Stoke City had given their supporters a taste of magic before the football gods reached in and ripped out their hearts.
It was October 1993 and Lou Macari had just led a swashbuckling side to the Division Two title and had the newly-formed Premier League in its nostrils. Manchester United had come in the League Cup and a Mark Stein-inspired performance had beaten them 2-1, even if they would win the second leg back at Old Trafford.
It was a team that was at one with fans, who were travelling in huge numbers around the country, like 5,000 in the rain at Blackpool, more than 1,000 on a Tuesday night at Swansea.
Then Chelsea came and stole Stein for £1.4m and Celtic came and stole Macari to replace Liam Brady. It was a slap in the face, kick in the groin double whammy that left everyone at the Victoria Ground seriously winded, wounded and wretched.
It is a memory which is being stirred now as Michael O’Neill’s name is thrown into the mix as a possible successor to Neil Lennon at Celtic.
He had been headhunted back in 2016 but stayed with Northern Ireland, who he led into the European Championships knock-out stages. He turned down the Scotland job too, in time, before accepting a big project at Stoke in November 2019.
Celtic are expected to keep John Kennedy as caretaker boss until the end of the season, when they are also replacing chief executive Peter Lawwell with Dominic McKay from the Scottish Rugby Union, while they are also tipped to appoint a new director of football.
There is no shortage of proposed candidates and Kennedy is odds-on favourite to get the gig on a permanent basis. Enzo Maresca is 5/1, Eddie Howe and Roberto Martinez both 8/1 and ex-Stoke manager Paul Lambert at nines.
There is Frank Lampard (10/1), Steve Clarke (12/1) and Julien Stephan, Martin O’Neill, Rafa Benitez and Sean Dyche (16/1) before the bookies get to Michael O’Neill at 20/1, level with Alex Neil and Roy Keane, even if Chris Sutton has been piping up with his own suggestion.
Stoke is a very different club from 28 years ago, even if it’s in the same division with the same chairman – who is considerably richer. There’s a new stadium, new training ground and about as stable an ownership model as a manager could dream, even if results did spark a two-year merrygoround before O’Neill’s arrival.
In fact, O’Neill said himself yesterday, when talking about how to sell Stoke to prospective signings: “What we do have to sell is a fantastic club, great facilities, great stadium, huge fan base. We’ve just got to get people to see we’re a club that is really determined to move in the right direction and get out of this league.”
Peter Coates, now joint-chairman with son John, recalled Macari’s departure – and, as it happened, return the following season.
“Lou had told us, ‘Although I’ve moved clubs, I’d rather stay here and settle down. I will only leave you for two clubs… Celtic and Manchester United,’ he said in an interview with The Sentinel in 2017.
“In fact, we had played Manchester United in a cup game, beat them at home but then lost to them away and got knocked out.
“I was watching the results on the boardroom TV after the game at Manchester United when it flashed up ‘Liam Brady sacked at Celtic’. I thought, ‘I’m going to get a call.’
“It was a Wednesday night. On Thursday I got the call.”
He added: “Lou had got the crowd back on side. I was feeling we were going somewhere, and the crowd was feeling that too.”
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Macari was actually replaced at Stoke by Brady’s Celtic assistant Joe Jordan.
Coates said: “(Jordan) did nothing wrong while he was at Stoke City. Not exciting, but no messing up and nothing had gone spectacularly wrong. Mid-tablish.
“Then Lou lost his job and there was a big cry to get him back, so Joe was a very unfortunate manager.
“I was embarrassed by it and explained that to Joe. He got paid up and understood the problem. He had done nothing wrong and was just a victim of circumstance, but the way I felt about Lou Macari, he had to come back.”