It’s the eagerly-anticipated return of our promotion-winning head coach Alex Neil this weekend, as he brings his Stoke City side up to the Stadium of Light to face a Tony Mowbray side in a bit of trouble.
Now I wouldn’t want to make this game all about us versus Neil as I don’t think it’s either relevant or appropriate. Regardless what we as Lads fans feel about his unprofessional departure from the club, it will never be lost on me that Neil was the only man to get us out that League One concentration camp… and he did it with no transfer window and a knackered squad.
I also think from a footballing perspective we get a better output from Mowbray, whereas Neil was very linear in his approach to games, and not fazed by outside opinion (unless you are the owners of Bet365, then he was all ears).
It’s fair to say Neil hasn’t pulled up many trees since joining the fictional city that is an amalgamation of six North Staffordshire towns, and will be under pressure to get a result as fans begin to lose patience with their shiny-headed gaffer. An indication of the need for three points is the sacrifice of seven players for their FA Cup fifth round defeat on Tuesday night this week, really showing where Stoke’s priorities lie.
This could also be classic Neil, the play-off specialist, who backs himself to beat any side in a one-off game – this may well be the game he is targeting.
Lewis Baker is the Stoke captain, (though that does get shared a bit) leading goal scorer and creator, so in the centre of a three man midfield, he will certainly be a player to watch. Josh Laurent is also one to be aware of alongside Baker in midfield, an area where we are a little lightweight to say the least. Willie Smallbone is also another handy midfielder, I don’t think he’ll start, I just find his name funny.
I’m always weary of ex-Mags striker Dwight Gayle (33), who will have to be kept under a watchful eye by our back four, though he had very little impact off the bench in the fixture back in August. Phil Jagielka (40) is another example of Neil trusting experience as the former Everton and England man sits in the heart of their defence.
Alternatively Mowbray is crying out for some experience in the middle of the park, and a striker would be nice too. Though these are not available now, so the chocolate enthusiast will have to look at his options. Luke O’Nien would likely add a bit of grit and shit-housery to his midfield for one. I don’t think the head coach has much choice but to stick with Joe Gelhardt up top, but he may need other wide forwards to work closer with him to be effective.
There are no fresh injury concerns other than Dennis Cirkin dealing with the recurring after-effects of concussion following being dropped by the Millwall keeper last month.
Despite his goal last week, Amad Diallo needs to stop getting bullied and assert himself across the whole 90 minutes, which he was doing for fun in December and January. Mini Messi, Patrick Roberts needs to continue showing his class and maintain his almost unplayable form of late.
For the rest, not having a midweek game should’ve paid dividends in their recovery after a very busy February schedule. At Rotherham Dan Ballard looked worryingly tired, and he was given no respite against Coventry either as he had to mark the dangerous Victor Gyokeres for 90 minutes.
As we become more predictable it is crucial we don’t fall behind early and let more physical teams stop us playing football. It is critical for the success of this young side that we come out of the blocks and get that early goal, then pick sides off as they leave themselves exposed.
Lessons have to be learned from a strikerless autumn, otherwise this season will just peter out and all the hard work by this squad will have counted for very little, other than survival.
For me this is a 1-0 game, and it could go either way, hopefully it’s our way as one point in four would not sit well on the terraces.
Ha’way the Lads