Steven Schumacher big interview: Some managers stick to their principles and get the bullet

Steven Schumacher has sat down with the Sentinel to reflect on his first five months as Stoke City head coach.
-Credit: (Image: PA)

It has been a whirlwind first few months for Steven Schumacher as new head coach at Stoke City. He arrived at the club in mid-season with a bottom line of keeping the club in the Championship and, after plenty of drama, is now knee-deep in planning for next term, with a bottom line that they can’t be anywhere near that kind of fight again.

He has taken time out to reflect on his journey so far and touch on his hopes about what happens next. Here is the first part of an honest and revealing interview.

You have already been asked a lot about your decision to leave Plymouth Argyle so, rather than asking you to repeat yourself, you must be really proud of your time there?

Steven Schumacher: Yeah, it was an incredible four-and-a-half years. When we got the job at Plymouth we'd just come from a club who had gone bust in Bury. We had won a promotion at Bury to get into League One and then had no job. We’d got promoted having not been paid for six months at Bury and the PFA had to step in and help out players and staff.

Getting an opportunity at Plymouth Argyle, when me and Ryan (Lowe) spoke about it, we said it was something we needed to go for – and when we said go for it, we meant really go for it. We understood it was going to be a well-run club because we had done our background checks on Simon (Hallett) the owner and that there would be stability. That was so important because of where we had just come from.

So when we went down there I moved my family straight away from the North West. It was 2019 and the kids were only young. We had to get them settled into primary school and all that and nursery and whatever while we started our journey in League Two with the mindset that we’ll have a right good go.

We knew if we could get this club going – because of the size that Plymouth Argyle were in League Two and we knew it had a good fan base – if we can turn this place around after the club had just been relegated, get this place bouncing, if we can get the fans to come in the door – it was averaging crowds of eight or nine thousand – then we can put ourselves on the map.

The first year was really good. We got promoted. The second year was the Covid season and behind closed doors in League One was tough. It was just a grind and we had to get through the season but finished safe easily, 18th I think.

In the second season in League One, that December, Ryan left to go to December and I had my opportunity to manage a big club still in League One. I felt the club was bigger than League One with its fan base and the structure behind it. To get the opportunity to manage in League One was unbelievable and I really appreciated that opportunity.

We finished that season on 80 points and just missed out on the play-offs, which was against the odds with a really small budget in that division. We did really well. We then went into my first full season in charge with a budget of about £4 million, a bottom half of the table budget, the 14th or 15th biggest budget, and won the league against Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday.

So it was incredible. It was just a season that no one would ever forget. What we had set out to achieve at the very start – turning that club around, getting the fans in, getting the city bouncing, getting the reconnection between the fans and the club, everything that we’d spoken about going there, everything that the owner wanted, we had achieved.

Then going into the Championship, my first experience of the Championship as a manager, I was excited. I was confident about the team. I didn’t feel as though we would ever struggle and we played really well up until December, had goals all over the team. We had young players who were talented and experienced players who were really good pros. We played 22 games and had 26 or 27 points and then, obviously, I had the opportunity to come here under sort of similar circumstances.

It’s a huge club, probably too big for the division in some ways, there was a disconnect with fans to some sort of extent and I had the same mindset of coming in to try to achieve the same kind of thing, get it going, get the bet365 bouncing, get a team that the fans love to come to watch and get out of this division with a budget, let’s have it right, that is going to give us an opportunity to compete.

So that was Argyle and that was the reason why I came here.

READ MORE: War cry from Stoke City's first summer signing

READ MORE: All the latest Stoke City transfer news and gossip

Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday, who also came up from the Championship, stayed up – but how do you think Ipswich, who had finished as runners-up behind you, were able to propel themselves so far up the table to win promotion to the Premier League?

Continuity, consistency, a really good team spirit. Ipswich had Championship players in League One. They had Sam Morsy, who they signed from the Championship, and Massimo Luongo, and those two played pretty much every week. They bought centre-backs like George Edmundson in League One who had a good reputation; Nathan Broadhead, who Championship teams wanted but they managed to sign for £3m. They then went and got George Hirst on loan in League One and made him permanent.

They had some Championship standard players in my opinion, really good players in League One and obviously they’ve got a fantastic, talented manager who has got them playing, organised so they know exactly what they’re doing. They never change the system. It was just a well-oiled machine with good players and good personalities.

I was surprised they got automatic promotion but I wasn’t overly surprised that they were up there and competing for the top six. If someone had asked me if Ipswich could go again I would have said yes, with the budget they had – and how they added to the squad. They signed Omari Hutchinson, they signed Jeremy Sarmiento. They recruited really well. They brought in Jack Taylor from Peterborough for £3m who every Championship club would have wanted and he couldn’t get in their team.

They are a real success story. I’m delighted for them all because I get on really well with them and it shows what can be done if you get a good group of players and a plan.

When you came into Stoke and inherited the squad, what were your first impressions about things like fitness, technique and attitude?

When we first came in I think all of the coaching staff realised pretty much immediately that the standard was actually really good. The way the players passed the ball, the way they received the ball, the way they defend, the strength of the group, the physicality of the group, was an improvement of what we had at Argyle.

That's not being disrespectful to Argyle, that was just the group as a whole being talented. We could see it in the possessions and the passing drills. What we probably didn’t have in the squad was the star, the stand out goal scorers. At Argyle we had Morgan Whittaker, who had double figures for goals when we went to Stoke, Ryan Hardie was getting towards there, we had Finn Azaz who had double figures in goal contributions, goals and assists. We had some players who in the moments were really talented. I would probably say that at the time we came into Stoke, that wasn’t evident. It was going through a tough time, Alex (Neil) had been sacked and the club obviously wasn’t playing the way that was probably expected at the start.

So you're going into a dressing room half-way through the season with a team who aren't playing with loads of confidence but the talent was definitely there. We could see it.

As regards to the fitness side of the thing, I think it's just a different style and a different element in what we were asking the players to do compared to what Alex had been asking them to do. That change can sometimes be difficult.

In the first four or five games, I think we could see some of our players were going down with cramp and were struggling to go with the intensity levels we were asking them to do.

After the first seven games we went into a tough period, in the middle of our 24 games here, and we picked up a couple of injuries. I don't think that was down to fitness or players being unconditioned. For me it was a confidence thing because we’d had the initial bounce that you get, we were unbeaten in seven, playing well, should have won more than the two games we did really. We should have beat Watford, should have beat Millwall at home. If we had won four games out of the seven, everyone would have said it was a fantastic start. Instead it was an ok start and then we went into a period when we played Birmingham, Cardiff and Blackburn Rovers in big games and we lost six out of seven.

In four of those games you could see we had the better xG, we had the big chances and big moments and we didn’t manage to take them, which lends itself to confidence. All of a sudden, players start to doubt themselves a little bit, they were a bit unsure and there is noise from the outside of getting dragged towards a relegation battle, getting sucked into it because it was getting tight in the second half of the season. I think that affected the group a lot.

So then what happened in those last 12 games was pleasing, that we came out of that real tough period and that players gained confidence back. That is going to help us next year, for sure.

John Coates has appointed Steven Schumacher as new Stoke City head coach.
John Coates appointed Steven Schumacher as new Stoke City head coach in December 2023. -Credit:Pete Stonier

Does confidence affect the intensity at which you’re playing at too over 90 minutes?

Absolutely. Yeah, it does 100 per cent because when you're a confident group and you're having results and things are going for you and games that you should win, you do win...

It felt like, for me, that in those seven games that any sort of mistake we made got punished. In the game against Coventry at home it was 0-0 and the game is a bit dead at the end of a three-game week. We made one mistake when Ki-Jana Hoever dribbles inside the pitch, gets tackled and we lose the game. It could have easily one the other way.

There are loads of examples like that and it affects confidence and it affects your belief, it affects the momentum and atmosphere in the stadium so you look as though you drained of energy. That’s natural and it happens in any team but it affected our players a lot.

I’ve done a review with the analysts and showed it to Jon Walters and John Coates and spoke about the effect of the Championship. It wasn’t only us. This kind of thing wasn’t unique to us. We can be in a bit of a bubble and focus on what’s going on in our building but every team went through a bad period in the Championship. Ipswich were the only ones who didn’t lose back-to-back games.

Coventry lost six, drew one and won one out of their last eight games. West Brom, who finished in the play-offs, lost three, drew three, won one out of their last seven. Leicester lost four, drew one, won two out of seven. Norwich, who finished in the play-offs, lost eight, drew one and won two out of 11.

Everybody went through a tough period in the Championship. Everybody had said to me before coming into the Championship that it's brutal and I didn’t kind of know what they meant. Now I know what they mean. You can lose six out of seven without playing badly but it’s how you come out of it and what you do about it.

Energy, intensity is affected but it happens to everyone. The key for us is just to try to stay calm in those tough moments. What we did after that tough moment that we had was to simplify everything for the last 12 games. We spoke about not taking as many risks, we went a bit more direct against Hull, we went a bit more direct against Sheffield Wednesday. We stayed in games just to make sure that we were competitive and not have to chase games like we did at Blackburn and Sunderland. And we got through it.

We spoke about chunking the games and trying to get five points out of every four in that last 12. In the end we ended up getting 21 points instead of 15 because that consistency came, the belief came, the confidence came back and the lads showed that they looked like a half-decent team towards the end of it.

Did you say recently that Simon Hallett had said that you’d never lost back-to-back matches as a manager and that would be your big test?

That was going to be the big test, yes. Coming out of League One, going into the Championship he said that’s when you’ll know what type of manager you are.

Obviously when everything’s going well it’s always easy to smile and be happy. You’re winning games – and I had something like a 50-odd per cent, 57 per cent win percentage or something like that coming here and that doesn’t happen too often.

But the longer I was a manager, there were always going to be times when it was going to be hard – and it was hard last year. There were times when it was really difficult and I was having to worry about what was going on off the pitch a lot rather than what was just happening on the pitch. That was a challenge that I hadn’t had to deal with before.

Then it was managing expectations and the pressure of managing a huge club was different but we came through it in the end and that is only going to benefit me in the long run.

It's not just the squad that you have to manage when you come into a new club but it must be like going into a new school. You have to build new relationships and there are probably always going to be people who you get on with and people who you might not so much. How did you find that?

That’s what it’s like. You try to figure everything out and that takes time. I was coming into Stoke thinking that I should have these relationships instantly because that’s what I’d become used to at Argyle. But I had been at Argyle for nearly five years, we’d gone from League Two to League One and into the Championship.

You're building a club and you're building foundations and where it’s based on success over four-and-a-half years. Those relationships grow organically and it’s going to take time for me to grow that at Stoke. It’s going to take time to get to know everybody. How does everybody respond to you? How does everybody like the style that you work in? If they don’t, how can you still affect them and help them? Can you go in with a different tack? Or is it a different coach that has to deal with those types of people?

Success isn’t easy to come by. You have to work really hard for it. That’s what we’re prepared to do.

Stoke City in training under Steven Schumacher.
Stoke City in training under Steven Schumacher. -Credit:Stoke City

There were a couple of matches in that run of six defeats in seven, like at home against Birmingham, when Stoke had played well and were unlucky – but as the run goes on, fewer people will care about performances. There were a couple of defeats that felt like punches in the stomach at Blackburn and Cardiff and they must have been tough moments?

They felt like really, really big defeats at the time because of who it was we were playing against. Blackburn and Cardiff were right next to us in the league at the time and we knew if we won we would go above them and you’re looking at being 13th or 14th and then you’re looking at the top half of the table and perception would have changed.

But they were big games when we came away with nothing and it was down to individual errors and mistakes really.

Even at Blackburn, after they went a couple of goals ahead our response was pretty good. We got a goal back, Niall Ennis scored, but we ended up losing the game. Cardiff was very similar. Our xG in that match was 1.56 and Cardiff’s was 0.6 but we had two individual errors. There was one at a corner which we should have dealt with although I still to this day don’t know how it got in the goal and the other was a mistake from us trying to play in our own half.

We spoke about that after the game and it was the players really. We had a big discussion after the game and the players spoke up and said that in the moment we’re in, we’re probably playing in a way where there’s an element of risk to it. Now that’s how I want to play as a coach, that’s how I want to develop as a manager, it’s what I believe in and I’m saying, ‘Yes but you’re good enough players to handle what I’m asking you to do and don’t lose sight of that fact.’

I was showing them data and trying to show them evidence of the success that they were having, like with xG, chance creation, passes completed. There weren’t too many instances when we did give the ball away but when we did we were getting punished for it and that was affecting results and affecting confidence moving forward.

So I had to listen to them and say, ‘Ok, well, I hear what you’re saying. Fine. I’ll take away my ideal of how I want to play, we’ll go a little bit more direct, we’ll take a little bit less risk in our own half and when we get into the opposition half I still want us to play. I don’t want us to just be lumping the ball into the box because that’s now how we’re going to score.’

I listened to what they had to say and in the end we actually came back to a formula without me having to lay it out asking the lads to play again. They could do it naturally because they were starting to believe they’re good footballers again and everybody’s excited about what they’re doing and we’re not getting punished for every mistake that we make.

So that's football. It's dealing with it and trying to figure out what's the best way without being stubborn. I think that’s what I learnt the most. I see some managers just stick to their principles and they get the bullet for it. For me, that learning was ok. Let's listen to what these players are saying. If I can help them get through this difficult time by doing a little bit of what they want to do then that might give us all a chance to win games. That was a real positive from my point of view.

That speaks a lot about your character and your style as a manager that you were prepared to listen and take action like that.

I've always had this attitude. When I came into Stoke on my first day or when I was meeting Argyle players, I don’t know everything. I get decisions right, I get some decisions wrong, I pick the team and sometimes it works, I pick it wrong sometimes. As long as you can hold your hand up and as long as you can explain to people why you’re making decisions then I think everybody accepts it. We’re all only human, we all want the same thing.

I’m trying to do my best for myself and for the club, for the family and all of that but sometimes you just get it wrong. In those times you have to be aware. I think I’m pretty good at having self awareness and what the mood’s saying and what people are actually really thinking and how we can get through this tough time. At that moment, that’s what they needed.

Now it could have been the other way around. We could have been going so direct and getting no results and players were asking to play a bit more football. So it was just the way we were and what was happening that was what was required.

We went a bit more solid, we ended up playing with two holding midfielders for a spell, we played with a 10, sometimes we played with a back five. We went to Preston and we hardly passed the ball once because of how the pitch looked – and that’s coming away from my style, my ideal of playing and what’s been getting me this reputation that I’m trying to build but I didn’t care because points are all that mattered and we needed to get them to stay in the division. That was the focus.

What do you think? Have your say in the comments section