan Curbishley once telling me that even if there are players at a club who you don’t want, they should never know that. Keep that information away and make sure everyone feels like they’ve got a chance.
When the time comes to move someone on, take it – but until then, you need each player to think they are a part. You never know who you are going to need.
Nick Powell is a case in point. He hardly featured in 2019 but has been one of the stars of 2020 as Stoke pulled out of the relegation zone.
He’s obviously a talented lad – you don’t go to Manchester United for nothing – but the key is to find the right environment, the right position for him to prosper.
He must have been walking on air as the games went on, feeling more important and an integral part of the team and that translated into his contribution.
Sometimes players can get down on themselves and lose belief. A good coach will talk about the good things that you can do rather than focus on the negatives – because unless you’re in the top echelon, everyone will have weaknesses.
And that’s what O’Neill has seemed to have done with Tyrese Campbell, to the point where he has kept him at the club when it seemed he was bound for Rangers.
Yes, he’s young and with that you’ll probably get a bit of inconsistency but he’ll have every chance with a manager who believes in him.
If I was a striker, I would it if criticism heading my way was that all I did was score goals. It’s the hardest thing in football and I would rather have that trait in someone than someone who could belt one over an open net from six yards, no matter what else they bring to the party.
It’s been such a long time since Stoke had a striker who scored 15 goals or more and teams who are going to be successful in the Championship need one of those.
It’s sad to think that we don’t know when we’ll get to see goals again.
We keep reading and hearing about dates football could start again… then each day we read and hear the news. It feels like it’s going to be a long time until we see 20 or 30 thousand fans watching matches again.
I hope we can get into a situation when we can get games on behind closed doors just to get the season finish but unfortunately, this virus will dictate times and terms.
It is awkward to talk about leagues and points when there are people dying and thousands of families affected. We are going to have to be patient – and we’ll never take normality for granted again.