With there only a limited number of play-off and promotion spots up for grabs in any given campaign, each passing season will deliver a sense of what could have been for many.
In the case of Stoke City, endeavours in 2021-22 have failed to deliver on expectations. There have been times when a push for a Premier League return appeared to be on the cards, but momentum in the Potteries has proven difficult to maintain.
As a result, odds of 9/2 for a top-half finish in EFL Championship betting with Betfair have become the best that Michael O’Neill and Co can hope for. A promotion-chasing pack that sees the likes of Bournemouth, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest earning favour in Championship score predictions has edged out of sight.
An alarming slide in the opposite direction is not of immediate concern to the Potters, with relegation no serious threat, but future planning needs to start now in order to ensure that the future is markedly brighter than the present.
It remains to be seen what role a Northern Irish core will have to play for Stoke heading forward, but it should continue to figure prominently as focus begins to drift towards 2022-23.
— Stoke City FC 🇺🇦 (@stokecity) January 17, 2022
O’Neill, who spent close to eight years in charge of the Green and White Army, has done a decent enough job since stepping out of an international arena and back into the day-to-day grind of coaching at club level.
He inherited a squad flirting with the idea of taking a tumble into the third tier of English football and has steadied the ship enough to suggest that positive progress in the right direction has been made after a period of underwhelming stagnation.
More to come
He will believe that, with another transfer market to dip into over the summer, Stoke can bounce back bigger and stronger next season.
Another of those hoping to prove that can be the case is Northern Ireland star Jordan Thompson. The Belfast-born midfielder has seen his personal progress stunted somewhat in the current campaign, with starting berths under O’Neill proving hard to come by.
He is, however, a proven performer on a Championship stage and will be another of those determined to prove that a minor blip can be overcome as he goes on to better things further down the line.
There is plenty for Thompson to look forward to, with another UEFA Nations League campaign fast approaching with his country and Euro 2024 qualifiers to follow in the spring of next year.
— Northern Ireland (@NorthernIreland) May 29, 2021
By then, the plan will be to have rekindled a spark at Stoke. One will need to be found quickly if potential as an individual and a collective is to be fulfilled and ultimate goals hit. Time waits for nobody, as Stoke are finding out the hard way.
A top-flight carrot has dropped out of reach once again in 2022, with four years having passed since the Potters last rubbed shoulders with the elite on a weekly basis, but said vegetable can still be snatched at some stage as long as lessons are learned from costly mistakes and ambition continues to burn brightly.