Michael O’Neill points out that four of Stoke City’s most exciting players were already at the club when he arrived.
The problem was that frustrated Tyrese Campbell had one foot out of the door – Rangers and Celtic were lurking to get him for nothing on a cross-border Bosman – and a changing room full of well-paid disillusioned senior players wasn’t ideal to nurture the development of Joe Bursik, Harry Souttar and Nathan Collins.
O’Neill believes that changing the dynamic of the squad has been essential to their progress and for those young players coming in their wake; laying the platform, he hopes, to build the club in the long-term.
Twelve players have since left the club – 10 more senior players are currently out on loan – and the manager looks at free signings John Obi Mikel, Steven Fletcher and James Chester like he once did at his old teammates at Newcastle United as he broke through as a teenager in the 1980s… if not one Paul Gascoigne, who was only a couple of years older.
“I went to Newcastle as an 18-year-old,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that Gazza mentored me necessarily – showed me the ropes might be a better way of describing it!
“But I had really good senior professionals there, people like David McCreery, Glenn Roeder, Paul Goddard, in particular John Anderson, Kenny Wharton, who helped me as a young player because I’d gone into the team very quickly. Within three weeks of leaving school I was playing for the first team and you need good people around you.
“I’m well aware of the value of those types of players. That was a big thing for me coming in.
“The dressing room when I came to the club was difficult. It wasn’t a particularly good place for a young player to be in. There were a lot of disillusioned players and there can be a lot of negativity in a dressing room like that.
“It was really important for us to bring in Fletcher, Chester, Obi Mikel in particular and to add to the good senior players we had in the building, (Ryan) Shawcross, (Joe) Allen, Danny Batth… It’s very, very important.
“I think that’s why so many younger players have done well this season, that they’ve been able to come through.
“I even look at Josh Tymon. When we came to the club he was training with the 23s and he was a player who seemed to have no future at Stoke yet he was still a very, very young player.
“It’s very, very important that you have the right dressing room for young players to step into, that standards are high and discipline is good and they feel that those older players are looking out for them as well.”
Souttar, a contender for player of the season; Bursik, who has just helped Peterborough clinch promotion on loan after giving more than a glimpse of his potential; and Campbell, whose importance has been hammered home by his absence, have all signed new long-term deals since O’Neill took the job.
Collins, who was already tied down, has become a first team regular and key figure.
More academy graduates have been in the first team picture – nine players aged 21 and under have had game time – but the leap from junior football, the big jump from 18 to the man’s game, is still notoriously difficult.
O’Neill said: “It’s very difficult, very challenging now for a younger player to come through, probably more so than when I played because I was only competing against the best of the UK.
“I remember at Newcastle we had Mirandinha, for example, and he was the first Brazilian ever to come. It just shows you. Some clubs have five or six Brazilians in their ranks at the minute.
“It is quite challenging for young players to come through.
“This club has gone through that phase when we had some marquee signings, Arnautovic, Shaqiri, Bojan, big players.
“We’re kind of coming away from that at this minute in time, which you have to do in the Championship, and then you want to build the club so that it’s strong and if you are going to go into that market you are in a good position for those players to come and do well and add that little X factor that you are looking for from marquee signings.”
Stoke-on-Trent Live has launched a new commenting system, with the aim of generating better conversations and improving everyone’s experience of visiting the website.
How can I get involved?
Log on via the interface in the top right-hand corner of the website with your name and email address. Once you verify your email account, you’re good to go.
What type of comments are you looking for?
We want balanced and fair comments that are relevant to the story they are written on. We also encourage you to respond to other comments, as long as you do so respectfully.
We’ll be switching on a follow button, so if you’re interested in one particular story, you’ll get an email to your account whenever anyone says something new.
Constructive feedback on articles is also welcomed.
The question was put to O’Neill about whether he would hope to be shopping in that market too in the future, even if it seems a long way down the line at the moment.
“I hope it’s not that long!” he said.
“You have to build a real solid base. I think we’re doing that and we’ll continue to build on that.
“If you look at the players that people are excited a lot about – Campbell, Bursik, Collins, Souttar – they were all here, we just needed to get them through to the team. We couldn’t keep blocking their route to play.
“There’s Josh too and we’ve obviously brought in Tashan Oakley-Boothe and Alfie Doughty to the club too, Jordan Thompson and Jacob Brown who are a little bit older and they’ve had experience of playing EFL football even if they are still relatively young.
“There’s a freshness about the team and the club which didn’t exist when I came, if I’m honest, and that was the direction the club needed to go and the most important thing now is that those players add something to us while we continue to improve the squad.
“They now have to step up and really deliver on the first team stage.”
As for Gascogine, O’Neill played one season alongside him at Newcastle and it would be remiss not to ask how he found him.
“I got the best of Gazza I always say – and people ask me that question a lot,” he said.
“At that time, Gazza was probably the best young player – even if maybe not recognised as the best young player in English football. A good example of that is Euro 1988 when he wasn’t part of the squad.
“But that season at Newcastle he was outstanding and sold for a British record fee of £2.2m at the end to Tottenham.
“I remember playing in one of Terry Venables’ first games back in English football at St James’s and him standing very tanned on the sideline having come back from Barcelona. We won 2-0 and Gazza scored twice.
“He was a fantastic player. Great fun to be around. It was a big learning curve for me as a young lad coming out of school to be suddenly training with that any day.
“It was before he had any injuries or the challenges that he faced in his career afterwards. He was a pure footballer and you saw moments of genius on the pitch.”