Martin O’Neill would receive a warm welcome from Stoke City fans if he was appointed at the bet365 Stadium, according to the editor of the club’s longest-running fanzine, despite latest reports that he may be only a back-up option to former Watford coach Quique Sanchez Flores.
Ireland manager O’Neill has been heavily linked with a move to the Premier League club and had been named favourite by many bookmakers to succeed Mark Hughes and take Roy Keane with him as assistant.
Those odds changed rapidly last night, however, as Stoke sent a delegation to Spain to offer Espanyol coach Flores first option on the role, and fans in the Potteries have been split over which man would be the better option.
Martin Smith, editor of The Oatcake fanzine which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, said: “We haven’t had a poll of fans on the site but the feeling we’re getting from the messageboards is that supporters are pretty much split between whether they would prefer O’Neill or Flores.
“It does look like Flores is first choice and he could be seen as a more long-term appointment but I still think if O’Neill took the job he would get a warm reception from Stoke City fans too.
“He is well respected here for what he has done in the past with Leicester and Aston Villa — and absolutely the main criteria for us is to appoint a manager who has Premier League experience. He certainly ticks that box.”
Judging by last night’s events, O’Neill and Keane may have to play a waiting game if they are serious about moving back into club football — but Flores is by no means certain to accept Stoke’s offer and supporters have also warmed to the idea of what the Irish connection could bring them.
Smith added: “What everyone is saying is we desperately need a management team which attaches electrodes to certain parts of this squad and sparks them into action.
“O’Neill is the kind of inspirational character who can do that. I think fans like the idea of Keane too. To put it bluntly he is the sort of assistant who calls a spade a spade. We need that. We need someone willing tell these players a few home truths. Can Flores do the same? We don’t know.”
Smith does, however, have some concerns over the structure of any deal for O’Neill and Keane, which is increasingly being seen as a short-time solution if Flores says no.
“The rumour at the moment here is that if they were appointed it would be a quick-fix appointment just for six months, maybe before Flores took over next season.
“When you consider O’Neill is reported to have verbally agreed a contract extension with Ireland then perhaps that makes sense. He’s effectively on golf leave at the moment with no competitive fixtures.
“What is hard to imagine is that someone like O’Neill would want to be managing Stoke City in the Championship next season if we get relegated. I think that’s what makes Flores a more obvious choice for the long term.
“In the end all the fans want is for the team to stay up, that’s what matters.”
Whoever does take over, fans are pretty clear about what the priorities will be for the next incumbent, and it certainly sounds like a job O’Neill and Keane would relish.
“The first task is to sort out the defence,” said Smith. “We have conceded more goals than any other team in the Premier League. And if you look at history then the team which concedes the most goals has got relegated in every season since the Premier League began.
“At the minute we have to score three goals just to win a game and that can’t continue. If you ask the fans, they aren’t worried about the style of play — which has had so much publicity over the years — they just want the team to start winning games.
“People talk about entertaining football but under Hughes we played with wing-backs even though we don’t have any wing-backs!
“Poor old Mame Diouf was giving his all there, he’s as honest as the day is long, but he shouldn’t have been there. And the new manager will need to find us a striker in the transfer window — we’re using Peter Crouch as first choice at the moment and, again, he’s a fantastic character but he’s nearly 37 and you have to wonder what’s going on.
“Whoever it is, whether it’s O’Neill or Flores, it’s a big job and the only thing anyone has to worry about is keeping us up.”
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