Another quick turnaround for Stoke City as Michael O’Neill prepares to take his squad to Sheffield Wednesday – and a reunion with Tony Pulis.
The manager took time out before training this afternoon to meet the media and go through the latest injury and transfer news.
Stoke have brought in free agent keeper Niki Maenpaa
Michael O’Neill: We’re obviously down two senior goalkeepers.
The situation with Adam Davies and Angus Gunn left us with bringing back Joe Bursik, who is 20 years of age, and the other goalkeepers are 19 and 17 so it makes sense to bring in another senior keeper.
Niki has a lot of experience, he played in the Championship last season with Bristol City and he has a lot of positive references. He’s come on a basis that if he’s needed to play, it’s good we have that senior figure around the club.
It’s a short term contract until the middle of January and it suits both parties.
How is Joe Bursik after his first two games?
He’s fine, he’s a confident lad. It’s difficult to come back and he’s conceded six goals in two games but I don’t think any of those directly relate to Joe.
There were moments in the game when he might have felt he wanted to do better but that’s the nature of the games he’s been involved in. As a team we’re disappointed to lose six goals.
This is a test for Joe. His loan spells have been out in League One football, he’s now in the Championship and he’ll handle the situation, I don’t have any doubts about that.
It’s nice to have senior back-up there to help the situation.
We’ve had to make substitutions in games as well so it’s important you have experience there if necessary.
Joe will be fine, it’s all part of his learning curve. We still won one of those games and we were unlucky not to take something from the other.
Pleased with the reaction after going 3-0 down at Norwich – after they lost a player? And looking to bounce back against Sheff Wed?
We look at the season so far and when we’ve lost a game we’ve gone and won the next one, which is very important. Obviously the game tomorrow gives us an opportunity to do that.
The game on Tuesday was difficult. I thought we reacted well to going 2-0 down and when we looked back on the game, Norwich didn’t really have that many chances.
They were very, very clinical, which is down to the quality they have in the final third of the pitch.
They kept the ball better than us for the opening half hour, there’s no doubt about that either. That’s something we have to continue to look to improve.
But ultimately there was very little in the game. We were very disappointed to come away without at least a point but unfortunately we couldn’t get that third goal.
We have to try to put that right tomorrow.
What is the latest injury news?
Steven Fletcher won’t be fit tomorrow. We have Joe Allen still on the comeback trail, Ryan still on the comeback trail and the two goalkeepers. Jordan Thompson is still not fit.
Is James McClean fit and raring to go?
He’s available. He only trained for the first time on Thursday after, first of all, being away on international duty and then a period of self isolation.
We’ll see how he reacts to training (on Friday afternoon) and then see whether he’s available to start or possibly be involved from the bench.
A difficult game at Sheffield Wednesday against an organised Tony Pulis team?
It will be, yes. Having watched the game at Swansea back they were very well organised. They got ahead and when that situation happens they will be a very difficult team to play against.
Tony and his teams are always very well organised.
But we try to concentrate more on ourselves to be honest because games are coming so quickly.
We are focusing more on things in our performances that need to be better, things in our performances that have been good and consistent. We want to see that again tomorrow.
We are the second top goal scorers in the league, I think, but equally in recent weeks we have conceded too many goals too. That’s something we need to address as a team.
Sheffield Wednesday present us with a difficult game but in this Championship, this season, at the moment I think the focus has to be on ourselves.
Do you think part of reason for conceding is the defence trying to protect a young goalkeeper? Or is that nothing to do with it?
That’s nothing to do with it. The reason we’re conceding goals is because we’re making individual mistakes.
We’ve looked back on all the goals this season and I don’t think it’s down to the tactical side of things.
We felt we were more secure in a back three earlier in the season… we conceded three in a back three in the game the other night, we conceded three with a back four on Saturday.
We have to look at the nature of the goals. We have conceded because we have made poor decisions in terms of the defensive decisions. We’ve made technical errors in bad areas or maybe not picked up at a set piece properly.
That’s why we’ve conceded goals more than any other reason. It’s not been down to a lack of understanding between the goalkeeping situation.
We’ve had to play with three goalkeepers already this season, which isn’t ideal, but when we look at the goals it’s more down to individual mistakes and decisions that we need to improve on.
Are players enjoying playing rather than training?
We’re playing every three days which means, essentially, it makes it quite difficult to review the game in any great detail because you have to move on quickly to the next one.
We have a recovery day, they get very little rest. I think between now and January 9 we have scheduled possibly four or five days off. That’s very difficult and players need a break mentally as much as anything else.
We try to be as consistent as possible with the work we do.
Obviously if we change the shape of the team a little bit we have to work on that, we don’t just throw the players out and expect them to adapt.
But we’re not asking them to do anything that radical whether we play with a three at the back or four. We’ve been consistent with what we do.
We’ve kind of got two squads; one which is training who haven’t played and one which has played. What they have in their legs determines how much they can do.
The most important thing is that the team that goes on the pitch is physically in as good condition as possible to play and knows what’s required of them tactically as well.
50th game tomorrow – you must be happier now than when you came in?
It wasn’t ideal when I came in but none of that was my fault so it was ok then!
It’s flown. It was a good few years of international football before I reached 50 games so it’s a different scenario than I was used to.
I think overall we’ve got to be pleased with where we are, in that 12-month period over that 50 games. There are things in there that we still need and want to improve on.
We’re in position in the league where we can continue to push on.
People talk about promotion but we were bottom of the league this time last year and the only P word we talk about in here is progress, more than anything else.
That’s what we’re focusing on.
Tony Pulis has highlighted disparity in mid-week schedule: should Championship games be played on same night?
I think over the season it probably evens itself out.
A couple of weeks ago we had to play Watford on a Wednesday night and came back via a detour as always roadworks are done at night. By the time we got back to the training ground it was about 2am and we’d come back off a pretty poor refereeing performance.
None of those things help when you then have to turn your team around and go to Reading on the Friday and play again.
That’s the nature of the league.
But I would agree it would probably be fairer that everyone played on the same schedule as opposed to a Tuesday and a Wednesday – but equally, part of that is driven by what games are broadcast or not.
I think we just have to deal with the situation. It is difficult and it’s difficult when you play away on a Wednesday night – and more difficult when you have two away games, which we had as opposed to Sheffield Wednesday going into a home game.
I think the preparation is mental as much physical to be honest.
Sometimes the schedule can be more challenging than other times.
Nine games in December – are you going to celebrate Christmas?
I will still celebrate Christmas!
We try to have a two-day lead up to every game. What we’ve looked at because of the nature of the games is if we play on a Tuesday night, there is the opportunity to possibly give the players Wednesday off. If we play on a Wednesday, there’s the opportunity to potentially give the previous Sunday off.
That’s the only day they can have off because of the schedule.
They need time away from the training ground, time away from each other and travel. At this minute in time it’s still quite difficult because of Covid restrictions.
Our time off is very limited and we have to mange the players through that to keep them as fresh as possible mentally and physically.
It’s a hugely demanding December and a lot of challenges. You can lose players through injury or self isolation. There are any number of situations that can arise in this period.
But everyone is in the same boat and we just have to get through it.
Tony Pulis loves to play Stoke and sets up a side determined to get a result
But also steel in that Stoke team – as evidenced by scoring within a minute of Norwich having a red card on Tuesday?
I think the red card was a factor but we should have scored before that. We hit the bar in the first half. They’re all factors in the game.
Tony was obviously great manager of this club but we’re playing Sheffield Wednesday tomorrow. Me and Tony won’t influence the game that much to be honest.
That’s what we’re focused on.
We know how Tony will set his team up. He’s obviously inherited a difficult situation where the club was at the beginning of the season.
There’s probably no better man to take a club away from that situation.
But our focus is on Sheffield Wednesday and how they play. We’re not bogged down with the past.
The spirit in the group, I think we’ve seen that consistently this season when we’ve gone behind in games.
I think that’s a big difference from what we saw at times last season. That comes with better results and a better group of players than we had last season – and a group of players that are focused on continuing to progress and push on in the top half of the league.
A vote of confidence in Joe Bursik?
I think you’re misinterpreting the situation around the goalkeeper! We had to sign another goalkeeper because the injuries to the two keepers – they could be out for a number of weeks.
Adam Davies has already been out for a number of weeks.
It means we have a very inexperienced goalkeeping department. We haven’t signed the goalkeeper based on how Joe has played in two games, we were signing a goalkeeper anyway but we just haven’t had the chance to do it.
They don’t grow on trees, goalkeepers, when you’re in this situation.
We were very restricted in what the league allows us to do.
When we brought Joe back we were then restricted to the free agent market and before we made that decision we were restricted to an emergency loan, which we couldn’t go to the Premier League for.
We were very, very limited and as soon as we brought Joe back we knew we would need experienced cover as well.
We only have young Blondy, who’s 19 as well, and to go into the Championship for a sustained period with goalkeepers who are 19 and 20, I think would be a poor decision for us to make as a club.
Niki has come in. He’s been without a club since the summer and it’s going to take him a bit of time – although he was excellent in training yesterday to be fair.
That’s what we want. We have that strength in depth should we need it.
We play every three days, we’ve already seen a goalkeeper leave the field because of injury and we could see a goalkeeper sent off, for example, so it’s important to have experience in that situation.
Did Ryan Shawcross come through the under-23s game ok?
Yes, Ryan came through 90 minutes on Monday night.
It was a little bit disappointing because, getting back to goalkeepers, young (Nathan Broome) was sent off after eight minutes which meant that we probably didn’t get the type of game we wanted for Ryan.
We had to defend very deep and Aston Villa are a good team at that level.
But he got through the 90 minutes and on Ryan’s return to play or be involved, we wanted him to get at least two 90 minutes at that level.
There’s another game on Monday which he’ll be involved in. Hopefully he’ll come through that as well.
The most important thing was to come through 90 minutes because that’s been something that’s been difficult as he comes back from this injury situation.
Tony Pulis uses set pieces very effectively
Sheffield Wednesday will cause us problems, there’s no doubt about that.
First of all they have a lot of good players. Don’t overlook the fact that they have Barry Bannan, for example, one of the best midfield players in the Championship.
We took two of their players last season in Fletch and Morgan who I think were two of their stand out players as well.
Sheffield Wednesday are a big club who have had a difficult time because of the points deduction.
If you look at that in isolation, they have 13 points this season so they’ve done well in the scenario they’ve been in and I’m sure Tony will have an impact.
But our focus is on the game, the style of the game and how we impose ourselves on Sheffield Wednesday.
That’s what we’ll work on today in training, what we work on in the analysis and hopefully we’ll get the right performance and right result.