Danny Higginbotham has been on pundit duty for both of Stoke City‘s clashes against promotion-chasing West Bromwich Albion this season.
The first, a sapping 2-0 home defeat back in October a couple of days after Nathan Jones had been sacked, left most onlookers fearing that relegation, not just a relegation fight, was becoming a probability.
The second, an energetic, disciplined 1-0 away win in late January, highlighted the impact that Michael O’Neill had made since inheriting the squad just after that first game.
“That looked, for me, the turning point,” said Higginbotham in an interview for Sky Sports.
“With Nathan Jones being there before I think everyone wanted him to do well; his desire, his commitment, his enthusiasm, you couldn’t question whatsoever.
“I just felt that West Brom game typified what Michael O’Neill has done since he has come to the club.
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“From the outside looking in, it seemed like every person on the pitch knew what was expected of them, there was a game plan and continuity and stability. Defensively they looked rock solid – I think Danny got man of the match in that game.
“It had been a game when people would have thought Stoke might go and get a hiding. We know how strong West Brom are and the goals they score.
“But it was a performance which made me realise things had really turned around and there was a great togetherness as well.”
Higginbotham is a lauded commentator these days and speaks with knowledge, insight and objectivity across the league.
But his emotion had shown after that loss to Albion at the bet365 Stadium as he spoke about Stoke’s fall from an established Premier League club to the cusp of League One.
He said, looking back: “The one thing that frustrated me early in the season, it was like it was seen that it was all the responsibility of the group of players who are there now.
“This is something that doesn’t happen overnight. Things don’t just go wrong overnight.
“I’ve been unfortunate to get relegated twice from the Premier League – and in both of those seasons we had three different managers. It’s a collective over the last few years where it has gradually gone a little sour.
“So yes, players were getting the brunt of it early in the season when things weren’t going right but it has been difficult. You find yourself in a group of players that have been signed by different managers, what they offer might not fit the next manager.
“Regardless of what anyone says, that can have an effect in the dressing room.
“Michael O’Neill has brought everyone together.”