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Michael O'Neill: How I'm using Northern Ireland lessons to spark Stoke City revival


Rescue mission: Michael O'Neill with assistant Billy McKinlay

Rescue mission: Michael O'Neill with assistant Billy McKinlay

Getty Images

Major blow: Stoke ace Joe Allen has been ruled out of action
with a long-term injury

Major blow: Stoke ace Joe Allen has been ruled out of action with a long-term injury

Getty Images

Grabbing a word with James McClean

Grabbing a word with James McClean

Getty Images

Rescue mission: Michael O'Neill with assistant Billy McKinlay

Michael O'Neill has total faith that he will keep Stoke City in the Championship when football returns and has revealed he is using knowledge he has learned managing Northern Ireland in his quest to avoid the drop.

In the second part of an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, O'Neill has spoken about the challenges he has faced since becoming Stoke boss in November and why he feels he made the right decision to move to the bet365 Stadium.

Throughout his time in charge of Northern Ireland, O'Neill has been linked with a host of other jobs with Southampton, Leicester, Norwich, West Brom and Celtic all interested in him at different times.

Scotland were desperate to land O'Neill when Gordon Strachan was sacked in 2017 but he stayed loyal to the Irish FA, signing a lucrative new contract.

When Stoke came calling late last year, however, it was an offer the 50-year-old could not turn down, especially with the club agreeing to O'Neill finishing the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with Northern Ireland as part of the deal.

The Potters may have been bottom of the Championship with just two wins from 15 games but O'Neill respected the owners of the club and felt he had the ability to eventually take them back to the Premier League.

The former Shamrock Rovers boss was also well aware of the passionate fan base at Stoke, knowing how much supporters can inspire players from his time with Northern Ireland.

Before the coronavirus brought football to a halt last month, O'Neill had guided Stoke into 17th spot, five places above the relegation zone, winning 10 out of his 22 league games. Had the campaign started when O'Neill arrived, Stoke would be pushing for the play-offs!

Asked if he is confident Stoke will stay up, O'Neill said: "I definitely have belief, yes. Losing Joe Allen to a long-term injury was a blow because he is such a good player but we are getting a lot out of players who were having a difficult time at the club, we have a consistent system of play, there is a consistency of selection and there are a lot of players who have played a lot of games since we came in which has helped them.

"When teams are on a bad run there is a tendency if you have a lot of players to keep changing the team but that is one of the things I learned from the Northern Ireland job.

"Sometimes with Northern Ireland you didn't have the resources to change the team. It wasn't like you could change a player who maybe didn't play too well in a previous game because you had another player of similar quality.

"I learned a bit of tolerance with players and that's what players need because you are not going to play well every week. Over the piece if you are getting three games out of four in terms of level of performance that is a pretty good return. That has helped me to be consistent with selection and system of play as well."

Quizzed on whether the job was what he expected, O'Neill declared: "I knew what I was walking into in the sense the club had a very difficult start to the season and truth be told they have had a difficult time in the Championship since being relegated.

"When they first came down from the Premier League in 2018 they were favourites to go back up, there was heavy investment in the team and ultimately they finished 16th.

"I think the club has found it difficult to adapt to the Championship having had 10 years in the Premier League.

"Until you get in, you don't really get to see how the dressing room is. You need to be working with players. In some ways it has been what I expected and in others it has been a bit of an eye-opener.

"What I have learned is that it is a really, really good club, it has a really, really good ownership model and what the club means to the local community is huge. From that perspective there have been a lot of positives.

"It is more difficult when you start at the bottom as we did because the Championship is relentless. What we have found now is that we are in our highest position all year but there are eight or nine teams in and around us where all can be potentially dragged into the relegation situation.

"We have had 22 games and over those 22 games I think we would be seventh in the table and playing like a team that is pushing for the play-offs. Also in that period there are very few teams in the division who have scored more goals than us.

"The message we want to tell the players is showing them what they are capable of. Equally when we come back, we have to be ready to play and keep pushing. Coming into the break we were on an unbeaten run of four with two wins and two draws including a fantastic 5-1 victory over Hull.

"We have had a lot of good performances and our home form has been good which is important because that's where the majority of your fans see you.

"It is important we give our supporters something to shout about and I think most people have been pretty positive about how it has been since we arrived."

Belfast Telegraph