Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill has denied claims that his recent run of five winless games makes this his toughest period at the bet365 Stadium so far, citing his arrival as a more difficult time as he spoke to Stoke-on-Trent Live.
The Potters were rock bottom of the Championship when the Northern Irishman was appointed in November 2019 after seeing the club suffer a torrid time under now-Luton Town boss Nathan Jones, as they sat six points adrift of safety and were in real danger of facing relegation to the third tier of English football.
This would have been a catastrophe for Stoke after only being demoted from the Premier League in 2018, although O’Neill was able to arrest this decline and lift them to a more respectable 15th position, but struggled to elevate the club past that stage during the following season in 2020/21.
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They finished in a disappointing 14th place last term – and it was clear a revamp was needed in Staffordshire to bring them closer to a top-tier return.
With this, some of the higher earners at the club were offloaded and eight additions arrived in return, going unbeaten in six of their opening seven fixtures during this campaign but faltering since.
Drawing one and losing four of their last five competitive games, they have endured a disappointing run but the only point they managed to get something out of has probably proven to be the most disheartening in that run.
Going 3-0 up early on in the second half, they succumbed to Cardiff City’s pressure at the weekend and were pegged back to a 3-3 draw, compounding what has been a miserable spell for O’Neill’s men.
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Quizzed on whether this run has made this his ‘most challenging’ period of time at Stoke thus far, O’Neill said: “No.
“The most challenging period was when I came in and we were at the bottom of the league to be honest.
“We’re in a healthy position in the league. We have thrown points away, no doubt about that, and our league position could look a lot better than it does at this minute in time.
“But it’s happened over a four-game period, it’s not happened over a 46-game season so I don’t see it like that at all.”
Some people would take issue with how relaxed O’Neill sounds, especially considering they lost a three-goal lead against a struggling side at the weekend, are now in ninth place and look set to slide back to where they have been for the past few years on their current trajectory.
But despite this recent run of form, they look a lot better than they have done in the past. Not only did they enjoy a good summer, but they also have a well-defined system to operate in and they now seem to have an identity.
There may be bumps along the road, but Stoke fans would probably be well-served trusting in the process at this stage with a finish in the top six still not out of the question.
They are currently just two points off the play-offs despite their recent form and there’s likely to be a lot of movement up and down the table throughout the next 31 games, in what could potentially be a very successful season for the Potters if they can get their act together.
But that will depend on their consistency – and despite a good start to the season initially – they have failed to show why they should be in the promotion mix since. The positive? There are still plenty of matches to go.