Stoke City hero Gerry Taggart has been proved right about Michael O’Neill



It is coming up to five months ago that Stoke City were searching for a new manager and pundits, players and fans from Northern Ireland were singing the praises of one Michael O’Neill.

O’Neill had been international manager for eight years and was and is a huge favourite so it was interesting to turn to Belfast for an insight on what he might bring to club football.

So looking back from this vantage point, were they right?

Well, yes.

Gerry Taggart, for one, spoke of O’Neill’s organisational skills and the ability to unlock players’ potential.

That has been evident since, with pretty every man regularly involved for Stoke in the Championship this season finding better form over the winter as they added more confidence and direction to their game.

James McClean has been transformed, Joe Allen rediscovered Joe Allen, Tyrese Campbell forced his way into a starting spot, Nick Powell has come to the fore, Jack Butland and Danny Batth have been keeping more clean sheets and… you get the picture.

As for organisational skills, Stoke have been set up clearly on and off the ball, playing as a team in attack and defence.

Taggart had said back in November: “There are a number of different things you need as a manager, it’s not just one particular strength. But when you watch his teams play, they are very well organised without the ball, which in today’s game is massively important.

“He plays to a certain structure but within that certain players will have freedom of expression when you have the ball.

“And probably most importantly, especially with Northern Ireland, he’s dragged every last ounce out of all those players to get them in contention for qualifying for Euro 2020.

“Obviously it’s going to be very difficult but all the players are singing from the same hymn sheet and they are all buying into what he wants to do, which is very important for any dressing room.”

O’Neill had two club management jobs previously on his CV, having been in charge of Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers, who he guided to back-to-back Irish titles and the Europa League group stages before heading into international football.

This time he was walking into a club still hungover from relegation in 2018, sitting bottom of the Championship with just eight points from their first 15 games, with a bloated and expensive squad and fans and players divided.

Taggart warned: “There are a lot of problems at Stoke, a lot of unrest. Speaking when I was there in pre-season, speaking to some of the people involved at the club it’s not a happy place at the minute.

“There will be a lot of comings and goings, to-ings and fro-ings and it will take time.”

O’Neill still talks about short and long-term plans when he’s asked about his vision, with the immediate focus still on securing Stoke’s position at this level for next season – with nine matches still hopefully to be played as soon as possible.

But he has made a superb start to life at the bet365 Stadium.

Stoke have climbed up the table out of the relegation zone and hit 17th – a seasonal high – with a 5-1 thrashing of Hull City before the coronavirus-enforced break.

On the road there have been memorable wins at West Brom, Barnsley and Huddersfield and at HQ, where they had previously won just once in 13, they have regained something of a fortress.

There will still be comings and goings, to-ings and fro-ings to get where O’Neill wants – but he’s going in the right direction.





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