Michael O’Neill on 12 months in charge at Stoke City, the challenges, highlights and hopes for the future


It says a lot just to know that Michael O’Neill is the first in four Stoke City managers to make it to a first anniversary.

A club which was renowned for its stability had suddenly had five bosses in less than two years. The end of the Mark Hughes era spiralled into a bloated, unbalanced, frustrated, frustrating and expensively-assembled squad that was being sucked into League One.

There had been 10 signings in the relegation season of 2017/18, 11 in the next and 10 in the summer of 2019 as Hughes and then each of his successors tried to put their own stamp on an increasingly toxic cocktail.

By the time Nathan Jones had left after nine months and 23 days in the saddle, Stoke were bottom of the Championship with two wins from their first 14 games. They lost their next one too, a dispiriting collapse against West Bromwich Albion in front of the TV cameras.

There was the darkening shadow of Financial Fair Play too, an EFL rule that limited losses to £39m for any club over three seasons and meant Stoke, even with billionaire owners desperate to invest, were walking on eggshells.

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So in came O’Neill, fresh from more than eight years in charge of Northern Ireland. It has been a remarkable 12 months for lots of reasons.

Looking back this week, he said: “When we came in here, you’re not bottom of the league for no reason, you’re bottom of the league because things aren’t right.

“There are two things: you’re either not good enough or there’s other underlying problems.

“We had a squad of players that was certainly too good to be at the bottom of the league, there’s no doubt about that.

“But we also had a squad of players that didn’t particularly have a focus, perhaps. It would be wrong for me to tar everyone with the same brush but we had players who didn’t see either their short or long term future at the club.

“So you have to address that.

“When you’re at the bottom of the table you need players who go onto the pitch and die for you, fight for the club and fight for the situation we’re in. That essentially was our focus.

“If you go back over the transfer windows, we had six players left in January and three who came in. This window, we had four or five who left at the end of their contracts and more than that when you take into account the loans, and we’ve added six with Angus Gunn.

“Overall we’ve tried to reduce the squad, we’ve tried to reduce the cost of the squad with wages so we’re a bit more self-sufficient.

“We’re obviously in difficult times with where clubs are financially, all clubs.

“You can always go out and look for players but we had players around the club we felt could contribute. The likes of Harry Souttar, Nathan Collins. Tyrese Campbell is an example of a player who when I arrived at the club I was told that he was leaving. He’s now on a long-term contract at the club.

“We didn’t want potential to leave the building so we had to address that. Equally then we had to get the right types of characters and right types of players into the building. I think we’ve done that.

“There is still work to be done. You’re always looking to improve your squad.

“But as a squad we’re certainly stronger than where we were and there is a better all-round feel to the place than when we arrived 12 months ago.”

There have still been eight more new signings but only £2.5m Jacob Brown and Jordan Thompson, undisclosed but modest, cost a transfer fee.

Instead, O’Neill has brought in experienced free agents John Obi Mikel, James Chester and Steven Fletcher and free transfer prospect Tashan Oakley-Boothe while utilising Souttar, Collins and Campbell, getting the best out of Danny Batth, Sam Clucas, Nick Powell and James McClean.

“We’ve added players in the right area,” he said. “People, I think, expected us to sign a different kind of player than we did.

“We had the situation where we had players who were returning to the club and we had to go into the market and take some older players – but they were the players who were available to us and I think those players in particular have created a good vibe and good confidence about the place.”

John Obi Mikel joined Stoke City as a free agent after a four-hour chat with Michael O’Neill.

The long-term plan is to get Stoke as a sustainable and successful club back in the Premier League, however long that takes – but the journey to reach that should be fun.

There have already been some memorable highlights.

O’Neill said: “I think you enjoy every game when your team plays well and you win. I felt the game at West Brom was a really big result for us in the grand scheme of things.

“I felt the home win against Sheffield Wednesday was as well because it kind of gave us a feel of what the bet365 can be like and the atmosphere on the day was brilliant. I think the fans saw a team that fought to the end that they possibly hadn’t seen for a while to be honest.

“Those stick out in the memory as well.

“You learn more about the club and the squad every day. Every day I’m still learning how things are here and I’m still dealing with how to manage the players and how to manage a squad of this size, which is still probably too big but that’s due to the fact that players have contracts and players nowadays won’t necessarily move unless it’s right for them.

“There are still scenarios which unfortunately will take time to get us focused.

“We would still ideally like a more refined squad and to continue to add quality to it as well.”

Stoke have been floating around the Championship top half so far this season.

In the longer term, whatever the results at Vicarage Road and the Madejski, it is hoped that the club has turned the corner and can ultimately become renowned for its stability once again.

O’Neill, via his Zoom link, said: “Good question given my CEO has just entered the room!

“I think what we see today not just in English football that the manager is expendable and different clubs have different methods and structures.

“We probably as a club here had a period here of instability with managers. From a selfish point of view, I hope we’re going into a stable period now.”

Michael O’Neill oversees training at Stoke City.

That doesn’t mean quite mean he’s wearing slippers around the training ground. A lot of hard work has been done, he says, but there is still a lot more to do.

He said: “I was coming from international football and I wasn’t sure in club football how players would react to possibly not playing, how much they actually cared about whether they played or didn’t play.

“You are also dealing with players who have come down from the Premier League or players who had been brought to the club for substantial fees who were on very good contracts. That in itself presented a challenge given where the club was at that minute in time.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task and it would take a lot of work. That has certainly proven to be the case.

“But I feel overall we have taken a lot of positive steps, there are still a lot of positive steps to take and hopefully we can put the right structure in place and right team in place to make those steps.”





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