Stoke must break 'glass ceiling' to top half - Neil

Published on: 21 November 2023

Alex Neil began his managerial career in Scotland with Motherwell before spells in England with Norwich, Preston and Sunderland

Stoke City manager Alex Neil says his side must break through a "glass ceiling" to become regular challengers in the top half of the Championship.

The Potters have failed to finish in the division's top 12 since their relegation from the Premier League in 2018.

They managed 16th last season in Neil's first term in charge and currently sit 14th.

"We need consistency," Neil told BBC Radio Stoke.

"We want to be hard to play against and hard to beat and put a good sequence of games together so we continually pick points up."

That is exactly what Stoke have been doing in the past month, putting together an impressive five-match unbeaten run that has seen them beat promotion contenders Sunderland, Leeds and Middlesbrough and earn back-to-back draws against Cardiff and Coventry.

A solid foundation - four successive clean sheets - has also helped them end their previous poor run of one win in seven.

Stoke must strive to shatter 'glass ceiling'

Only Southampton, with 13 points, and Leeds, with 12, can better Stoke's 11-point haul from the past five games as they lifted themselves to within five points of the play-off places.

"The biggest thing for me is we need to break this glass ceiling we've had in the last five or six years where we've not operated in the top half of the table," Neil said.

"That's my main aim - to get us into the top half and trying to sustain being in the top half for large periods of the season so we can compete at that end of the table and establish ourselves as a top-half team."

Stoke's results against the Black Cats, Leeds and Boro, have been the highlight for Neil so far and it has shown him what his squad is capable of.

"That week - that would be really hard for any club at this level to replicate," he said.

"Norwich were in the top eight that week and yielded no points [against the same three teams] and we took nine.

"Norwich are a good team at this level and spent quite a bit of money in the summer. So, as far as we're concerned, I don't think there will be many teams that manage to do that in one week."

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Neil is preparing for the resumption of the Championship following the international break this Saturday with a home game against Blackburn, and with nine games to come before the end of the year he knows they are entering a potentially defining period.

"If you're in touching distance of the play-offs at the end of January, I think that's when the season really kicks in," he said.

"So these next two months will decide for me whether we're fighting at the top end of the table or not."

Stoke City's win at Middlesbrough on 28 October followed victories over Leeds and Sunderland

Neil oversaw a huge rebuild of his squad in the summer with 17 new signings.

Although Neil said that number of new faces brought its "challenges", it has made the squad "much more rounded" and given him more "options".

The 42-year-old Scot said the January transfer window will also give him the chance to "top up the squad" with "a couple more bodies".

"When we've had such a vast window in one go you're never going to be able to cover all the bases in that one window. You're going to need two or three to get to the point that you've needed from day one," Neil told BBC Radio Stoke.

"I think if you've been here as manager for two or three seasons by the time you get to your third season you're literally just pruning the squad and adding one here or there."

'If any other business was run like football, it wouldn't survive'

With fewer than half the current managers in the Championship serving more than a year, getting the time to shape a squad exactly how a boss wants is a challenge.

Last season there were 19 permanent changes of manager, with five more following before this term.

So far in 2023-24, six permanent managers have been appointed, with Rotherham yet to name a replacement for Matt Taylor - the most recent boss to lose their job.

Neil, who is the sixth longest-serving manager in the second tier, says the continued high turnover of bosses remains a barrier to building consistency.

"That's the difficulty in management nowadays - I've only been here a year and I'm in the top six of longest-serving managers, which is absolutely crazy.

"If any other business was run the way football is run they would never survive.

"At this club our owners understand what the long-term goal is and the importance of having time and getting things right.

"Not only will that serve us well in the medium-term, but it will be more beneficial and healthy for the club in the long-term."

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