</figure><p class="sp-story-body__introduction">New Stoke City manager Michael O'Neill has stressed the need to rediscover the lost fervour of the bet365 Stadium.</p>
After many trips to the ground in his eight years as Northern Ireland boss watching players, O’Neill knows what a fearsome place the Potteries can be.
Ahead of his first home game in charge, he knows Stoke have won just three home games in 2019 and that needs to change.
“It’s evident how big a part the fans played here in their Premier League days,” O’Neill told BBC Radio Stoke.
“I had the same sort of situation when I first started with Northern Ireland. Windsor Park was run down and there was a disconnect between the players and the fans.
“It feels that way now. But we must not fear playing here.
“We got marvellous support when we won up at Barnsley and we want to play well enough to get that same support at home.”
Having started with a stunning 4-2 win at fellow strugglers Barnsley, O’Neill now has another 24 club games to deal with – neatly bookended by Saturday’s home meeting with Wigan Athletic and the return game with the Latics at the DW Stadium on 20 March – before he has to deal with the dual ‘double jobbing’ issue of still being Northern Ireland’s boss for the Euro 2020 play-off games in March.
By then, there will be just six league games of the season left – and Stoke’s position, currently second bottom in the Championship, will look a lot clearer. Only then will the matter of what might happen become a further dilemma, if Northern Ireland make it to this summer’s finals and O’Neill is asked to stop on by his fellow countrymen and finish the job he started.
For now, all that occupies O’Neill is the present – and the obvious fear of the unmentionable, relegation to League One.
“When you’re in our position, the next game is the most important,” he said. “You come in and draw a line.
“It’s a 31-game season and the season starts now. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Championship football, so I know what’s required.
“Fans want to see a team who approach the job in a positive way. And you tend to do this by getting results at home.
“In the Championship, everyone is capable of beating everyone else. I like my teams to play on the front foot. I like energy.
“And, as difficult as the Championship is, I don’t think you’re going to get any double headers as tough as what I’ve had in the last week with Holland and Germany.”
O’Neill had been linked with several jobs during his time in charge of Northern Ireland, most notably the Scotland national post, while he was also strongly linked to vacancies at West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland.
“I’ve had opportunities in the eight years I’ve been with Northern Ireland,” he said. “I had offers after the Euros in 2016, and the World Cup in 2018.
“It was important for me to finish the last two games off with Northern Ireland. But I just had a good feeling for Stoke.
“More often than not, I felt it wasn’t right for one reason or the other. I just felt it wasn’t right. But Stoke were always a club I suppose I kept an eye on.
“The stability of the club, the ownership model of the club, from Peter and John Coates to Tony Scholes, and just the size of the club, the location and the facilities make it an extremely attractive job.
“I left a very stable situation with Northern Ireland. I had a contract for another four years. But I knew when I came into club football that it would be a more volatile environment than international football.”
The manager’s office door at the bet365 Stadium has seen anything but stability in recent years.
The forward momentum of promotion back to the top flight in 2008 under Tony Pulis and further propelled by Mark Hughes had already started to flat line before their time in the top flight came to an end in 2018.
Stoke were already under threat of relegation from the Premier League when Hughes was sacked in January 2018. And, since then, the Potters board, still under control of the Coates family, have now got rid of three more managers – Paul Lambert, who could not stop the spiral towards the drop, Gary Rowett, who looked to have turned the corner but was ousted by pressure from the fans, and the hapless Nathan Jones, who won just six of his 38 games in charge.
So what makes this optimistic Irishman think he can succeed where, in quick succession, a Scotsman, an Englishman and a Welshman have failed?
“Of course we have got to look over our shoulders,” he said. “But I believe we will climb the league and get a more streamlined group of players than we currently have. Then we will be in a position further down the line to challenge for promotion.
“We need to put in a structure that suits the players we have here. We have an imbalance in the squad, a shortage of wide players in particular which, over time, needs to be addressed. And we probably have too many players. It’s hard keeping everyone involved.
“This is a Premier League club. But I also understand the parameters. January gives us the opportunity to add but there is also a lot of talent in Kevin Russell’s under-23 squad here.”
“The next seven games are crucial. A big seven games for the club and the players. It gives me time to assess.”
Former Stoke City, Everton, Aston Villa and England left-back Mike Pejic, sees most games working as a match summariser for BBC Radio Stoke.
Pejic was part of a Potters side who made big signings in Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greenhoff and Alan Hudson, prior to finishing fifth in the English top flight in successive seasons in 1973-74 and 1974-75. But financial woes triggered a decline that, 30 years ago this season, took them all the way down to the third tier. And this season’s start had left fans fearing a repeat.
Pejic was of the belief that the change should have been made sooner – and that the Stoke board were one international weekend too late in making their move to sack Jones.
“To finish 16th, then lose five home games in the first seven, action should have been taken before now,” he said. “That last international break was the time.
“The writing was on the wall then to say that this isn’t good enough and that a change had to be made.
Updates from the Cannock Chase Radio News Desk via BBC Stoke and Staffordshire
January 25, 2020
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