How Steven Schumacher pulled Stoke City to safety and support he received in dark days

Steven Schumacher salutes Stoke City's travelling supporters following a 1-0 win at Southampton which secured their place in the Championship. Sporting director Jon Walters and chairman John Coates were in the stands at St Mary's to see a critical victory.
Steven Schumacher salutes Stoke City's travelling fans after victory at Southampton. Inset: Sporting director Jon Walters and chairman John Coates at St Mary's. -Credit:Alex Burstow/Getty Images

It is a big tick on a manager’s CV to be able to create a juggernaut, like Steven Schumacher did at Plymouth Argyle as they held off challenges from Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday to collect 101 points and win the League One title.

It is another thing to be able to stop a juggernaut, which is how Stoke City was starting to feel back in late February. It obviously hadn’t been milk and honey when Alex Neil was given the heave-ho but it felt particularly bleak when Stoke had slipped into the bottom three with a run of six defeats in seven games. They weren’t scoring enough (five goals in those seven) and they were conceding far too many (16 in seven).

Schumacher had arrived at Stoke two games into a seven-match unbeaten run but this was not proving to be an easy fix. There were dark days either side of a wretched trip to Cardiff, which saw the axe fall on technical director Ricky Martin. A new, young manager in charge of a squad which had been completely overhauled, was bloated but lacked balance, had problems at both ends and had questions being asked about its stomach for the fight.

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If stories about Schumacher being a game away from the chop were spurious it was nevertheless clear he was under pressure. Everyone was under pressure. A grand reset billed as the club’s great hope had instead left fans dreading relegation to the third tier.

The reaction within Stoke was support, starting from chairman John Coates and including the fans, especially at away matches, who have continually chanted his name. Fury was evident at Blackburn and Cardiff but that vocal loyalty has not gone unnoticed.

Jon Walters joined as interim technical director and was emphatic in his public backing as well. He said: “This is the first time he’s had a dip so my message has been, ‘Keep your head. It’s what happens.’ He knows he has to learn from this because he’ll come out of it as a better coach. That’s how it is, your learnings come from failing. No one goes and has a curve constantly going upwards and a steep incline. It’s keeping your gut feeling and your principles and your non-negotiables, and he knows that.”

Alex Morris came over from the under-21s to support the coaching set-up from Monday to Friday as well as on match days. He was initially an extra pair of eyes in the stands but has been in the dug-out for the last couple of games too.

Schumacher was also able to get advice from outside the club, like from his old Bury boss Alan Knill, who was fighting his own fires as assistant manager at Sheffield United. But ultimately he held his destiny in his own hands and he was prepared to park his ideals to meet the challenges as they were at that particular time.

“Playing pretty football and being nice on the ball, that will come, but results are so important,” he said heading into a home match against Middlesbrough. “We’ve got to find a way to win games.”

Stoke went more physical and more direct. They have picked up vital points – only three teams in the Championship (Middlesbrough, Norwich and Millwall) have picked up more in this time – and they have gradually picked up confidence. It’s 18 points in 11 games, a 1.63ppg ratio that would get a team 75 points and a play-off spot if they could sustain it over a season.

Such is the nature of the battle of the bottom this year that it took until the weekend’s 1-0 win at Southampton for safety to be mathematically secured but that’s the bottom line: safety has been secured.

“We didn't want to be down in the bottom half of the division, but it was really important that we didn’t sulk about it,” he said at full-time at St Mary’s.

“We spoke after a poor run of games about where we felt we could get better and in the end I’ve grown in confidence each game. (At Southampton) we played like a team we want to look like, to recognise. That gives us confidence that if we get it right, get the build right in the summer with the players that we need, then next year we will have a much better year.”

It will be interesting to look back from a future vantage point and see how this experience and the extra grey hairs it has given everyone in the Stoke camp have shaped the Schumacher that will now emerge to attack the summer; another pivotal transfer window and pre-season.

“I am looking forward to it,” he said last week. “I’m looking forward to a summer first.”

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