The evolution of Stoke City under Michael O’Neill

‘But could he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?’ was a saying made famous by former Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray. The famous Scot was of coursethen talking about the brilliance of the great Lionel Messi, but it is a phrase that has stuck with fans of English football ever since and 10 or more years on, you will still hear it every now and again.

However, is it still a fair statement in regards to Stoke City’s current style of play? A decade or so ago, ‘the Potters’were a fierce outfit in the Premier League and the division’s top players probably hated an away trip to what was then the Britannia Stadium where they weren’t going to get any time on the ball to really make an impact.

Under the guidance of Tony Pulis, their rough-and-tumble, all 11-men behind the ball style of play of play proved tricky to break down for their opposition, whilst their huge punts up field and iconic long throws to their strong, all-powerful strikers caused many an upset in the top flight. In fact, it even earned them a place in the FA Cup final in 2011, which they lost just 1-0 to Manchester City at Wembley.

That was a long time ago though, and the modern day Stoke are a far cry from the tracksuit and cap-donning Pulis era. In recent years, they have evolved from what many once considered a ‘rugby team’ to a proper footballing side, whose main focus is to keep the ball on the ball on the ground and work it around nicely as opposed to their centre backs hoofing the ball up the pitch in a bid to find a Jonathan Walters or Peter Crouch-style of striker.

After working wonders in guiding Northern Ireland not only to Euro 2016, which was their first time qualifying for the European Championships, but reaching the knockout stages of the tournament, Michael O’Neill started to make a name for himself and the general consensus was that it wouldn’t be long until teams in England started knocking on the Irish Football Association’s door in a bid to try and lure the manager across the Irish Sea.

When the Newcastle United midfielder first took the job in Stoke-on-Trent, his main responsibility was to guide the side out of the relegation zone and steady the ship in Staffordshire, which he had done a good job of over the last two and a half seasons.

However, the ultimate goal for Stoke was for O’Neill to guide them back to the promised land of Premier League football, and the Championship betting with Paddy Power is slowing beginning to favour a promotion charge from the Potters. Stoke are currently in the play-off spots, just four points behind West Bromwich Albion at the 10-game stage, and whilst they haven’t been perfect, some of the performances under the Northern Irishman this season have been a far better watch.

There has been some nice build-up play from the back, especially for the goals against Nottingham Forest and Barnsley. It’s fair to say that they are finally heading in the right direction after a few years of rebuilding. But they need to perform to those standards on a more consistent basis if they truly want to make headlines in the Championship news, and gain promotion in the next couple of seasons.

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