Michael O’Neill was back in front of the media this afternoon to handle questions about more than football.
The Stoke City manager is preparing for a huge week that takes up a third of the remainder of the season’s fixtures – and there is also the matter of whether or not games will be played behind closed doors or even postponed due to the coronavirus.
Here is every word from his press conference.
No visible scars after the fans’ forum on Monday night
Michael O’Neill: It was good. Obviously it was the first time I’ve done something like that in a club sense for a long time. I’ve done it in the past, clubs tend to have these evenings.
I think it went ok, I think it went fairly positively. There were some interesting questions and some challenging questions as well, which is good. We went from everything from soap in the toilets to recruitment. We covered every subject going.
It was an enjoyable evening.
Stoke are heading into one of the biggest weeks of the season?
Yes, it’s a massive week.
All the three-game weeks are very important and we go into it in a good place, off a good victory and a little bit of momentum, unbeaten in four. Those are all positives for us.
It’s about maintaining that momentum. We have two away games again but probably a bit easier with the home game sandwiched in between rather than back-to-back away games, like we had in the previous week.
It’s a chance to add to the points tally. Reading haven’t been fantastic at home this season – they’ve been better away from home – and we have to capitalise on that.
How is Joe Allen?
He’s good. He’s straight into the club and he’s already into the gym and doing whatever he can at this period in time, upper body stuff. He’s on crutches and in a plaster cast.
His mood is good and that’s important. It’s good to have Joe in the building.
I made it pretty clear how I felt about the incident in terms of how harsh football can be at times and it’s robbed him the chance of playing between now and the end of the season for us and equally what he had to look forward to in the summer with Wales.
It’s good to see him in and in good spirits and by all accounts the surgery has been very successful.
How are Stoke injury-wise apart from Joe Allen?
We are still without James McClean and we have a small doubt over Sam Vokes., but we’re not overly concerned about that.
Other than the longer term, those are the only two.
How will you replace Joe?
Everyone knows what a top player Joe is and he and Sam are, for me, as good a pairing in that type of midfield system as any in the league.
So it’s a big blow to lose him because of what he brings in terms of quality but also his attitude and his experience.
We have to look within the squad.
Jordan Cousins, Jordan Thompson, Sam is obviously still fit, young Tashan came on in the game against Hull. It was probably a nice time to come on and make your debut and we will have to look at the situation.
It may be a case where some of the younger players push forward.
Lasse Sorensen has been regularly training with the first team as well now.
It’s a problem we’d rather not have but it’s a problem we’re obviously going to have to solve with the players in the building.
It might mean you have to tweak your system?
Yes, potentially. We always look at changing things depending on how the team has played and the opposition.
But the main thing is we try and focus on maintaining momentum and form we have.
I think we have players in the building who can compensate for Joe. It might be slightly different in terms of how we approach the game tactically or how forward thinking we are but the onus is on the rest of the squad to compensate for the loss of Joe
Reading – probably just safe, make your task easier?
No, I don’t think it makes it any easier.
At this stage of the season, Reading and above might consider themselves virtually safe but it’s very easy to get dragged into it.
The other thing that has been a big factor has been so many teams at the bottom winning as regularly as they have done. That’s probably not something that happens as regularly as it has in the past month.
I think everyone will be clambering to get to that 50 points mark and work off that. And home games as well, if your home form hasn’t been so good so far this season, you’ll want to address that.
It will be a difficult game regardless.
How tough has training been this week with heavy pitches etc?
We have to be very careful with the loading of players. We didn’t train as long today, conditions weren’t great.
The important thing is to keep freshness in the squad, to make sure training is precise to what you want in the game as well.
A lot of the time really now, the starting players are down to a three-day training week. Non-starters will have a heavier session on a Monday.
The combined session on Tuesday has a lot more intensity in it and equally Thursday and Friday it’s very much tailored to the opposition and how we want to play.
We obviously manage the load and use GPS data on a daily basis. We know where players are and we’re mindful of the minutes they’ve played.
The most important thing at this stage of the season is to have as many players available as possible. The last thing we want now is to start losing players through injury, particularly through training.
We’re very careful in how we manage the players in terms of managing the freshness and fatigue in the squad.
Substitutions – do you look differently at the bench with Joe out?
It’s quite difficult to cover every position. It’s virtually impossible, in fact.
So you need a bit of versatility in the subs you select and sometimes players can see themselves in the 18 and drop out. That’s not a reflection on anything they’ve done, just what you need for that game, so we try to cover every position we can and look at what-if scenarios.
That’s even in the team. For example, Sam Clucas has had to go and play at left back and those are all things you look to in terms of versatility as well as options on the bench.
It was also good to have Ryan Shawcross back on the bench against Hull for his experience. It was good to have him back in the dressing room.
All those things are positive – and the selection of the bench at this stage of the season is crucial.
Who will be captain now Joe is out?
No, I haven’t given it much thought to be honest. I’ll have a conversation now when I go back to the training ground, so thanks for reminding me of that.
There’s enough experience in the squad, players who have played for the club for a number of years and players who have a lot of experience in this league so I don’t think we will have too much difficulty finding the right option.
Coronavirus – how is that affecting you?
We are just focusing on Saturday.
Looking at everything coming in through the media and games being played behind closed doors in Europe, other games being postponed and other sporting events being postponed as well.
I suppose it’s not something – as I said in my earlier press conference this week as an international manager – that you are in control of as a coach or manager.
You just have to try to maintain the focus. There is possibly an inevitably that we might play some games behind closed doors, given where the rest of football is going.
Until we’re told that we just keep preparing as normal. It doesn’t affect our training on week-to-week basis and whatever the situation is it is the responsibility of us as coaches and managers to adapt to that.
What did you think of the youngsters at Manchester City this week?
It was very good to see them. Unfortunately it’s quite difficult to see these games on a regular basis so if they’re at the training ground we at least try to catch part of the game.
So it was very good to see them play in that environment and against a very good Man City team to be honest.
I thought they were unfortunate to be behind at half-time to a deflected goal and then had some early chances themselves in the second half.
What you do see is that the quality of the opposition was evident in that short spell of 15-20 minutes in that second half and it’s easy for young players to get a little bit demoralised in that situation
I thought the scoreline (6-0) was a bit harsh on them.
But it was a great learning experience.
For many of them I would suggest it was the biggest crowd they had played in front of, the game with maybe the most significance as well. The guys at that age did a great job to get to that stage of the competition.
What impact will behind-closed-doors game have on you and the team?
It’s a question that’s kind of difficult to answer until we’ve done it.
Ideally, no one wants to see games home or away behind closed doors.
It you look at it from the perspective of people thinking it’s a disadvantage of us playing at home without any fans, then it’s an advantage when we play away.
I don’t see it as an advantage or disadvantage to be honest.
The players just have to remain focused and deal with the situation. At all points in your career as a player you play reserve team football in empty stadiums so it’s not something they’ll never have done before.
If that situation arises it’s a shame and it would detract from the game in general but it doesn’t change change what’s at stake or how we approach the game.
Financially of course it will affect clubs.. Thankfully that is not something I have to think about, I have to think about preparing the team and making sure they’re ready to play in such a situation.
The worry for football in general is how such a decision might cause some clubs to suffer and we have to make sure as a club we deal with the situation. I’m in no doubt the club is in very good hands in that respect.