THE SNOWFALL which brought the country to a standstill scuppered Martin O’Neill’s travel plans following Sunderland’s clash at the Britannia Stadium last February.
The Sunderland manager originally intended to catch a train from Birmingham to London after the game, but with the heavens opening, was quickly offered a back-up plan of hitching a lift with Potters coach Gerry Francis.
But with the roads in the immediate vicinity of the Britannia gridlocked, O’Neill surrendered to the powers of nature and headed back to Stoke’s ground, with the Sunderland team coach long gone.
There he informed Tony Pulis of his predicament and despite continuing to seethe at the decision to dismiss Robert Huth for a challenge on Sunderland midfielder David Meyler, the Stoke boss kindly offered to put O’Neill up for the night.
But the scuppered travel plans and the torturous return home, which saw players and supporters only make it back to the North East in the early hours of the Sunday morning, couldn’t dampen O’Neill’s mood.
James McClean’s winner had handed Sunderland a third successive Premier League victory and extended their sparkling run of form to five wins in six top -flight outings.
O’Neill will happily forego any drama with the weather this weekend – despite ominous predictions of snow in the forecast – yet would relish a repeat result in Sunderland’s return to the Britannia tomorrow.
“The conditions at Stoke that day were really surreal,” said O’Neill.
“They cleared some of the snow off the pitch early on, but then down came a flurry with 10 or so minutes to go.
“Had that arrived 15 minutes earlier, I don’t think the game would have finished. But it was great to win the game in difficult conditions. We would be delighted if we could repeat that result this weekend.”
Stoke find themselves level on points with Sunderland, having matched the Black Cats’ return of five top-flight draws this season.
But O’Neill is confident the Potters will inevitably find their stride as the campaign wears on, stressing that Pulis’s side have faced Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City during their opening eight games.
O’Neill added: “With Stoke, regardless of how they start the season, they eventually find themselves, click into gear and get stronger as the season goes on.
“Last year, they had the Europa League and were playing in that in February time against Valencia. So it was a long season for them.
“They don’t have that this season and I think over the course of the next few weeks, they will get stronger.
“If you look at Stoke’s set of games since the start of the season, they’ve had some very difficult matches indeed.
“While I always believe this league is very difficult, you have to accept sometimes that playing against Manchester City and Manchester United might be more difficult than other fixtures.
“They’ll feel that now they’ve come through that, they can press on and improve as the season goes on.”