It has been another disappointing season for the Stoke City. Following a very average season last time out, where they finished 16th place, they currently sit just three points above the relegation zone. With Wigan Athletic breathing down their neck will they crack under the pressure?
The Midlands club have got used to the finer life after residing in the Premier League for ten years, reaching an FA Cup final and playing in Europe. However, things are far away from being rosy and playing at the highest level. With Michael O’Neill in his first club role since leaving Shamrock Rovers in 2011 there are question marks over his ability to still prove it at club level.
O’Neill, still currently Northern Ireland manager, replaced Nathan Jones in November after an inconsistent start. But things are not improving as well as the Stoke City hierarchy would like it to as their form is incredibly spotty. Recently they managed to beat top of the league West Bromwich Albion 1-0 but then went on to be humiliated 4-0 by Derby County two games later. That inconsistency has hurt Stoke massively and could be their downfall.
Back to back wins are key in this league as it seems anybody can beat anybody and Stoke must start doing that. They have only recorded back to back wins three times this season and they have never managed to make it three wins on the bounce. With that sort of form every game becomes a cup final and they will have to draw on the all the experience of players such as Joe Allen, James Chester and James McClean to push them over the line.
Dropping down a league would be detrimental to a club like Stoke. They have the infrastructure of a Premier League club and a majority of the players would not stick around for a year, or maybe longer, in League One. They could find themselves caught in a whirlpool with no escape and we have seen many clubs struggle in this situation. Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and currently Sunderland have all struggled to get themselves back to former glories.
The next three games are vitally important to gaining momentum and keep Wigan, and to an extent Luton Town, at arm’s length. More importantly they have an opportunity to put pressure on Huddersfield Town, Charlton Athletic and Middlesbrough above them.
However, they come up against Cardiff City who are pushing for a play off place and Blackburn Rovers who are resurgent despite the loss of Bradley Dack. A glimmer of hope for them is the fact they have to play Luton Town who are below them in the league.
It is going to be touch and go for Stoke and it could come down to the final game but all they know is dropping down to League One could have catastrophic consequences in how the club is run. They need to stay in the Championship and rebuild this summer under O’Neill, who will be able to give his full attention to the club after leaving the Northern Ireland post after Euro 2020.