Stoke have had a mixed season so far, but will arrive in west London on Saturday with a chance of making the play-offs.
Michael O’Neill’s side were fifth in the table after 16 games, one place ahead of us, in early December. But 16 games later, they are now in 10th, four points behind sixth-placed Cardiff, having only won three times since then, after picking up eight victories in their opening 16 fixtures.
One reason for the slump could be the loss of young star striker Tyrese Campbell, who was ruled out for the rest of the season having suffered a serious knee injury in mid-December. He was the club’s top scorer at the time with seven goals, although he has recently been overtaken by both Nick Powell (10) and Steven Fletcher (eight).
Another factor could be that they have drawn a lot of games – 12 in total, the second highest total in the Championship behind Millwall, with eight of those coming in their second lot of 16 matches.
In fact, eight of their 16 away fixtures have finished level, the most exciting of which was a 3-3 contest at Rotherham last month
They even drew their first cup tie of the season, before winning it on penalties, as they – like us – enjoyed a successful Carabao Cup run.
That first round match finished goalless against Blackpool, before Stoke won 5-4 on spot-kicks and went on to win 1-0 at both Premier League Wolves and Aston Villa – and beat Gillingham by the same score in-between those two ties – to set up a quarter-final home tie with Tottenham just before Christmas. Although they fell behind in the first half, Jordan Thompson equalised early in the second, before the Londoners went on to win 3-1 and go through to a last-four tie with us.
There was no such excitement in the FA Cup, where Stoke lost 4-0 at home to Leicester who, like Spurs in the Carabao Cup, went on to play us in the next round.
Stoke’s 10-year spell in the Premier League, during which they finished in a highest position of ninth three times, ended in 2018.
They also reached the FA Cup final in 2011, losing 1-0 to Manchester City but qualified for the following season’s Europa League, in which they reached the last 32, where they were beaten 2-0 on aggregate by Valencia.
In their first season back in the Championship they finished 16th, having drawn more games (22) than anyone else, and last season they came 15th.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Michael O’Neill was appointed as Nathan Jones’s successor as Stoke manager in early November 2019.
O’Neill continued as Northern Ireland manager after taking the Potters job, and soon after his appointment returned to lead the side in their final two Euro 2020 qualifiers. He was also due to manage them in the play-offs in March, which had to be postponed because of Covid, and the following month O’Neill stepped down from the international job because of the timing of the rearranged play-offs.
During his time with the national side, he led them to their first European Championship finals in 2016, where they reached the round of 16 before losing 1-0 to Wales. It was their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup.
In club football, he has managed Brechin City and Shamrock Rovers, who he led to two successive Irish league titles.
WE’VE MET BEFORE
Brentford and Stoke haven’t met regularly over the years – in fact, this is only the 14th season in which we have been in the same division as each other.
Our first meetings since the mid-1950s came in Division Three (now League One) in 1990/91 and the Potters had by far the better of things, following up a 2-2 draw at the Victoria Ground with a 4-0 victory at Griffin Park.
The following season, both games ended up in home wins – with goals from Lee Luscombe and Dean Holdsworth giving us a 2-0 victory at Griffin Park, before John Butler and Mark Stein made Gary Blissett’s reply only a consolation as City won the return 2-1. However, the season ended in our favour as we won the Third Division title, with Stoke having to make do with the play-offs, where they lost 2-1 on aggregate to Stockport in the semi-finals.
Stoke did the double when we next met in the same division – by then called Division Two – in 1999/2000, winning each game 1-0, the away one being our first trip to the Britannia (now bet365) Stadium, with goals by Peter Thorne.
We also failed to beat them the following season – losing 1-0 to a Rikhardur Dadason goal in the Potteries and drawing 2-2 at home. Andy Cooke gave City a first-half lead, but two quick goals late in the second half from Mark Williams and Lloyd Owusu gave us the advantage before Dadason snatched a point for the visitors.
It is the 2001/02 campaign, which will live long in the memory however. Both sides won the home matches – Stoke 3-2 in a game in which they took the lead three times through Brynjar Gunnarsson, Chris Iwelumo and Sergei Shtanuk and we equalised twice through Ben Burgess and Lloyd Owusu – and the Bees 1-0 with Steve Sidwell’s second-half strike in a match, in which City’s Arnar Gunnlaugsson had been sent off. We met again, however, in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff where an opening goal from future Bee Deon Burton and an own goal from Burgess promoted Stoke with a 2-0 win and added to our list of failures in the end-of-season competition.
More recently, we were their first visitors in their first campaign back in the Championship three years ago.
A mix-up between Dan Bentley and Chris Mepham gave Benik Afobe the chance to put City ahead but a superb team goal finished off by Ollie Watkins midway through the second half earned us a well-deserved point in a 1-1 draw.
The return in early January was Nathan Jones’s first game in charge of Stoke, but there was no new manager bounce as the Bees cruised to a 3-1 win. There was a frantic start with three goals in a 16-minute spell. Brentford went ahead thanks to a Ryan Shawcross own goal and Said Benrahma doubled the lead, before Benik Afobe pulled one back. But a superb solo effort from Rico Henry – his first Bees goal – made the game safe early in the second half to stretch our unbeaten Championship run to five matches.
Our stuttering start to last season continued in mid-September when Stoke held us to a goalless draw at Griffin Park.
Sergi Canos came closest for Brentford when his effort was cleared off the line, while at the other end David Raya denied Peter Etebo.
The result lifted the Bees up to 17th, but left us with only one win from four home Championship games, while the winless Potters at least moved off the bottom of the table.
We were drawn together in the FA Cup third round later in the season – a game which was settled by a superb direct free-kick by Emiliano Marcondes just before half-time, his first goal for the club, as we won 1-0.
Our final meeting of the season went a long way to deciding that we would miss out on automatic promotion to the Premier League.
It was the penultimate fixture of the campaign and with second-placed West Brom losing at Huddersfield the previous day, the Bees knew that a victory at the bet365 Stadium would see us overtake the Baggies in the table. But Lee Gregory scored the only goal in the 38th minute, as City’s 1-0 win went a long way to condemning us to the play-offs.
We fared little better in the Potteries earlier this season, losing 3-2 – having been 2-0 down – to drop to 11th in the table.
Steven Fletcher and James McClean gave Stoke a 2-0 half-time lead, added to by Tyrese Campbell in the 59th minute, before substitute Marcus Forss struck in the 70th minute and again in injury-time as we nearly rescued a point.
BBC Radio Stoke’s commentator and presenter Lee Blakeman analyses Stoke’s season, reflects on the cruel blow of losing Tyrese Campbell to a serious injury and sums up Michael O’Neill’s time in charge of the club so far.
Q – How would you assess Stoke’s season?
A – Stoke’s season has been one of two halves it’s safe to say, with injuries having a massive impact over the last few months. Up until Christmas many people were talking about Stoke being a team capable of finishing in the play-off places, while some weren’t ruling out a push for automatic promotion. However following an injury to then top scorer Tyrese Campbell on 8 December, which has ruled him out for the rest of the season, Stoke’s form has taken a significant dip, with them only recording three wins since then. Two of those three wins have come in the last 10 days though, so who knows what will happen when Stoke make the trip to West London, with them still only four points off the top six.
Q – What were the expectations at the start of the campaign – promotion chase, mid-table security or relegation battle?
A – Given the narrow escape in last season’s relegation battle, many were saying a top 10 finish would represent good progress when this campaign started. However given some of the performances and results early on, some supporters’ expectations quickly rose, with “play-offs” starting to be mentioned in every other conversation. As the season has progressed though, with injuries having an impact, and looking at the bigger picture, most fans would look at a top 10 finish as being a solid end to the season.
Q – How big a blow was the loss to injury of Tyrese Campbell and just how good is he and can he be?
A – The injury to Tyrese Campbell was without doubt the turning point in the season – he’d got seven goals and six assists up until he got injured in the home defeat to Cardiff. There were calls from fans to try and get cover in for him in the January window, but realistically that was always going to be an incredibly tough ask, and when you take one of the best players out of any team, results will almost certainly take a dip – as we’ve seen in Stoke’s case.
Q – How has Michael O’Neill done since taking over?
A – Michael O’Neill has done brilliantly since coming in as manager at the beginning of November 2019, with Stoke rock bottom of the Championship and looking strong favourites to go down. The turnaround since then has been brilliant, Stoke look much more of a team, they’ve recorded some great wins and put in some excellent performances. The fact that some supporters were worried about losing him to Celtic kind of speaks for itself about how good a job he’s done. He’d be the first to admit that there’s still plenty of work left to do, but Stoke are without doubt heading in the right direction under his leadership.
Q – Which Stoke players should Brentford fans watch out for?
A – The player to watch out for on Saturday is without doubt Nick Powell, he’s in double figures for the season, he’s got five goals in his last seven games, and he’s definitely showing glimpses of why Manchester United chose to sign him a few years ago. He doesn’t just score, he creates too and has proven this season that he’s absolutely one of the best players in the Championship on his day.
Q – Finally can you give me a possible City line-up and formation please?
A – Possible line-up – 4-2-3-1:
Smith Soutter Batth Norrington-Davies
Clarke Powell Brown (McClean fitness depending)
Vokes (if Fletcher is out injured)
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
The match is being played at the Brentford Community Stadium at 3pm on Saturday, behind closed doors. Season ticket holders who have frozen their tickets have free access to watch the match on iFollow, and others can buy a match pass for £10.