Belfast Telegraph

Adrian Rutherford: How Michael O'Neill won over his new fans in a change of tune

 

Stoked up: Michael O’Neill urges his new club Stoke to victory at Barnsley on Saturday
Stoked up: Michael O’Neill urges his new club Stoke to victory at Barnsley on Saturday
The Stoke players rushed to the away end, where the visiting fans celebrated wildly
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

The slate grey sky and bitter chill of an unforgiving winter's day in South Yorkshire was an ominous backdrop to Michael O'Neill's return to club football.

As new starts go, there have certainly been more glamorous settings than a bleak afternoon in Barnsley. Yet in terms of the result, it could hardly have gone better for Northern Ireland's departing boss.

Stoke's 4-2 win - the first time they had scored four goals in as many years - lifted them off the foot of the Championship. Two came in quite spectacular style from Sam Clucas, the game's outstanding player.Joe Allen, once of Liverpool, and Lee Gregory were also on target.

One game in and the midas touch that O'Neill brought so wonderfully to Northern Ireland was already being felt.

By the end, the 2,600 travelling fans who had started the day singing the theme tune to The Great Escape were doing the conga in the North Stand at Oakwell.

There is still much work to do, and Stoke remain three points from safety, but this was a hugely encouraging start.

Afterwards O'Neill drew parallels with the task he faced at international level. "It's not too dissimilar to what we inherited with Northern Ireland with a team that was on a particularly poor, poor run and a poor mental state," he said.

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"But you can change things so much quicker at a club because it's not sporadic; it's not three days and then disappear for three months.

"Today was good. We've had one day with the players and got a good win and we'll look forward to the game against Wigan and hopefully add to that."

It had been suggested that some Stoke supporters were lukewarm about O'Neill's appointment.

Yet there was little sense of that pre-game among those that had made the 180-mile round journey from the Potteries.

There are more enticing places to spend a Saturday afternoon than this once thriving town, now struggling in the grip of recession and austerity.

The former coal mine, in the shadow of Oakwell Stadium, is a reminder of the area's industrial past. However, the fans came in numbers, by the busload and carload across the Pennines, and sang O'Neill's name loudly from kick-off.

In the 24 hours since his arrival, they even thought up a quite catchy terrace chant, including a reference to their hated local rivals Port Vale.

O'Neill was also quick to make his mark, with six changes in his first line-up.

The pre-match optimism only increased when Stoke scored after eight minutes. Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins's kick-out was intercepted by Clucas, who was just inside his own half. Looking up and spotting Collins off his line, he aimed for goal, lifting his left-foot effort straight back over the stranded keeper.

The Stoke players rushed to the away end, where the visiting fans celebrated wildly. On the touchline O'Neill's celebration was somewhat more muted.

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The Stoke players rushed to the away end, where the visiting fans celebrated wildly

For Potters fans there hasn't been much to cheer about in recent times.

Once an established Premiership side, they were relegated in May 2018, and had a dismal first season back in the Championship.

This term had started alarmingly, resulting in the departure of Nathan Jones, and a call to the Irish Football Association in midweek.

Stoke started the day bottom of the table, meaning things really could only get better.

And they were improving rapidly, with Stoke taking a 2-0 lead in the 30th minute.

It came via a penalty after James McClean drove into the box, drawing a foul from Barnsley midfielder Alex Mowatt.

From the spot, Gregory confidently rolled his kick to the left of the goalkeeper.

O'Neill, dressed smartly in a charcoal grey suit and red and white-striped club tie, gave encouragement from the touchline, applauding Tom Ince when he held out under pressure to win a throw, then later when urging his midfield to press.

His half-time walk to the dressing room, taking him past the corner to the left of the massed bank of Stoke fans, was purposeful. he game had not yet been won - a reality rammed home when Barnsley pulled a goal back two minutes into the second half.

Sub Luke Thomas provided the assist, slipping in Cameron McGeehan, who fired into the roof of the net.

Suddenly it was a real test of Stoke's character and resolve, as the passionate home crowd urged their team forward in search of an equaliser.

Thomas had strong shouts for a penalty in the 57th minute that wasn't given.

The home fans, aggrieved at the decision, grew louder.

Darkness was now falling, so too the rain, making for an intimidating atmosphere.

On the sideline, O'Neill remained calm amid all the tension, using a break in play to urge Allen to drop back.

Stoke, perhaps fortified by the change of manager, reclaimed their grip on the game.

And when Allen made it 3-1 in the 65th minute, the game was done.

A corner picked out Danny Batth, his effort was blocked, but Allen was there to drive in the rebound.

Briefly O'Neill's composure disappeared, as he surged a few steps forward, raising his hands in celebration.

Allen, meanwhile, raced to the away section, where fans spilled down the steps to embrace him.

Clucas made it 4-1 in the 68th minute, taking a lay-off from Gregory and hitting a powerful 25-yard effort.

It was the first time Stoke had scored four league goals since December 2015. In the time since, four permanent managers have been and gone.

Barnsley pulled one back in the 82nd minute via sub Patrick Schmidt, but it hardly mattered.

In the away end, they sang O'Neill's name with even more gusto.

Some of the more jubilant supporters were doing the conga, snaking their way up the steps of the north stand.

Afterwards, in the tunnel, as the rain fell outside and the lights flickered, O'Neill spoke of his relief.

"I am a little bit drained. I've got a bit of a cold, too. I can hear it in my voice," he added.

"It was tiring and it was challenging."

O'Neill feels there is much to work on in the weeks ahead, which bring key games against Wigan, Cardiff, Blackburn and Hull.

"At 4-1 we don't need to win the game 5-1 or 6-1 but we're still piling forward but that's a bit of inexperience," he added.

"At 4-1 you can even afford to let the opposition come on to you a little bit and then picked them off a little bit better.

"The game was end-to-end. It was frantic at times, even in the closing stages and that is something we'll have to learn.

"The players will get to a point in the system where their confidence will allow them to do that a wee bit better."

Still, as first games go, it wasn't bad.

Now for the small matter of Netherlands and Germany.

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