Stoke in perilous position amid QPR’s rapid rise; Sunderland to make Still-less manager appointment

Lewis Oldham
Stoke slammed in Champ Spotlight
Alex Neil, Michael Beale and Marti Cifuentes.

The Championship Spotlight is on Stoke City, who are in an increasingly perilous position amid QPR’s rapid rise and are set to make a defining manager appointment.


Back at the start of this month via this Championship column, I noted that Alex Neil was on the brink at Stoke City and he was finally let go following last week’s embarrassing home defeat at the hands of 23rd-placed Sheffield Wednesday.

Snatched from promoted Sunderland at the start of last season, Championship specialist Neil felt like the perfect appointment for Stoke, who had gone through the gruelling process of slipping into mediocrity following their relegation from the Premier League amid their failure to finish above 14th in the second tier in any of their four campaigns back at this level.

Neil was never going to be judged too harshly as Stoke meandered to their fifth-straight bottom-half finish in 2022/23. The true test for the ex-Norwich City and Preston boss would come this term after he was tasked with getting rid of the dead wood as part of a major Stoke overhaul in the summer and on paper, it looked like he had managed this pretty well as pre-season talk of a promotion push gathered pace.

The familiar feeling of disappointment swiftly returned to the Bet365 Stadium, however. Stoke – who are winless in the Championship since October – are sleepwalking into a relegation battle and having taken the club nowhere in 14 months, Neil had to go.

In previous seasons, despite being mediocre at best, Stoke just had enough quality in their squad to ward off the threat of relegation, but with only two points between them and the bottom three, Neil’s replacement could have a huge firefight on his hands.

With Stoke being a football club that’s failed on and off the pitch following their unexpectedly prolonged spell in the Premier League, relegation to League One would mark a new low, but it would enforce a proper re-set which would probably do them good in the long run. To evade that, the potential arrival of ex-Birmingham City manager John Eustace – as underwhelming an appointment as it may be for some of their supporters – would be sensible after he overachieved at St Andrew’s in difficult circumstances.

Birmingham manager Eustace
Stoke City-linked John Eustace.


Stoke City (along with Huddersfield Town, Millwall and Plymouth Argyle, in particular) are being made to look over their shoulders in fear as Marti Cifuentes breathes new life into QPR.

A year ago today, Neil Critchley was a few days into his tenure in charge after Michael Beale jumped slip to join Rangers. Dropping from first to 10th, QPR’s situation felt bad 12 months ago, but it soon got a lot worse as they ended up avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.

Their third permanent manager of the season – Gareth Ainsworth – got them over the line but this was not without great difficulty as QPR’s players did not take to the unfashionable style of play the Hoops legend became infamous for during his time at Wycombe Wanderers.

With the 50-year-old unwilling to evolve his uninspiring football philosophy, the Ainsworth-QPR reunion was doomed to fail and under him, the London outfit were going down with a whimper.

A dugout change had to be made and QPR’s board appear – so far at least – to have made an inspired decision with his successor as former Hammarby boss Cifuentes has them on the brink of exiting the relegation zone.

Under Ainsworth, QPR were made to play within themselves and this unsurprisingly led to many of their players becoming disillusioned with his methods during what would have been a miserable slide towards relegation had he stuck around.

But now the picture at QPR is looking far more positive and this has largely been made possible by Cifuentes taking the reins off. Ilias Chair and Chris Willock – two of the best attacking players in the league on their day – have been allowed to flourish and produce what they are capable of.

Should QPR keep on their current trajectory, they will finish comfortably above the relegation zone. That’s bad news for the group of struggling sides just clear of the drop as one of them looks set to join Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday in heading to League One.


The Black Cats joined Swansea City in wielding the managerial axe last week
as they parted company with veteran boss Tony Mowbray.

Sunderland’s board have grand plans and like Eustace’s face did not fit the mould at Wayne Rooney’s Birmingham City, the same can be said for Mowbray at the Stadium of Light.

Slipping out of the play-off positions following a run of five games without a win, Mowbray was ousted at the first opportunity.

While links to Kieran McKenna were never going to come off as he continues to amaze with second-placed Ipswich Town, Reims manager Will Still moving to Sunderland has been heavily touted. 

The inexperienced Englishman has earned plaudits for how he’s successfully cutting his teeth in Ligue Un and he would have been an exciting appointment for Sunderland, but they are not getting the 31-year-old.

Instead, Beale is heading to Sunderland. A report from The Athletic claims the Championship were ‘put off’ by the compensation package for Still, while Fabrizio Romano has described the former Rangers and QPR boss as their ‘secret candidate’ in case they missed out on Reims’ main man.

There was little backlash towards Mowbray from supporters before he was let go so if Sunderland were adamant about replacing him, they ideally needed to get someone who would immediately create a buzz around the Stadium of Light. And sadly for them, Beale will not do that.

That’s not to say he won’t do a good job, because his extraordinary work during his short time at QPR would suggest otherwise. But his failed stint at Rangers has damaged his reputation and after interim manager Mike Dodds won his two games in charge, pressure will be on Beale to get results from the off.

Sunderland’s decision-makers may be about to learn that the grass is not always greener on the other side and with the benefit of hindsight, sticking with Mowbray could end up being the right call to have made.

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