Belfast Telegraph

Paul Ferguson: How Michael O'Neill turned Stoke fans from doubters to believers in only eight minutes

Michael O'Neill's reign at Stoke City got off to a dream start at Barnsley.
Michael O'Neill's reign at Stoke City got off to a dream start at Barnsley.

By Paul Ferguson in Barnsley

In the shadow of Barnsley’s old coal mine, Stoke City believe they may have just uncovered a gem in new manager Michael O’Neill.

Northern Ireland fans have been treated to O’Neill’s magical powers since qualification for Euro 2016, yet just 48 hours after being appointed the Potters chief, and with just one training session with his players, he was able to conjure up a vitally important 4-1 win for Stoke City at their fellow Championship strugglers.

Sam Clucas scored two superb long range efforts, Lee Gregory found the net from the spot and former Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen struck home a scrappy from 12 yards out.

One-time Northern Ireland prospect Cameron McGeehan gave O’Neill cause for concern when he scored three minutes into the second half for Barnsley to make it 2-1 to Stoke and Patrick Schmidt rounded off the goals with eight minutes to go, but the Tykes were never going to ruin O’Neill’s special day and on a crisp and damp November day in Yorkshire, they proved perfect hosts.

Having been involved in titanic international tussles recently with European heavyweights, Germany and the Netherlands, victory over Barnsley at hospitable Oakwell simply does not compare.

Yet the significance of this win will deeply resonate with O’Neill.

It’s an immediate success in English club management , moves his Stoke side off the basement of the Championship and they were the only team in the bottom seven to win.

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The Potters, who had only won two games all season, scored three or more goals for the first time in 89 games.

The performance at times from Stoke was disjointed, the defence was nervous, there was a lack of imagination in midfield while the final ball was poor, but that was to be expected considering O’Neill only had a matter of hours to work with his players in preparation.

Winning was all that mattered and you could see the introduction of a certain style.

O’Neill will have time to mould Stoke into his team and he now has a foundation to work with.

The squad is probably one of the most talented in the Championship with goalkeeper Jack Butland, midfielders Allen and Clucas, wingers James McClean and Tom Ince plus striker Nick Powell all at his disposal.

But confidence and structure is in short supply – something 50 year-old O’Neill will soon instil in his players.

O’Neill had been welcomed by rapturous applause from the loud and demanding away support, some 2600 in number, as he made his entrance for the game, just a couple of minutes before the annual short Act of Remembrance ceremony prior to kick-off.

There may have been some initial doubt from Stoke fans over O’Neill’s appointment, but that seemed totally dispelled after eight minutes when Clucas took advantage of Barnsley goalkeeper Brad Collins’ gaffe, to score from just inside the Tykes half.

O’Neill remained stoic in the Stoke technical area, refusing to show emotion as the Stoke players wheeled away in celebration. He cajoled his players with hand signals, encouraging them to keep their shape and play with an intensity that would trouble Barnsley. But he kept his cool in the heat of battle, with the Sir Alex Ferguson style chewing gum in his mouth throughout.

Having suffered disappointment for most of the season, the Potters fans took great delight in chanting and singing O’Neill’s name. When four goals were scored, they demanded five and wanted a wave from O’Neill. However, as they soon found out, the Ballymena man does not do waves to the crowd.

O’Neill was working on instinct, the experience he has accumulated over the years working with Brechin, Shamrock Rovers and Northern Ireland. And in the proud south Yorkshire town of Barnsley, the hard yards that he has put in over the years paid off.

Eight years ago, O’Neill managed to pick Northern Ireland off the canvas and made them a fighting force in European football. Stoke hit rock bottom in the Championship but O’Neill, with this result, has managed to get the Potters to their feet and start swinging again.

O’Neill sparkled as Northern Ireland manager and now Stoke look set to reap the benefits.

First though, O’Neill, as per his agreement with the Potters owners, will take care of Northern Ireland’s final two Euro qualifying games against the Netherlands and Germany next week.

So it’s from Barnsley to Belfast with the Stoke and Northern Ireland fans singing his name loud and proud.

Stoke have their gem...

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