If there was any doubt about the fact we’re involved in a scrap for our lives then it was removed over the past week.
Despite gaining a home win and two away draws, and conceding just one goal in three games, we were saved from dropping back into the bottom three only by an 87th minute Nottingham Forest equaliser at Middlesbrough on Monday night.
Our form of just one win from the past five games (I know, after I just mentioned how well we’d done in the past three) is partly responsible for that, coinciding, as it has, with the unexpectedly outstanding form of Luton, Barnsley and Wigan Athletic – all of whom are showing worrying signs of making a real fight of beating the drop.
The stark reality of our situation is that only we can save ourselves. We cannot rely on anybody else to do the work. We have to look at our 10 remaining fixtures, work out which games we have to win… and then make sure we do.
In most Championship years you can expect to escape relegation with no more than 45 points. Indeed, in eight of the last 10 seasons you’d have been safe with the following number of points – 41, 43, 41, 42, 45, 41, 43 and 48. Given that we’re currently on 39 points, we’d have been almost home and dry in most years.
However, in 2016/17 Blackburn were relegated on 51 points and, even more alarmingly, in 2012/13 Peterborough went down on 54 points and seven away wins to their credit.
This season it’s starting to look extremely likely that you’re going to need at least 50 to 52 points to make sure of survival.
That means we’re probably going to need at least four more victories to be safe, and we have a host of games coming up which fall into the “must win” category. Lose one or more of them and the consequences could be disastrous.
From the following crunch games we simply have to be looking to win at least three – Hull (h), Middlesbrough (h), Wigan (a) and Barnsley (h). After that we’re going to need another win or two, and possibly a couple of draws from games against the likes of Reading (a), Leeds (a), Birmingham (h), Bristol City (a), Brentford (h) and Nottingham Forest (a). The points are there to be won and we have to get them. The time for excuses has gone.
We would have helped ourselves no end had we held on for the win at Luton on Saturday, but instead conceded that last-minute penalty and threw away two points.
There are plenty of Stoke fans who believe our manager was a little negative at Kenilworth Road, and while I do tend to agree, I don’t want to be too negative about Michael O’Neill.
He’s been a breath of fresh air since he came to Stoke, and the only reason we have any chance at all of saving ourselves is because of the work he has done since inheriting the calamitous mess left by Nathan Jones.
At Luton, though, I felt he could have taken a lot of late pressure off us by throwing Tyrese Campbell on to take advantage of the holes being left at the back by an increasingly desperate home side.
In the end I felt we paid for sitting back on a lead for too long, and in the final analysis Stoke will be judged by both supporters and the league table on our end results, not by what we nearly did in games.
To be fair to Michael O’Neill, we had glorious chances through Tom Ince and Nick Powell to add a second goal, and whether or not James Chester’s tackle was worthy of a penalty doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a tackle which didn’t need to be made.
There are three instances there of players who could have done better at key moments. Sadly, we are where we are this season because so many of our players have been found wanting at critical moments in key games this season. We have done the wrong thing at the wrong time in too many matches.
For that reason, I find myself despairing at Ince. He was signed as an impact player, and yet his footprint in games is minimal.
He has just two goals to his name in 15 months, and he fell behind Tommy Smith for assists after our right-back set up Sam Vokes for his goal at Luton.
This is not good enough, and while it would be wrong to single out any player as the cause of our problems, Ince remains a player who should be contributing so much more than he is doing.
Finally, when oh when is Jack Butland – or any Stoke goalkeeper for that matter – actually going to save a penalty?
The last one to do so during a game was Tommy Sorensen back in December 2013. That means the last 31 or so penalties given against us have ended up in the back of the net – and something like 46 out of the last 47 in total.
When we concede a penalty the same thing happens pretty much every time. The opposing player gets it on target and our keeper gently flops the wrong way. Nobody misses or hits the woodwork against us, and the word is out – just get the damn thing on target and you’ll score.
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As much as taking a penalty is a skill you can work on, so is trying to save one, so our failure to stop a single one in more than six years represents a failure of technique and coaching.
They haven’t all been buried into the top or bottom corner and many, including Luton’s, were not particularly well-placed or well-struck.
It’s something we need to work on. It’s not good enough to shrug our shoulders and pretend it’s ‘one of those things’.
The average success rate of penalties in professional football is about 70% or slightly higher, not the 100% we’ve endured in recent times. We need to do something about it.
So here we go into the final stretch of the season, 10 games to go and points we must win – starting this weekend against free-falling Hull City.
Our fate remains in our hands and that’s all we can ask for. Results elsewhere are not important if we look after our own games.