Steven Schumacher interview: 'That was crazy - I couldn't get over that stat'

Calm before the storm... Stoke boss Steven Schumacher at the bet365 Stadium before the clash with Queens Park Rangers.
-Credit: (Image: Ryan Browne)

It has been a whirlwind five-and-a-bit months for Steven Schumacher, trading in his job at Plymouth Argyle, where he was hero-worshipped, to take on the huge challenge at Stoke City. He ticked off the first big objective of keeping the club in the Championship but, as he explains in the second part of this extensive interview with the Sentinel, that is no excuse to rest on any laurels. You can read the first part of the interview in full here.

The run in February might have been a doubly-difficult time because, although xG was in Stoke’s favour in defeats and you could point to individual mistakes being costly, it will have felt like déjà vu for supporters even if it was new for you? There is baggage that comes with taking over as manager in that kind of situation.

Steven Schumacher: Absolutely. And when you look back at the review, there's a reason why we're dominating games but we’re finishing in the bottom half of the division. It's easy for everyone to see: we don't score enough goals.

Those big chances that you're creating, the performances when you’re playing really well, if you haven’t got someone who sticks the ball in the back of the net then it's a waste of time because that's ultimately what the game is about.

So we've highlighted the areas of the pitch and things that we did really well since we came in in Game Week 23 and there's loads of positives and loads of things that we were doing successfully, but there's a glaring and obvious weakness of what we've got.

Now we need to be more clinical in front of goal. There's areas in the 18-yard box where we need to score more goals from and there's areas outside the box where we need to create more from.

So it’s up to us now to go, ‘Ok, that’s what it’s saying, this is what the evidence and the data is showing us, so now can we go and get the recruitment right to give us a chance that when we’re playing so well we make the most of the opportunities.’

We don’t want déjà vu. We don't want to be in this position again and I keep saying it. There's a lot of good going on in our team, a lot. We were up in the top six for clean sheets, we were up in the top six for set play goals. There is a lot of stuff about the team that you can work with – but there are areas as well that are glaringly obvious where we can improve.

So if we can get that right and we can go and get the right personnel – and you get a bit of luck as well, by the way – and you get your signings right then we'll have a chance of doing better next year.

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The week after that Cardiff game going into a home match against Middlesbrough, I remember you had a phone call from your old Bury manager Alan Knill with a word of advice. Jon Walters came in and did that rallying call as well. It felt like a tough but pivotal week and you had good people around who you could lean on, as well as finding the inner belief within yourself?

Yeah. There are people around you who have been in the game who can advise you but also no one is more important than your wife and family by the way, because they’ve seen you go through something that you’ve never done before, never had this situation before. It’s so valuable. You can’t lose sight of that.

Then there are the people who are phoning you and telling you that this is normal, what you’re experiencing. ‘I’ve been through this situation…’ How did you get through it? Well, by sticking to your beliefs, by being strong, by telling players that you’ve got confidence in them. By staying calm. Even though you might be nervous behind the scenes, you can’t portray that. You’ve got to get your body language right that this is ok, that we’re going to be all right and we’re going to get through it.

The Middlesbrough game was a huge game, it was important, and it coincided with Jon doing what he did and it coincided with what happened after the Cardiff game, the discussions I had with the players immediately in the changing room, listening to what they said. We went in on the Monday morning, spoke about it and said, ‘Ok, I’ve listened and this is how we’re going to go about it in the next few games.’

Jon came in on the Tuesday and said what he needed to say and we started to chunk the games and make what we needed to do seem more achievable. We were going for five points every four games and that really helped to settle everyone down.

We said right from that Monday morning that we must win this game on the Saturday, it was must win. There was no hiding behind it, we had to win that game. And we did, thankfully, and results and performances improved after that.

To get 21 points out of those last 12 games was play-off form and it gives you belief and confidence that a team that had struggled in some areas and for confidence can do it and that you can do better again.

One thing that we kept asking you about again and again was the home form. At Plymouth, your success had been built on how well you had done at Home Park while Stoke’s home form had been so rotten for a couple of years. We kept asking if you could find the answer to that and, as it turned out, that Middlesbrough game felt like the start. There had been a home win over QPR before then but by the end of the season, supporters were actually looking forward to coming.

Obviously the home record was there for all to see. From September 2 to February 14 we had won two out of 13 games at home, which was against Leeds and Sunderland. That was crazy. I couldn’t get over that stat. And we had failed to score in 10 games at home all season, including five since we had got there.

That stat then figured out that we failed to score in 10 games at home all season and again, five of them since we got there.

We understood, then, the problems and the issues that we'd got and I spoke about it in the press about when we have a bit of adversity and we went behind and the crowd would get restless, you could see it visibly affect the players and confidence and all that and we very rarely came back once we conceded the first goal. That was another thing that we spoke about.

So it was an issue that we had to deal with and address. Can we change this? Can we change the perception? Can we be a bit more positive at home? Can we try to get on the front foot earlier in games? Can we try to make fewer mistakes in the last 12 games? Can we start games with a different mentality and give us a chance to do well?

To only lose two out of the last eight home games and to win the last two and score three and four goals without conceding, that’s a good sign of hopefully what’s to come.

That took me time to understand the dynamic. I’ve obviously seen and heard about what’s going on around Stoke for years from the outside but you don’t fully understand it until you’re in it. Now I’m in it, I’ve got a good sense and I’m better prepared to start next season.

How do we get this place like a fortress? Home Park was very similar, by the way, before we went there. It’s an attitude and it’s a mentality and we ended up building it over years so that nobody liked coming to play at Argyle but fans loved coming to watch us. It was sold out every week, you couldn’t get a ticket, because we played with energy and honesty, we got after teams and we tried to be positive in every game, tried to win every game. That’s what we’ll try to do here moving forward.

There are two things about that. One, Stoke fans have been through some dire form at home over the last few years and sometimes you can sense annoyance bubbling under the surface or patience being tested if it’s not going right. But also, secondly, the way that tickets sold so quickly for that Bristol City game showed that there is also a massive hunger to buy into a team, desperate to come on board?

It was a big attendance that day and it’s something we want to try to grow and keep the atmosphere going in that stadium. The stadium is so powerful. The noise when you’re there and when it gets going, we can use that to our advantage – but I’ve got to put a team out there that the fans can recognise and get behind and enjoy coming to watch. It’s my job to try to do that and if we get the performances right then the results will come and when the results come, the people will come and it just goes hand in hand and that’s what we want.

It’s so important to have a good home atmosphere and a good confidence that you're going into games at home and you're going to win. It’s the bedrock to any team who has any sort of success. That’s what we’ll try to get as we move forward next year.

From the QPR game onwards our home record was actually all right. We only lost four games at home actually since I came in; Coventry, Norwich, Leicester, who won the league, and Birmingham, when we shouldn’t have lost. Our record at home wasn’t too bad but it’s obviously something that can definitely get better.

Steven Schumacher Manager of Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship match between Stoke City and Middlesbrough at Bet365 Stadium on March 02
Steven Schumacher Manager of Stoke City during the Sky Bet Championship match between Stoke City and Middlesbrough at Bet365 Stadium on March 02 -Credit:Getty Images

I remember talking to someone from Leicester when they were getting booed for winning in too dull a way at one point. You can contrast that to Stoke supporters who seem absolutely desperate just to win and be better. That must be a good place to be as a manager, to know you have a fanbase who are so hungry to get behind you if you get it right?

Yeah, they are. It's what drives me every day. It’s what I come in for. This is what can be achieved, this is what we can get to. If we get it right and we all work incredibly hard and we’ve all got this one vision of the objective, of what we’re trying to achieve, then I think we’ll be fine.

I think Stoke fans can see the way I am, trying to be as open and honest as best as I possibly can and try to tell it how it is. I don’t deal with b******* too great. Just be honest and open and say when you’ve done ok, admit when you’ve got things wrong and keep putting a team out there that works hard. That is the most important thing.

If we can put out a team that plays in the way we finished the season, more consistently next year…. If we can put a team that plays with that energy, plays with that fight, even when things aren’t going well, like the West Brom game at home or the Huddersfield game when we had a set-back. So what? Let’s have a go! Let’s fight for the shirt, that’s what the fans demand. If we do that we’ll be fine, we’ll get enough results and hopefully we won’t be in this situation again.

That Sheffield Wednesday match was important, wasn't it?

Yeah, it was a massive game. It was huge. I felt in all of the games in the run-in that they were so important and even after we beat Argyle at home and everyone was saying we’d got 50 points and that will be fine, that we could see Southampton as a free hit and enjoy it, I honestly, genuinely didn’t feel like that.

I felt at that moment that we needed another win for sure because all the teams at the bottom end of the league were showing how strong the Championship was last year. They were all the ones that were in form. We took more points after game week 23 than so many teams that finished in the top 10. We took more points than Preston, more than Watford, more points than Sunderland, the same as Bristol City, who finished 11th. We took only one fewer point than Hull in that time and they finished seventh.

It showed how strong the bottom half of the division was getting that nobody could get away from those relegation places. It was only Rotherham who were miles away and everybody else was going into the last day with a chance. I just sensed that it wasn’t over. We had to keep fighting, we had to keep going to get the job done and achieve what the objective was when I came into the building.

There were some teams that we did better than which goes unnoticed because we only finished 17th in the league but, for me, I’m saying that we’ve done better than them with a squad that I don’t think has the exact right balance of what we need. If we can go and get some of those players that I feel make us better, then that gives us a chance to do better than them next season for sure.

A lot of players in the starting XI for those final three matches have now left – the loan players and Tyrese Campbell – but what was your message to the rest of the squad who will still be here next season? That you can’t go through this again?

That's true. We can’t go through that again. It’s too important to everybody and nobody enjoys being at that end of the division.

Now there are things that I think we can improve on on the pitch, certain areas of recruitment. There's things that we can do off the pitch, on the training ground, better.

When we first came in there was stuff that was going on and I was like, ‘Ok, this is new to me. I've not seen this before.’

The longer the season went on and we've obviously got the training programme, the gym programme schedule going, the fitness work going the way we wanted it to go, we did see an improvement in results. We've seen an improvement in performance and output of physicality and all of that side.

So starting the season and getting a pre-season with the group is so important – and don't forget as well that last season Stoke signed so many players late on in the window. You couldn’t be 100 per cent sure what was going on, what their pre-seasons looked like and where they were at physically. There were a lot of players who had not played in this country before and it was always going to take time anyway for them to settle in.

Then when a new manager comes in in December and does something different again, it was always going to be a challenge.

But this year, getting in on Day One in pre-season on July 1 is going to give us all an opportunity to build what we think is going to give us a chance to have success. Getting things right on the pitch is important, getting things right off the pitch is important and then the message going out to the fans is going to be so important too.

We need an improvement, 100 per cent, but we need to make sure it’s a realistic improvement that gives us a chance to stay hopeful and not be over expectant. That's another thing that I'm keen to stress as well that we need to manage our expectations without being negative. I need to be realistic with what we can get to. That will be the aim.

Million Manhoef received a standing ovation for his performance in Stoke City's final day win over Bristol City.
Million Manhoef received a standing ovation for his performance in Stoke City's final day win over Bristol City. -Credit:Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

Will you take things out of the last couple of months into next season, like breaking the year down into chunks to set targets and perhaps, like in matches on the pitch at Preston, you have to accept that you might not be able to play like Brazil?

Absolutely. That's all learning for me and it’s learning moving forward. We did something very similar last season in League One. We spoke about a points tally and points required that the objective was to try to get into the top six. We spoke to the players about averages of points per game, what we're going to need and staying above the line. That worked really well.

I think what happens naturally in the Championship is something that we should use is that you have breaks in the season so it’s about chunking the season up between international breaks. You figure out a points tally before you get to that and those natural breaks in the season. You try to get to a tally that gives you a chance to achieve your objective, whatever the objective is that you set out to do.

If you can keep doing that and then coming back to it and then saying, ‘OK, are we on target? Yeah, good, let’s keep doing what we're doing. Are we not on target to achieve that points tally? No, ok, what have we got to do then to get back to that number?’

I think if we can do that, that keeps everybody calm. It definitely helped in the last 12 games. If we can do it for one quarter of the season we might as well do it for the other three quarters because it will keep everyone grounded. That’s what I believe in. Keep your feet on the ground, keep moving forward and keep believing in what you’re trying to do.

It sounds like you’re really looking forward to next season?

I am, I’m really excited. It was a tough season and immediately after the final game I still had my angry head on because that’s the way I am. I’m still trying to dissect what’s going on, why we were in that position and still be frustrated about it all.

But when I look back at it. From Game Week 23 to 46, we were 14th in the league with a squad that I inherited and hadn’t had the time or opportunity to work with them to get to a level we needed to get to and recruit players that are going to be so important.

So I’m a bit more confident, a bit more relaxed and a bit more optimistic. We’re on track. We sort of achieved what was expected and with the right work over the summer there is no reason we can’t do a lot better than what we did. I’m optimistic and looking forward to it – after my holiday!

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