Many questioned Michael O’Neill’s sanity after he was appointed Stoke City manager back in November.
At the time Stoke were in full-blown crisis mode. Nathan Jones had been given the boot after a painful period - the fourth boss to be sacked by the club in less than two years, after Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert and Gary Rowett.
The Potters were rooted to the foot of the Championship with only two wins to their name. Well-paid players were under-performing, lacking confidence, and making a series of almost comical errors. A second relegation in three seasons was a genuine concern.
Meanwhile, Stoke supporters had a right to be sceptical themselves, given that O’Neill had been absent from club level management since 2011, back when he was in charge of Shamrock Rovers. He’d also never managed a game in England.
But, in the space of three months it’s so far proved to be a shrewd move, by both club and manager. Here’s why…
Let’s start with the most obvious factor. The upturn in results.
O’Neill took charge of a Stoke side who had had only two wins from their opening 13 Championship games. That’s a win rate of just 13.3%.
Within 24 hours of his appointment, O’Neill inspired a thumping 4-2 win away to Barnsley. Not only was it Stoke’s biggest win since May 2015, it was the first time they had netted more than two goals in a game since December 2017.
Fast-forward to the current day, and O’Neill has recorded seven wins from 14 games. It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out that this equates to a 50% win rate, which is an improvement of 36.%.
It’s not just the accumulation of wins but te teams they are beating. Stoke have 10 points from their last four matches alone, which includes impressive back-to-back wins to nil against the promotion-chasing duo of West Brom and Swansea. The Potters now have the opportunity to win three consecutive league games for the first time since the club was relegated in 2018.
O’Neill has subsequently elevated Stoke up to 19th, seven points clear of the relegation zone, having previously been rock-bottom and six points adrift of safety.
Impact Man: Michael O'Neill
Simply put, Stoke are unrecognisable from the shambolic outfit that took to the field during the first third of the season.
O’Neill’s excellent man-management skills and motivational techniques have rejuvenated players; from James McClean with five goals and three assists, to a revived Joe Allen, while Nick Powell is now shining, at long last.
Gone are the egos, and in their place is a collective unity.
There’s a real energy and zip around the place. Players looked pleased to be there and that’s highlighted through their performances. Only four teams - Brentford, Millwall, Fulham and Leeds - have bagged more points than Stoke (23) since O’Neill took over.
“There is a really good spirit in the dressing room, which is important, and we don’t have that many disgruntled players now, which is important as well,” O’Neill revealed to the Stoke Sentinel.
”When we came here, there were more players out of the team than in it and that makes it difficult to build the right atmosphere within the group.”
Rejuvenated at both ends of the pitch
Stoke were leaking goals for fun at the start of the season, many of which were the result of costly individual errors. During that opening 15 game period they conceded 27 goals, compared to just 15 in 14 games under O’Neill.
Stoke now know what it’s like to defend again. They look well-drilled, organised and perhaps most important less prone to game-changing errors.
In the absence of Ryan Shawcross and Stephen Ward, O’Neill has settled on a backline of Bruno Martins Indy, Liam Lindsay, Danny Batth and Tommy Smith, who have look settled and assured. In turn, Stoke have carded 10 points from a possible 12, and kept three successive clean sheets.
After scoring just 13 goals in 15 games, Stoke have since fired in 23 goals in 14 games with O’Neill at the helm. There’s been a real spread of goalscorers too with Sam Clucas and Tyrese Campbell (both four), Joe Allen, Sam Vokes, James McClean (all three) each scoring at least three goals during this time.
Stoke were rock bottom when they appointed Michael O'Neill as their manager— The Sack Race (@thesackrace) January 25, 2020
Since then they've won seven games including beating West Brom away and are now seven points clear of the relegation zone 🔴⚪#SCFC pic.twitter.com/i4IeXYdbLW
The Britannia is back
Stoke’s home form under Nathan Jones was wretched. During his reign they could only manage three league wins in 18 games on their own patch, a win rate of 17.6%.
Under O’Neill Stoke have won four of their seven league games at the Britannia - 57.1% win rate - picking up 14 points on the process, one more than Stoke had managed in their previous 17 home games.
Stoke’s biggest home attendance this season was 25,369 on Boxing Day for the thrilling 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday, during which they netted twice in injury-time to complete a remarkable last-gasp comeback.
“We haven’t given them [fans] much in the past couple of years, but now the players are giving fans something to cheer about and with that we get a bit of love and that helps with our performances,” Joe Allen told The Sentinel.
“That relationship is vital to our home form and games. That’ll be the difference and hopefully everyone feels a bit more optimistic.”
It’s worth noting that there was a period under Nathan Jones when Potters fans went 11 league games - spanning seven months - without seeing a win at the Britannia. At the time of writing O’Neill’s men are unbeaten in five games on home soil, three of which have been wins.