We’ve reached the penultimate round of fixtures in this strangest of Championship seasons and it has been a pretty forgettable one for Stoke. How would you summarise the 2019/20 campaign?
Forgettable is a good word for it but it’s bizarre because it has been spattered by some of the most memorable moments I’ve experienced in 30 years of watching Stoke. There have been some incredible games, some good and some bad, and, for a lot of reasons, this season will live long in the memory. I’m sure half of us don’t even believe it is ever going to finish.
It looks as though they may just about survive by a matter of points but it’s been touch-and-go a number of times this season. Had Michael O’Neill not taken over in November, do you believe it could have been a different story?
Definitely. The week he came in, I wouldn’t have been alone in thinking Stoke were doomed. They lost against West Brom at home in a televised Monday night game and looked despondent and doomed to relegation to League One. O’Neill’s first game seemed to turn everything around, though. He gave the players organisation and gave everyone else a sense of hope. Since then, of course, that hope has been knocked and dented several times but he’s done an incredible job. He inherited a team that had taken just eight points after 15 games and they are now on 50 points with two games still to play. What he’s managed to achieve has been no mean feat, particularly as he hasn’t changed the squad.
Last season you said you felt Stoke had been drifting for quite some time, since before their relegation from the Premier League. There have been encouraging performances of late, so do you think the mood is beginning to lift?
It has been quite interesting recently, but it’s difficult to know how much to read into the results and performances after the restart because football has been so weird. Stoke’s preparation was disrupted when O’Neill tested positive for COVID-19 so they only had one warm-up game and the manager was absent from the training ground for two weeks as he self-isolated. It took them a while to find their legs again after being in great form before the lockdown. Back in the winter it really did feel like he’d started to turn the ship around; there was a problem almost every week for two years, when we were bemoaning fatal mistakes from the Stoke defence and, just through organisation and doing the basics right, he’s ironed that out and everything seems to be moving in the right direction again. However, he keeps insisting that there’s a long road ahead and that Stoke are a long way from the likes of Brentford and Leeds, which is where they want to be. It’s just a case of how quickly he can get them there.
Which Stoke player would get your vote for Player of the Year?
Sam Clucas has probably been the most consistent performer and he’s scored 11 goals from central midfield. He’s a constant threat, a really hard worker and has worn the captain’s armband for the last few games. He was injured against Bristol City on Wednesday night and, even though Stoke couldn’t make a substitution for a couple of minutes, he was still sprinting around, albeit with a limp, just trying to make sure they got over the line.
How is Michael O’Neill likely to set up his side?
They actually played three at the back, with wing-backs on Wednesday but at home I’d expect them to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, if everybody is fit. There are a couple of doubts, including Nick Powell, who has been key in the No 10 role, who was also injured at Bristol City.
What’s your score prediction for Brentford’s trip to the Bet365 Stadium?
I’d take a 1-1 draw.
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