“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”
Stoke didn’t really reset during pre-season as much as they remained on standby. After four opening games in which criticism of Michael O’Neill intensified on the airwaves, terraces and social media cesspits, the verdict for the season is already in with 42 games to go. We’re rubbish. Pre-season, with its underwhelming games and performances merely served to bridge two different campaigns that may come to be seen as one amorphous, dreary blob.
Therefore, the reaction at the games isn’t all that surprising. It may be (depending on your view) disappointing or reassuring to hear a chorus of boos at half-time at Huddersfield, or at full time in the moments after a last-minute equaliser. They’re becoming ever more common. It was earlier this year that Michael O’Neill was being serenaded with “You’re getting sacked in the morning” as Stoke trailed at Oakwell. The manager himself has acknowledged that chants in his favour have given way to more criticism from the Stoke support.
This is Stoke’s rut. We’re in a five-year hangover from a disastrous relegation and a completely shambolic attempt to return in our very first season. Names have flown in and out the door at such speed that it’s become difficult for fans to grow attached to any players in particular. Stoke players of the post-Premier League years would make a superb round on Pointless. Can anyone remember anything about Cuco Martina, Rabbi Matondo or Cameron Carter-Vickers? How many players have arrived with a reputation of being ‘dependable’ or a very good player at this level only for them to be chewed up and spat out and booed offstage? Remember how we thought Gary Rowett was the right man to spend Peter and Denise’s cash? How Nathan Jones could revolutionise our club tactically? How Michael O’Neill was going to be the long-term man with the long-term plan? For O’Neill’s snipe about booing, see Rowett’s tetchy Bojan jibe or Jones’ addled confusion. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
This pattern of Sisyphean failure extends to the players on the pitch as well. Remember how Ryan Woods was the midfield pivot that was going to be the missing piece in Rowett’s jigsaw? How James Chester and Danny Batth were meant to lend their almighty experience to a troubled defence? How Vokes, Fletcher, Afobe, and Maja could all find the back of the net at this level?
The general sense of apathy and frustration how pervades every home game. This isn’t the outright anger that saw fans storm the pitch in the late nineties. There’s not the visceral hatred towards their own team or owners that we’ve seen from other clubs. It’s just a sense of Evertonian inertia. A kind of expectation that, in the words of Mark Corrigan, everything is completely fucked.
Save for some kind of revolution that needs to come very soon, Michael O’Neill will probably be the next Stoke boss to toil manfully only to find that his boulder has rolled back down the hill. Under O’Neill, the Stoke team is younger, more likable, and less ridden with Premier League mercenaries. We’ve seen young players come through the system and some astute pieces of transfer business – check out last night’s goalscorers. Yet, we’re still, fundamentally, a bit rubbish.
Being a bit rubbish isn’t surprising considering the financial restraints now imposed upon us. Tony Pulis’ team for the promotion-winning game against Leicester City cost £6.2m, the starting XI that lost to Huddersfield cost just over £3.5m, and that’s with years of transfer fee inflation throughout the English league pyramid. We’re not a Premier League club anymore, we’re not even a big fish in the Championship pond and this is a harsh reality that we must either learn to embrace or blithely ignore. Accepting where we are, crap manager, crap team, crap results and all might be most direct route to happiness. “It’s shit, it’s meant to be shit, if you don’t like it there’s the door.”
Booing off isn’t for me. I’m personally of the opinion that I’d only boo a team off if I truly feel they weren’t trying. I don’t believe, even as pants as we were against Huddersfield, that our stumbling start to the season is due to a lack of effort. O’Neill’s tactical mistakes, injuries, individual errors, and the performance of the opposition may all contribute to a shit team performance but aren’t necessarily a reason to boo off a team that includes debutants and teenagers. The players and board may still be with him, but for many fans, their faith left them long ago.
Speaking of teenagers, Liam Delap’s signing may buy O’Neill some time if he hits the ground running, yet the deal can be seen as all that has been wrong and right about the O’Neill era. It’s exciting, promotes young talent, and shows a modicum of ambition and yet you just get the niggling feeling that it isn’t going to work out. Especially against the hellscape backdrop of injuries in key positions and doubts as to whether our other players will get the ball to his feet just as they haven’t managed to do with the much more seasoned pro, Dwight Gayle.
Michael O’Neill will have my sympathy if he’s to be shown the exit door soon. I do not think he is a spectacular manager, nor even one of the better managers in the league, but I wouldn’t wish the Stoke job on my worst enemy. The new man will inherit the baggage of four previous managers, a young squad potentially wholly unsuited to how they want to play, and a fanbase struggling to adjust to a new reality of mediocrity. We’re not famous, we’re not famous, we’re not famous anymore. After years of failure on the pitch, and (let’s say the quiet part loud) rank mismanagement off the pitch, we seem unable to push the reset button. Unless the new man can work miracles, he’ll find that in amongst the derisory chants and boos directed his way, will be an undercurrent of loathing reserved for Stoke City Football Club as both an institution and in the abstract. It won’t be entirely his fault, but those issues will be the same for the new boss as they were for the old boss.
There is no dusting ourselves down and starting again at Stoke, we just carry more and more baggage with us, like a doomed relationship that we keep trying to kid ourselves that we can ‘fix’. Liam Delap is a holiday to Venice. It sounds lovely and romantic duck, but will it solve anything? If we’re incapable of ‘resetting’, as a fan base and as a club, at the end of one season going into another, then there’s only one other ‘turn it off and on again’ route available to us. That is to show Michael O’Neill and his backroom staff the door, and prepare the next lamb for slaughter.