This time last year we were looking at the Championship table in a panic, knowing that history told us that whoever was bottom on Christmas Day was fighting against the odds to stay up.
Stoke City had eight points from 15 games and, even after winning the next one – Michael O’Neill’s first, at Barnsley – they were still bottom on December 25 and it took a monumental effort to pull them to safety.
The form they showed in the second half of 2019/20 and in the first third of this season has turned everything on its head – but that mid-way table will again make for interesting reading.
On January 1, in eight games time, Stoke will have played half the season and, never mind their own escape act 12 months ago, O’Neill will not that at that stage of last term, Leeds United, West Brom and Fulham were already positioned in the top four.
This time around it’s really tight.
The mid-week defeats for Norwich and Bournemouth have pegged everyone back in the race – and fighting for that win at Wycombe has kept Stoke firmly in the picture.
It was a hard-fought game but Stoke have a couple of players who can make the difference.
James McClean came off the bench and offers that balance; a left footer who can cross early or late, who stretches teams – and he’s a character who wears his heart on his sleeve.
It was his cross that picked out Nick Powell, who is very clever and the main man for me. He’s cute at finding space and creating space, not only for himself but for others. He reads the game well and when you have the whole team functioning, he flourishes.
He needs to get into those advanced positions, not be dragged into wide areas.
Sam Vokes had helped in that regard because he comes into action around the penalty area. His strength is his ability, making short runs and taking players with him, like the two he dragged across to leave a hole for Powell at the back post.
Vokes has got the majority of his goals in the area so he needs to be watched and that’s where his teammates will benefit.
The key is balance, whatever your style is, and you need players with pace and dribbling ability as well as players like Steven Fletcher and Powell.
It’s an unusual situation for Stoke to be in with the goalkeepers – but throughout a season every team will have to face problems and you hope it doesn’t have too much of an effect.
Stoke have got a very strong squad, one of the strongest in the division, and that should be to their benefit as every manager tries to wade through such a busy schedule.
John Obi Mikel is key to the stability so he is a miss but there is also Ryan Shawcross coming back who adds mental strength and a threat to players with his presence. There is Harry Souttar, James Chester, Danny Batth and a big fight for places in there that keeps people on their toes.
Nathan Collins is doing the same at right-back and I’m sure having that training is a bit different because of that. It gets more spiky and that’s what you need.
There are a lot of mind games you have to use to keep players fresh and focused.
It’s an interesting division. Cardiff are putting a few games together and Blackburn are a team to watch, especially with Adam Armstrong scoring so many goals.
What a season Preston are having. Who would have thought they would lose six at home and win five away. They’re on a rollercoaster and I don’t think the manager is enjoying the ride. They have some key players in their last year of contracts and when things like that are in the hands of agents, it can cast a shadow.
Middlesbrough will be a good test for Stoke too so let’s hope they can come through it.
Stoke City fixtures
5 December, Saturday, 3pm: Stoke City v Middlesbrough
8 December, Tuesday, 7.45pm: Stoke City v Cardiff City
12 December, Saturday, 3pm: Derby County v Stoke City
15 December, Tuesday, 5.30pm: Queens Park Rangers v Stoke City
19 December, Saturday, 3pm: Stoke City v Blackburn Rovers
23 December, Wednesday, 5.30pm: Stoke City v Spurs – Carabao Cup quarter-final
26 December, Saturday, 3pm: Coventry City v Stoke City
29 December, Tuesday, 8pm: Stoke City v Nottingham Forest
2 January, Saturday, 3pm: Stoke City v A.F.C. Bournemouth
THERE is a lot of talk about dementia at the moment and head injuries sustained in football have been highlighted.
There has been a call for an independent doctor to be at matches to make decisions about whether a player should be allowed to stay or not – but why? If a club has its own doctor they should already be independent and with the players’ health as their only concern. They have taken years of qualifying to get into that position and they are qualified to make an objective decision. To suggest otherwise is insulting.
It was still a surprise to see Davis Luiz carry on playing after clashing heads with Raul Jimenez, who was left with a fractured skull. For all the discussion and the message it sent out, that seemed irresponsible.
On a different injury note, I grimace every time I see a player celebrating by sliding on their knees to the corner for 10 or 20 yards and I’d be furious if I was their manager. I feel sorry for a player who scores 20 times a season because that could do a lot of damage.
Why are they doing it? Does the corner flag speak to them? Does it tell them they’re lovely or brilliant? They might think it looks cool – and perhaps they want a hairdresser in the corner next, just to make sure they’re at their best – but it’s a daft thing to do.
You’re at your most vulnerable when you’ve scored. Just get back in position.
I remember when I scored a goal for Stoke once and Jackie Marsh jumped on my back in celebration. I just carried him back to the half-way line!