Matthew Crichton: After guiding the club to safety in the season he was appointed, Michael O’Neill has finished 14th two seasons in a row at Stoke - how would you rate his popularity with your fanbase?
Ben Rowley: 2022 has seen a huge hit to O’Neill’s reputation amongst Stoke fans. There’s no doubt he’s been given a terrible hand, but his flaws are continually coming to the fore and there’s a sense that he’s running out of excuses.
He came in as a pragmatic, adaptable manager who got the best out of the squad he was given. Now, he’s a manager who will stick with his beloved wingback formation despite the personnel he requires to make it work being out with medium-long term injuries.
The team that would get all the basics right is now getting them wrong. Where before we were able to win points out of nothing, we’re now losing them from seemingly unassailable positions.
He’s earned lots of credit for surviving relegation and building a hungry squad filled with academy graduates. But that credit is expiring, and fans want to see results.
MC: In terms of this season’s aspirations, do you think pushing for the playoffs to fight to be back in the Premier League is a realistic expectation?
BR: The club certainly think so, they highlighted that being in the conversation for the playoffs is a minimum expectation. And you could say that we have the squad capable of doing so: it’s deep, talented and hungry.
Yet I don’t share this optimism, particularly after the start of our season. Stoke’s inconsistency crushes any momentum, and the atmosphere amongst supporters is becoming rather toxic.
We’re not allowing these young players to thrive, yet I share the frustrations of all those who audibly express them. We know we’re capable of achieving our target, but we have no clear strategy on how to get there.
That’s the difference between blind hope and real belief.
MC: From the outside, it seems as though your start to this season has been disappointing, but you are unbeaten at home - how would you summarise your start of the season?
BR: A decent performance against Blackpool has been overshadowed by painful performances against Millwall, Morecambe, Huddersfield and Middlesbrough.
Being able to pick up points at home is important, not least for keeping supporters happy. We can see sparks of how Stoke can be: they played some great one-touch football against Blackpool.
However, we were completely overturned by Boro and gifted Millwall and Huddersfield opportunities without managing to forge any clear-cut ones of our own.
This is a relatively new squad and needs time to click. However, we’ve not shown any ruthlessness as yet.
MC: Looking at your recruitment, it looks as though high earners such as Joe Allen, Steven Fletcher, Tom Ince and Benik Afobe have all left to cut wages down with free transfers coming in to replace them, are you happy with your permanent replacements?
BR: I think we’ve managed to make incremental upgrades with our permanent arrivals, and we’ve completed some good business despite our financial circumstances.
Josh Laurent is a younger, more physical Joe Allen. Aden Flint may have seen better days but at least carries a threat James Chester did not. Liam McCarron gives Josh Tymon some much-needed cover (although it would help if he was fit). Dwight Gayle is also an excellent replacement for Steven Fletcher, albeit a short-term solution himself.
With those high-earners finally off the books, Stoke will be able to express themselves a little more in future transfer windows. That’s the real excitement.
MC: Tariqe Fosu and Liam Delap joined the club on loan in midweek, taking your loanees up to 5 for the season - are you pleased to see the club go down this route and who has impressed you so far?
BR: Our loan signings must be up there with some of the best in the division.
Harry Clarke (Arsenal) has shown how he can be an athletic, versatile defender. Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth) was one of the standout players from the opening few Championship fixtures last season and offers a great option in a midfield pivot. Will Smallbone (Southampton) looks to be a sharp, forward-thinking midfielder who we hope will serve as a great alternative to Nick Powell. Tariqe Fosu (Brentford) not only gives us progressive cover at wingback, but also a different dimension in attack if we decide to lean away from a back three. Liam Delap (Manchester City) is one of the most coveted young players in English football and I’m very excited to see how he will be able to hurt Championship defences.
All very intelligent signings who will have left other clubs in this league disappointed to have not been able to pick these players up themselves.
MC: Danny Batth left Stoke to join Sunderland during the January transfer window last season, were you sad to see him leave at the time?
BR: Yes, but only via the heart. Danny Batth came in during a time when Stoke needed toughening up with a no nonsense, old school defender. He was a leader and a reliable performer amongst a group of players we despised.
However, my head was not sad to see Batth go when he did. Stoke had outgrown his skillset, as they aim to be a more progressive, athletic side. Time and time again we saw Batth become the weak link in our defence and others would have to cater their game to suit his shortcomings.
We replaced him with Phil Jagielka, who is still showing higher fitness and quality despite being NINE years Batth’s senior. I’m happy he helped to get Sunderland promoted, and I hope he serves you well.
MC: Another current Sunderland player, Jack Clarke, enjoyed a loan spell with Stoke before his spell with us, how would you describe his time at the Bet365 stadium?
BR: Jack Clarke possessed some of the silkiest footwork we’ve seen at Stoke since our relegation. There were signs Clarke would be able to fill in as a suitable replacement for the injured Tyrese Campbell and his flair.
Sadly though, Clarke was not direct enough to have the impact Stoke were looking for. Lacking a shot, key pass or any form of threat beyond evading his marker, Clarke’s peak was winning a penalty for us with the only real attribute he was able to showcase.
That’s not to question his character or his effort, but our season was over before he had any chance to make an impact. There’s certainly a player in there, but I sense that he’s one that will thrive off confidence. A new home with you guys may just provide him with that.
MC: In terms of style of play, what can Alex Neil’s side expect to encounter?
BR: Stoke will be playing with a back three, that’s pretty much guaranteed.
O’Neill likes his team to be progressive from the back, hurt teams by using talented wide players and getting low balls into the box for ruthless strikers and onrushing midfielders to get on the end of. Sadly, this ideal may not turn out to be a reality.
Aden Flint or Phil Jagielka will hinder Stoke’s progressive defence. Our injured wingbacks will be replaced by either centrebacks or midfielders who do not carry the athletic threat required.
With the exception of Jacob Brown, none of our strikers are yet to get off the mark. Who knows whether the midfield will be able to make it to the opposition box before possession is turned over. Hopefully, something has clicked in training this week, otherwise, we’ll likely fall onto our own sword.
MC: Which eleven players do you think O’Neill will select for the match?
BR: Joe Bursik; Connor Taylor, Phil Jagielka, Morgan Fox; Tariqe Fosu, Lewis Baker, Gavin Kilkenny, Will Smallbone, Jordan Thompson; Jacob Brown, Tyrese Campbell.
I also expect Liam Delap to make an appearance off the bench.
MC: Sunderland are without a win in their last three matches against Stoke, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
BR: Huddersfield’s only three points have come against Stoke, so I wouldn’t let form or superstition influence your judgement on this game.
I think it will be high scoring, both teams have good attacking threats and I think both managers will know how to hurt each other’s side.
I’m going for a 3-3 draw, with Brown, Smallbone and Delap on the scoresheet for Stoke.