Could this be the year Stoke City emerge from the doldrums of the Championship to reclaim a place in the Premier League?
Australian defender Harry Souttar has been one of coach Michael O’Neill’s breakout performers this season, and he believes a play-off spot is a realistic target.
The Socceroos and Olyroos stopper has started 25 of the Potters’ 31 games this season, and is one key reason why they’re part of the promotion conversation with successive wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Luton closing the gap to the top-six to just four points.
A midweek trip to fellow playoff aspirants Barnsley, followed by a weekend clash at second-placed Brentford, will provide a further examination of the Midland club’s bona fides, with a cautious Souttar telling The World Game, “There’s always that one team that goes on a big late season run in this league.
“The year Aston Villa went up they won their last 14 or something, so we think it’s possible.
“We only picked up our first win of the calendar year the other week (against the Owls) and we need to get ourselves on a little run now and pick up as many wins as possible, which I feel we’re capable of.”
Having inked a four-and-half year contract extension on top of the one due to expire in 2022, Souttar has become an indispensable figure - much to his own surprise - since returning from 18 months on loan at League One Fleetwood Town.
“I can only thank the manager for playing me as many times as he has this season,” he said.
“I didn’t expect to get as many games as I have but I’ve got something to build on there now.
“Personally, it’s been a massive year so far - and I’m fully focused on keeping that momentum going.
“We’ve got games every three or four days for the next month or so and we’ll be looking to find that consistency and string a series of performances together.
“I was always going to sign that contract - it was a bit make-or-break for me this season, in terms of whether I was going to play or go out on loan again.
“Things have worked out well and grateful to the gaffer for showing faith in me and giving me the new deal.”
Australia are due to return to FIFA World Cup action in Nepal on March 30, with a possible qualification hub on home soil in June followed by the Olympic Games in July.
All of which means Souttar could be in for a hectic mid-year schedule.
“It looks like the games will be coming thick and fast which is good because every player wants to be playing as many matches as they can,” he said.
“Playing at the Olympics has been a big dream of mine and with Socceroos that’s always special,” added Aberdeen-born Souttar, who has scored four goals in his two appearances for the senior national team.
Whilst never on the receiving end of vile social media posts himself, Souttar, 22, waded in to support his Irish teammate James McClean, who went public last week with the death threats he’s been receiving from demented trolls.
Police became involved when one anti-Irish hate-monger threatened to torch his home with McClean and his family inside it.
“There’s no place for that in football or on life,” he said. “I know the authorities are looking into it.
“As footballers you’re used to criticism but when it gets personal and involves family and stuff it’s just not acceptable.
“The sooner the social media companies, the EFL and Premier League get together to stamp it out the better.”