Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Russell Stoddart: Magical Michael has Stoke fans dreaming again

Stoke City boss Michael O'Neill
Stoke City boss Michael O'Neill

By Russell Stoddart

Michael O'Neill strode out for his home debut without fanfare, but by the end he was taking in the adulation of a grateful support.

Sometimes you wonder if the Ballymena man writes his own scripts - and this was one of those days.

Those attending early to salute their new manager were disappointed when he took his seat in the dug-out unannounced as the Stoke anthem Delilah blasted out of the PA system.

There is an air of excitement among desperate fans for the new boss to restore Stoke to the glory days, but there is also a need to keep a lid on expectations after a series of managerial upheavals.

Merchandise stalls around the ground were doing a brisk trade in woolly hats and scarves on a chilly Staffordshire afternoon, but apart from O'Neill's rosy features adorning the front cover of the programme, there was no visible sign of his arrival.

Asked why the new man didn't adorn so much as a scarf or T-shirt, one trader explained that you need to order in batches of 120 and he'd been left with piles of unwanted stock, from Mark Hughes to Nathan Jones.

Clearly the low-key approach suited Michael as he got down to business with his new club after his Northern Ireland exertions last week.

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He was already pacing up and down the limits of his technical area before the first whistle, with newly-appointed number two and former Northern Ireland assistant Billy McKinlay always within earshot.

The early signs were encouraging with a succession of chances, notably a Nick Powell effort that was tipped on to the crossbar and a Tom Ince blast over the bar from a promising position.

With just three home wins in the whole of 2019, it doesn't take much for hope to turn to despair.

Even the best managers in the world are sometimes hostages to fortune and when experienced keeper Jack Butland dropped a howler to present the visitors with a half-time lead, Michael needed to draw on all of his eight years in charge of his country to prevent his home bow going flat.

Was it in any doubt? With a few choice words still ringing in their ears, his players showed they had the fire in their bellies to go with their undoubted talent.

James McClean can be a frustrating figure, but the Irishman responded with a second-half performance reminiscent of his best days.

It was from a free-kick won by McClean on the hour that Ryan Woods floated in a cross for Danny Batth to slot home from close range. O'Neill appeared the calmest person in the ground, allowing himself a gentle fist-pump as those around him went mad.

Suddenly, fans were dreaming of back-to-back wins for just the second time this season.

But for all Stoke's endeavours, the three points looked beyond them until up popped Mame Diouf as the clock ticked into stoppage time to poke home after a goalmouth scramble.

It was his first goal since April 2018 in his first start since March. No wonder he whipped his shirt off and whirled it around his head.

Fairy tales really do happen, even in Stoke.

Belfast Telegraph

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