Days before the international break, Stoke City were manager-less, bottom of the league, struggling to string two passes together and heading towards an unthinkable plummet into England's third division. ​


In times of such crises, a fearsome boss with Championship experience and an iron fist is needed, and many expected the Potters to follow this tried and tested route to escape their seemingly never-ending mess.

David Moyes,Tony Pulis

Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce, and *shudders* David Moyes were all names that were banded around, along with the typical 'safe pair of hands' or 'adept firefighter' chat that comes with it. 


But chairman Peter Coates opted for a more left-field choice in Michael O'Neill, the current Northern Ireland manager. The appointment of a man with no Championship experience was met with the usual cries of 'get behind the new boss' and 'no one can save this group of useless imbeciles' - or words to that effect. 


The bottom line is, none of the fanbase was really sure what ​Stoke City were letting themselves in for. 


That is, until O'Neill's touchline debut. 


Gone was the daring diamond that the departed Nathan Jones lived by, as well as the unconventional back-three which the Welshman would revert to when his plan A inevitably backfired. 


Stoke lined up against Barnsley in a boring 4-4-2 formation. No frills, no trequartista, no attempt to gegenpress. In the words of Mike Bassett: Four, four, f*cking, two. 


The Potters scored four goals for the first time in 156 matches, four years and four managers, beating the Tykes 4-2 at Oakwell. 

Sam Clucas

O'Neill had only been in charge for about 24 hours, but the team selection was undoubtedly made by the Northern Irishman himself, and the players performed with a new lease of life, freed from the shackles of confusing and unachievable systems. 


Not a bad start, then. 


Stoke's early optimism comes with the warning that they had beaten a team only one place above themselves in the table, along with the usual caveats that follow being a Potter's supporter. Heartbreak is always just around the corner. 


Whilst the Stoke faithful were left to bask in the glory of their third league win of the season, O'Neill was jetting off to Windsor Park to continue spinning his other miracle-plate. The 50-year-old has remained in charge of Northern Ireland, despite his arrival in the Potteries, and he is aiming to take his nation to another European tournament. 


The only obstacles standing in his way are UEFA Nations League finalists the Netherlands and World Cup 2014 winners Germany. Piece of cake. 

UEFA EURO 2020 qualifier group C"Northern Ireland v The Netherlands"

Unfortunately for the Green and White Army, their goalless draw against the Dutch means that they must face the dreaded playoffs if they are to reach the summer competition. The Northern Ireland players will be ruing a missed penalty against Ronald Koeman's Holland, which could have seen them take their Euro 2020 automatic qualification charge to the final game of the group stages.


But the outcome of the match is not necessarily the focal point of this story. The genuine pre-game belief, coupled with the post-match disappointment, speaks volumes of how far O'Neill has brought Northern Ireland, and what he can achieve with even the most limited of resources. 


Statistically and emotionally, the inspirational boss has taken his country from its lowest trough to its highest peak. Northern Ireland were languishing in 129th in the FIFA Rankings list in 2012, (their lowest rank in history) and they now sit in 34th position. 


And most importantly, they fear no one. 


In an age where football is becoming more and more complicated, O'Neill is able to simplify the game down to its basic ingredients, without restricting his troops to conservative, route-one systems and mind-numbing football. 


Koeman may have brandished Northern Ireland's style as 'outrageous' and 'terrible' during their first encounter in the group stage, but they were words of a man clearly rattled, having been out-thought and out-gunned for long periods by their stubborn and lesser opposition. 

UEFA EURO 2020 qualifier group C"Northern Ireland v The Netherlands"

Koeman's insults will have reached O'Neill's ears as compliments, and his sheepish apology after Saturday's stalemate will have meant just as little to the no-nonsense Northern Irishman. His national side has been built on defying the odds in ways that suit them, and whether Norn Iron reach Euro 2020 or not, the magnificent boss has changed the mentality of not just a team, but an entire nation. 


That brings us neatly back round to Staffordshire. 


It's clear that a changing of air was needed at the Bet365 stadium following Jones' car-crash reign, and in 90 minutes O'Neill proved what Jones failed to demonstrate in 1260: this squad has the capacity to be successful - if used correctly. 

 

James McClean will not be asked to fill in as a wing-back anymore. Bruno Martins-Indi will not be pulled out of his comfortable centre-back position. There will no square pegs in round holes. Just good old-fashioned round pegs in solid round holes. 


Desperate times no longer call for desperate measures in Staffordshire, they call for calm heads and a steady hand. There's a new sheriff in town - and his name is Cool Hand Michael.