Long read: How Michael O’Neill is leading a revival at proud and historic Stoke City

Manager has brought stability and optimism back to the club after a few years of decline following Premier League relegation

Dean Holden knows the M6 too well. Stoke City’s assistant manager is driving south from his Salford home ahead of Stoke’s big Championship match against unbeaten league leaders West Bromwich Albion.

Holden, 42, also knows the league and the territory very well. A year ago, he was manager at Bristol City who were top of the Championship having won every game. Fans, surprised that the man they didn’t want for the job, dubbed his style ‘Holdenball’ and those long drives back up the M6 to see his wife Danielle and their four kids flew by.

Seventeen injuries kicked in as autumn turned to winter and Bristol City dropped down the table. Holden was sacked in February. Angry, upset, frustrated, he hit the M6 home, looked through hundreds of messages of support and the silence that followed in the weeks after.

After his previous good work over five years at Bristol City as assistant and then manager, he was in demand to be an assistant. From Stoke City, for one, and he took it. There were other offers, too - only two months ago, Wales asked him to be assistant manager.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2012, he was a 33-year-old lower league professional who had been released by Rochdale. He took a holiday to Tenerife where his 17-month-old daughter Cici died after contracting sepsis. He returned to England, his head in pieces. And he had to get a new job. Nobody wanted him but one man gave him a chance.

Walsall’s young manager, Dean Smith, agreed to meet Holden. His route was along the M6. Smith told him he had his doubts about his mental state following the death of his child, but gave him a contract. Within months, Holden was the established central defender for Smith’s thriving Walsall side and fans sang, to the tune of ‘Brimful of Asha’: “He’s big and he’s Holden and he’s our number 5. (repeat). Everybody needs a nutter in the middle, everybody needs a nutter.”

He did that trip along the M6 every day. He was proud that in 18 years as a professional, he was only late for training once, when a tyre blew out on the way to Shrewsbury. There were close shaves, like at Walsall when Holden’s Vauxhall Corsa slowed into Sandbach services where they usually stopped for a cup of tea and leg stretch, and the lights cut out on the dashboard. So did the engine. A kindly member of the ground staff drove to meet him, armed with a tow rope and pulled the car to training.

And now, on a sunny Friday afternoon on the first day of October 2021, the M6 has witnessed four separate accidents. A detour route saw a lorry spill its load of offal. Road closed. Why is Holden not panicking? One, he’s seen the lot in football. He’s been a hero and a zero. Had Oldham Athletic fans singing ‘Dean Holden’s blue and white army!’ on Crewe train station. Had his wife saying: “Stop moping around the house. If you don’t want to work in football, get in the real world and get a normal job.” Danielle Nicholls, a stand up comedian, has a way with words.

“There’s little I can do, I left early,” explains Holden, who otherwise talks tactics or rival teams in the Championship and confidently says: “Don’t worry, we’ll give these a right good go. The traffic? Others are in the same position. And the gaffer is sound. He trusts us.”

That’s Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill. We’ll come to him as he drives north to his family home in Edinburgh a few days later. But first, the big game. Holden drops The National off by Stoke City’s stadium and makes the training ground where players are meeting with a minute to spare. He apologises.

The first fans are arriving at Stoke’s 30,000 capacity home, passing the statue of Gordon Banks in the autumn sunshine. A sizeable 2,886 allocation of West Brom fans are expected and a dozen policemen prepare by the away end. We speak and their attitude is encouraging and pro football fan.

“I want everyone who comes here to have a cracking night and go home safely,” explains the lead officer. “We’re football fans ourselves.” The police explain how they can call on back up if needed but that they don’t expect that to happen, explain too that fewer fans than normal will use public transport as it’s a night game. British policing at football matches is now studied and seen as an international benchmark. The officers at Stoke don’t want to look like Robocops, nor military. They list the teams they support: Stoke, Villa, Wolves, Liverpool.

“But make sure you mention the mighty Vale,” says one, name checking Port Vale, the fourth level Football League club which shares Stoke-on-Trent with Stoke City. Kind of. Stoke is England’s 17th biggest urban area with a population of 372,775, just below Teesside (Middlesbrough et al) and above Coventry.

Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six towns: Burslem (in the north of the city where Vale play to average crowds of 5,000 (Vale were above Stoke several times in the 1990s), Tunstall, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Stoke. The urban area is also known as The Potteries because of its famous pottery manufacturing since the Industrial Revolution.

“When the staple manufacture and the people have been thoroughly examined, there is little else attractive in this important quarter, although the scenery is not together void of interest,” writes Bradshaw in his 1863 guide to the UK. “It is well provided with railways and canals.”

There is not a single mention of Stoke in the 1,006 pages of the current Rough Guide to Britain.

The Sentinel fights the corner of Stoke - and it needs fighting,” explains Pete Smith, Stoke City reporter for the newspaper which has served the area since 1855. He’s proud to be one of only seven full-time Stoke reporters since the Second World war. “It’s a working-class city and it’s a unique city made up of the towns with no real city centre. Each town has its own identity, but it can be a burden compared to other cities where the centre is concentrated.”

Manager O’Neill says: “Stoke reminds me of Newcastle where I played as a young player with Paul Gascoigne. People’s week could be determined by how the football team is doing. Stoke’s a hard-working city and it’s not a glamourous city, but the people are brilliant, they’re forthright, they want you to do well and the football club means so much.

"These supporters have been through a tough time after leaving the Premier League. We want to put a team on the pitch which the fans want to come and see, to believe in. They want their players to leave everything they have on the pitch.”

O’Neill is relatively new to Stoke, Smith is a local and a lifelong fan.

“Stoke City is a community club which is proud of its history,” Smith says from his seat in the press box an hour before kick-off. “It’s proud of Stanley Matthews (who played in England’s top flight until the age of 50) and Gordon Banks. The fans love direct football which get in people’s faces. They love skilful players, love players embarrassing an opponent, love an intimidating atmosphere.”

Smith started watching Stoke aged six in 1990.

“I was the only Stoke supporter in my class,” he says. “It was Man United and Liverpool. The team had their lowest ever finish in my first season – 14th in the third tier. It took another 18 years for the club to get into the top-flight. By that time I thought it was never going to happen.

"I’d grown up with Stoke being a lower league club. The promotion team which went up against expectations in 2008 was more than the sum of their parts. And Tony Scholes, the chief executive deserves credit for giving free tickets and shirts to all 7-year-olds in the city since 2004. By the time Stoke got in the Premier League, there were no Chelsea or Liverpool shirts to be seen in Stoke.”

Quote
Stoke’s a hard-working city and it’s not a glamourous city, but the people are brilliant. They want you to do well and the football club means so much
Michael O'Neill, Stoke City manager

So what is Stoke’s level?

“There are probably 30 clubs about Stoke’s size who can finish from eighth in the Premier League to mid-table in the Championship,” Smith says. “But there’s a major financial gulf between the 12 at the bottom end of the Premier League and those in the Championship. That’s what Stoke have found in the last couple of years after 10 years in the Premier League. The club and fans got used to it and paying Premier League wages. When you come out of that you have to cut your ambitions and costs pretty rapidly. We have billionaire owners who would love to invest but they’re not allowed to because of financial fair play.”

Owners of the bet365 betting group are now the major employer in the private sector. They are respected for the employment they provide and for not taking their business overseas.

“If you’re relegated with Premier League wages and you lose your £100 million ($136.3m) per year in TV monies. There are parachute payments but you have to cut your cloth quickly – it doesn’t matter how wealthy your owners are,” says Smith. “It’s so easy to fall out of the Premier League and Stoke did it spectacularly and took a long time to put the brakes on the train. The good thing is that, with the Coates family, the club are not going to go into administration. There’s no danger of a Bolton or a Bury.”

Stoke’s fortunes have declined from 2015 when “Mark Hughes produced the best Stoke team I’ve ever seen,” says Smith. “Flair with a strong backbone. Stoke beat Liverpool 6-1 and I thought I should probably quit as a football fan. I wondered what the Liverpool fans whom I’d grown up with at school thought of that. But with each transfer window we lost players: [Steven] Nzonzi, [Marko] Arnautovic, Glenn Whelan, Jon Walters. [Ryan] Shawcross was getting more injury-prone, [Jack] Butland too. They were replaced by players who were worse. It was death by a thousand cuts.”

Stoke had three consecutive ninth place finishes in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Thirteenth in 2017 became 19th and relegation in 2018. Rather than return immediately as hoped, since their side contained several players on huge Premier League contracts, Stoke finished 16th, 15th and 14th in the Championship. Hughes, in charge for five years until 2018, was replaced by Paul Lambert. Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones followed in permanent positions. None lasted more than 38 games.

Enter O’Neill, with Stoke on the cusp of relegation to League One in 2019. Stoke had 37 players on their books because each manager had been backed to bring in their own players. A former midfielder at a dozen clubs from the Uniteds of Newcastle to Dundee and Ayr, O’Neill was a hero in Northern Ireland whom he managed with success between 2011 and 2019. He had security and stability with his own small country, a four-year contract too. He had picked Northern Ireland up off the floor, made them winners, took them to the knockout stages in Euro 2016 with 30,000 travelling fans singing “Will Grigg’s on fire” in Nice, Paris and Lyon. He gave all of that up to join Stoke.

“The club had two points from 10 before winning a couple of games,” says O’Neill. “I came in after 15 games. I felt the squad looked decent without knowing the players in depth. The players were underachieving based on the money invested into the team based after coming down from the Premier League.

"Substantial investment had gone into taking Stoke back into the Premier League, but I found a disgruntled group of players with grievances. They’d signed for a club in the Premier League and what then happened was not what they had envisaged. Players had come under Paul Lambert, Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones. It was a top heavy squad with no cohesion. Players were out on loan; it was a really difficult and we were there for a reason.

“I’d seen what happened at Sunderland (who are still in the third tier). I had to address the situation without a cohesive group of players who didn’t have the focus on doing that. So many players were trying to find the exit door, despite being on very good contracts for the level of football they were playing. They didn’t feel any responsibility for the problems the club found themselves in.”

O’Neill had 31 games to stop Stoke City going down to join Sunderland.

“The first six weeks we needed to win some games and sort a squad that was all on the bus together. It took time to get where we are now and the squad is focussed, younger and the wage profile is a lot different," he says. "There are still some players within our group who have signed contracts before my time, but we’re in a much better place because we had so many players who were a drain on the club.

"I’m always wary of blaming players because I don’t think any player joins with the intention of doing badly, but we had too many players in our building who’d had a negative experience at Stoke City. You can’t go anywhere with that type of mentality in the building. I’ve constantly tried to address that.”

Stoke steadied and survived. Last season, they improved.

“For 23 games we were always in the top eight,” says O’Neill. “We had to cope with some big injuries, we lost Joe Allen for example. Slowly we were turning the balance of the squad with younger players, but also signing older players. We couldn’t really spend any more so we took older players on free transfers. The recruitment of those players helped change the mentality on the pitch and off it, people like James Chester and John Obi Mikel or Steven Fletcher. They added a lot but we couldn’t maintain it in the second half of last season.”

This season?

“We’ve continued to work very hard on the system of play, very hard on our identity. We have younger and more energetic players which you need in this gruelling league," O'Neill adds. "You need to be able to change your team, too. My ambition here is to get the team back into the Premier League, but we’ll have to do it a different way than what we tried initially – buying our way back to the Premier League.

"We now have assets in our team and we want them to go back to the Premier League with us. We had to sell Nathan Collins in the summer (to Burnley) and we invested a portion of that into the team on Sam Surridge and Ben Wilmot – we’ve only spent money on players under 23. If we can get back, we’d like to be in a situation where we can stay there.”

Stoke were seldom known for attractive football. They are now.

“We try to play different to maybe what Stoke were known for,” explains O’Neill. “It was known for direct and competitive football. To get to the Premier League I think you have to be more possession-based and we’ve worked extensively on that and playing from the back. We have a young goalkeeper who has those skill sets. We want Stoke City to play fast, attacking football and be good on the eye, playing through the pitch. The players we’ve brought in can do that: like Mario Vrancic. While others like Nick Powell have been reinvigorated. His goals per game ratio is very good for a midfield player.”

The teams come out onto the pitch.

“We are the Albion, we’re top of the league,” sings the packed away end. Twelve coaches carrying some of the away fans are parked in a compound outside. “You’re only here ‘cos it’s Albion.” With average crowds of 20,000, it’s fair to say that the home fans are not only there because it’s West Bromwich Albion, but it’s a big game under Friday night lights.

“City, City,” sing the home fans. “Tell the lads in red and white, everything will be alright City, City You're the pride of all of us today, We'll be with you, be with you, be with you Every step along the way We'll be with you, be with you, be with you, By your side we'll always stay...”

‘Delilah’, by Tom Jones booms out and everyone joins in. It’s loud. Not quite lifting the roof off the Boothen End as it felt like against Manchester United in a 1993 cup game at the old Victoria Ground, but loud.

Stoke are wearing red and white striped shirts and brilliant white shorts which dazzle under the lights.

“Come on the Stoke!” holler fans. They do. They’re the better side and Jacob Brown hits the post, Vrancic the bar, Allen zips a shot wide. Defender Souttar looks Premier League quality. Both sets of fans applaud on 24 minutes in memory of Stoke supporter Hamish Birks who sadly took his own life a few days before the game, aged 24.

In the second half, Surridge misses a chance from close range and sees his penalty saved after 70 minutes. There are 79 minutes gone and the score is 0-0 when Powell wins the match for Stoke. Tommy Smith chips the ball forward and Powell, formerly of Manchester United, lifts the ball perfectly over Sam Johnstone, also formerly of Manchester United and until this point the reason West Brom remain in the game. Stoke, as West Brom’s manager admits, deserve it. Val Ismael, whose side lost their unbeaten record, also said that Stoke were the best team his side have played so far this season.

The 22,703 in the stadium are delighted.

"We have to keep the fans coming back,” says O’Neill. “Our home form has been excellent and at times the place was rocking. We have won five and drawn one here - and the fans are a big part of that. When I came here we were bottom of the league and our home form was the first thing we addressed but we had to play the last games with no fans. Then we played all last season with no fans which was challenging for everyone. When you’re playing every three days and running out in front of empty stadiums, it’s difficult. It probably affected us quite a bit without fans. I was trying to generate enthusiasm yet it was like playing reserve games, like the players we’d bought hadn’t had a proper debut.”

And fans echo what the manager says.

“The recruitment has been outstanding,” says Anthony Bunn, who edits the Stoke fanzine Duck (Duck is a term of endearment in Stoke, as in “You alright, duck?”). “We have players from the under 23s who’ve risen. We play well – and I’m not a football snob, I just want to see Stoke win above everything. We have Harry Souttar, one of the best young defenders in the country. I think Tyrese Campbell is the best young player in the league. We’ve miss out injured since late last year. There’s competition for places and likeable players. They use social media well; they have a connection with fans. A lot comes from the manager. We’re in love with our club again and the manager seems a top bloke, a steady bloke who is well loved by the Stoke support.”

Stoke know their place in football’s food chain, yet their pull is significant and legends like Jimmy Greenhoff and Lou Macari, both established stars for Manchester United, stayed living in the area. Greenhoff was sold against his will to United in 1978 because the uninsured stand was damaged at Stoke’s old Victoria Ground and they needed the money to rebuild.

“Signing for Stoke was one of the best things I did in football,” he told this writer in United! United!. “I stayed there for seven years. We reached the FA Cup semi-finals twice in 1971 and 72 – and were robbed on both occasions. We played Arsenal twice and were beaten both times.”

Stoke fans still despise Arsenal although that rivalry, born in the 70s, may have been forgotten had Arsene Wenger not antagonised them afresh.

“He lost here without any dignity,” says Smith. “Wenger would get out of Stoke as quickly as he could. He’d get back to London and do a press conference criticising everything about Stoke.”

Stoke fared better in the League Cup.

“We won it in 1972,” says Greenhoff of the only major trophy Stoke City have ever laid their hands on. “The crowd still talk about that era here and I’m not surprised. We played good football and had a fine side. I wish I’d had a pound for every time they chanted my name back then.”

Greenhoff is still revered in the Potteries.

Quote
I loved them to death, I really did. They supported me all the time. Stoke supporters made me as a player
Jimmy Greenhoff, former Stoke City player

“I loved them to death, I really did. They supported me all the time. Stoke supporters made me as a player. I went 18 games without scoring in my first season there and they never ever had a go at me. They knew I was giving 100%. Then the goals started coming.

“The manager said: ‘Go out and entertain them.’ He bought lads like Alan Hudson, the best player I’ve ever played with. I had a telepathic relationship with the guy. We played in front of 40,000 all the time. I loved it, I loved training every day, I loved hearing the fans chant my name. It really lifted me.”

The atmosphere became a hallmark of their decade in the Premier League.

“It had to be,” says Smith. “It was us against the world and we needed that union between us and the fans. One bookmaker paid out on Stoke being relegated after we’d lost the first game.” Manager Tony Pulis encouraged the us against the world mentality, while the long throws of Rory Delap delighted Stokies and invoked sneering from afar. Word was that they were so effective that one visiting goalkeeper preferred to concede a corner rather than a throw.

“Every game was an event in that first Premier League season,” says Bunn. “It was like Gladiators. You felt it was special to be there. The noise was organic, it wasn’t staged. The atmosphere was like nothing I’ve ever seen before at Stoke or most other places, before or since. There was pure noise and hatred towards the opposition – in a responsible way. It was beautifully vile. We knew it would be noisy against Man United or Arsenal, but it was even more so against Middlesbrough, Hull and Blackburn. It was rocking and I don’t think we’ll see that again.”

Maybe not and maybe Stoke are still some way off when they won 5-0 in an FA Cup semi-final a decade ago, put six past Liverpool, took 7,000 for a European game in Valencia or beat Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United but they’re heading upwards and you can feel that in the mood hour after the final whistle outside the stadium. Holden appears with three of his children, while man of the match Nick Powell is smiling for selfies with fans, his team only a point behind West Brom.

“Told you we’d give them a right good go,” Holden says, with a grin. The M6 is empty for his journey home and a rare weekend with family. He and Stoke’s players and staff, deserve it.

Updated: October 8th 2021, 2:33 PM
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