Final days of the season are often good, but that final day of The Championship will be talked about in the alehouses of Nottingham, West Bromwich, Barnsley, Swansea, Luton and more besides for years. For Stoke fans, it may be forgotten slightly. Although a surge from 17th to 15th was nice, not to mention the unexpected schadenfreude that capped off a fine performance – with no dramatic exit from the league on offer (in either direction) the emotions felt in The Potteries won’t be as raw as they will further along the river Trent.
What a marvellous position that is to be in, though. Stoke – for the first time in months – went into a fixture without the prospect of relegation playing on their minds. In the last two games, pressure helped cause the good ships Brentford and Forest to run aground, their sides smashed by unexpected Potters and Tykes cannon fire. Finally, in game 46 of a season that could have been a taboo subject in Stoke-on-Trent, Stoke could relax. What will delight Michael O’Neill as well as Stokies around the world, is not just the result but the manner of performance. Stoke looked like the side with play-off aspirations, Forest looked like they were going through the motions.
The turnaround in the second half of the season has been immense. Bottom of the league after 23 games, 8 points from the first 14, 2 from the first 10. O’Neill changed Stoke from game one – a vital 4-2 victory at Oakwell, and Stoke have been unrecognisable from the team the former Northern Ireland boss inherited – despite being made up of largely the same players. It hasn’t always been easy – performances like those at Derby and Wigan will give the manager some food for thought in the transfer window – but Stoke’s character has been their defining characteristic. When they absolutely needed to, they got the result. Pre-COVID it was Luton, Wigan, Hull and Sheffield Wednesday at home, as well as Huddersfield away. Post-COVID the ‘must-wins’ – Barnsley and Birmingham – were won and even the Bristol City and Brentford games produced the results that would remove the 0.001% chance that Stoke would go down.
James McClean, a character in his own right, is O’Neill’s transformation distilled into 70kg of furious, battling energy. One day soon we’ll discover that the winger has fought a bear with his bare hands, and we’ll accept that as normal. Hobbling and bruised, the Derry man’s corner-winning tackle in the final seconds of the Sheffield Wednesday victory was him, and O’Neill’s Stoke, in a nutshell. It’s premature and unfair to pigeonhole O’Neill as a Warnock/Allardyce/Pulis motivator figure, master of those footballing intangibles: passion, fight, grit. Yet under his tenure, Stoke fans can finally feel reassured that the qualities present in the famous 2007/2008 team are now resurfacing in the class of 2020. Achieving the same outcome will be a different kettle of fish.
For Stoke to compete at the right end of the table next season, they’ll need something they haven’t seen for four summers – an efficient transfer window. Rowett’s expensive failures hampered him right out of the gate, and Jones – admittedly with a smaller war chest – bloated the squad by buying in seemingly every position except the ones his beloved system relied upon. The names linked with a move to Stoke will hardly get the pulses racing, but the fact of O’Neill’s endorsement will cause Potters to proclaim Paddy McNair the next N’Zonzi, Chris Brunt as a more gifted Alan Hudson and Martin Boyle as someone they had actually heard of.
Regardless of what next season may hold, O’Neill has restoked the fires of footballing enthusiasm in North Staffordshire. To actually have fans looking ahead to the next campaign, from the misery and apathy of last winter, is an astonishing achievement. He’s still learning at this level of club management and will make mistakes, but in a short space of time he found an exit ramp on the highway to hell. His Stoke team have shown they can produce the goods both with and without pressure. He could sail down the Trent to teach Nottingham Forest how to do that. In fact, he could probably walk down it.