The last few games haven’t been too bad at all for Reading Football Club. Following a catastrophic 3-0 home defeat to Wigan Athletic, the Royals responded by going unbeaten (in normal time at least) in their following three, with wins over Barnsley and Birmingham City, and a draw with Sheffield United in the FA Cup... although the Blades edged it in extra time.
Saturday’s opponents won’t let Reading extend that run easily. Stoke City have been on a good run of their own recently, sitting 17th after having been in the bottom three for much of the season. Manager Michael O’Neill has turned the Potters’ fortunes around admirably since replacing Nathan Jones earlier this season.
A pretty big club, relegated from the Premier League relatively recently, always make for an intriguing proposition in the Championship. So, to learn more about them, we spoke to Stoke City fan Ben Rowley from Potters podcast The YYY-Files. You can find Ben on Twitter here, and his podcast’s website here and Twitter page here.
How’s your season gone so far?
The season’s gone terribly on the whole and there’s no getting around that. The club were hoping for promotion one way or another and those thoughts saturated through to the fans and even the media. But, as everyone knows, we’ve been nowhere near that and have been at serious risk of relegation to League One.
Our start to the season under Nathan Jones was abysmal despite all the promise he showed in pre-season. There’s multiple contributing factors, but if it weren’t for a certain Northern Irishman (who I’ll talk about next) we’d be doomed.
What have you made of Martin O’Neill so far as manager?
He’s been absolutely terrific. We were rock bottom when he took over Nathan Jones’ massively underperforming and bloated squad of players. Since then O’Neill’s trimmed down the dressing room, quickly found out how to get the best out of each individual player and use them in a team which is not only winning games, but getting Stoke fans *properly* excited for the first time in years.
For too long, Stoke were trying to become something that they were, at heart, not. Those that are willing to give their all week in, week out are playing and thriving; those who are not willing, are on the cusp of leaving the club if they haven’t already. Michael’s almost single-handedly saved our club from the drop.
How does he set Stoke up, both tactically and in terms of personnel?
O’Neill’s running with a 4-3-3 formation. He began using a double pivot with Nick Powell in at the second-striker spot but, with the injury to James McClean, he’s been using Powell out wide and using a single pivot instead. Sam Clucas and Joe Allen (up until his injury) have been ever present in midfield, as has Tom Ince on the right side. The back four has chopped and changed through injury and general rotation, although Butland has ben a mainstay in goal. The striker spot seems to now belong to Tyrese Campbell, with O’Neill looking to use the youngster’s all-round physical attributes to cause all forms of problems for defences.
I haven’t noticed a specific style of play under O’Neill; he’s been adapting to his opponents and exploiting them accordingly as he did with Northern Ireland. It’s a strategy that seems to be working, as he’s managed to find himself a core group of players who provide him a number of different attributes and options both in defence and attack.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this Stoke side?
The strengths and weaknesses of this Stoke side have been transient all season. Some days we look rock-solid, some days we look hopeless at the back. Some days we look deadly, some days we look blunt in attack. Some days we look like we could hold onto the ball all match, some days we pin ourselves in through poor play in the middle of the park. I guess that’s the nature of a resurgent team at the bottom of the table; we certainly don’t know what Stoke we’re going to see on any given match day.
One strength I think that is consistent is organisation and clarity: the players do seems to know what they need to do each week, even if they don’t apply themselves correctly. One weakness which I think we can be capable of is letting our heads drop: it’s a trait that’s fading, but sometimes conceding first ends in disaster for Stoke as confidence falls and urgency heightens.
Do you have any standout memories of past games against Reading, for good or bad reasons?
Our last game at the Madejski was a fairly eventful one! Tom Ince scored one of the goals of the season to look as though he’d gained Stoke and Gary Rowett a rare, rare away win… before Modou Barrow broke our hearts at the last. Other than that, the two sides haven’t played each other many times in the last fifteen years.
I remember a 2-1 home win for the Potters against you guys back in 2013, but that was back in the days of Tony Pulis and Brian McDermott. On a bit of a tangent, I know you guys lost to Man City in the semi-final of the FA Cup back in 2011, who went on to beat Stoke in the final. We’ve got that in common too, I guess.
How do you see the rest of the season panning out for Stoke?
I think we’ll stay up, first and foremost. O’Neill’s win-rate has been almost play-off worthy over the course of a whole season and I fully expect to pick up the 10 points or so for us to survive. We’re tantalisingly close to pushing out the relegation pack and into the realms of mid-table.
It would still be considered a poor season by ourselves overall, but it would be a hell of an effort from Michael O’Neill and the players to turn around an extremely precarious situation. I expect our confidence to continue to grow and show plenty of promise for a much brighter following season. However, this is Stoke and I’m never surprised by them any more. I may well have jinxed us.
How will the game go, and what will the score be?
I reckon the game will end in a 1-1 draw, with Tom Ince picking up another Madejski goal to give a little boost to his relatively poor goalscoring tally this season. I don’t expect fireworks, O’Neill doesn’t bring those, but I don’t expect a boring game either. Stoke will be sniffing blood after their big win over Hull City last weekend and will be looking to ride the momentum on the way to survival. Again though, this is Stoke and we’re capable of anything, good or bad. Goarn Stoke.