‘Definitely a rumour’ – Every word from Michael O’Neill on transfers, injuries and Leicester


A break from the Championship for Stoke City as they lock horns with Leicester in the FA Cup. Michael O’Neill sat down to preview the third round tie and discuss injuries and transfer news.

Have you enjoyed your very long break?

Michael O’Neill: It was nice to get a couple of days away from the training ground and I think the players enjoyed the break. We had Monday and Tuesday off, giving us a three-day lead into the Leicester game.

The weather has been a little bit challenging here as well but it’s been nice not to have a mid-week game.

Will Stoke go full strength – or is there an opportunity to get minutes into players?

I think it’s a combination of both. The players who probably need minutes are very experienced players, the likes of Joe Allen, Sam Clucas, John Obi Mikel, Ryan Shawcross, Danny Batth. These are all players who have been out of the team in recent times or are coming back from injury.

I don’t think even if we shuffle the pack that we’ll be any weaker. If anything we will probably be a little more experienced, if we decide to go that way.

Ultimately we have to be competitive in the game and that’s what we aspire to be.

It would be a great cup tie to have if the ground was full. We’re coming up against a team that is right at the top end of the Premier League and have been all season. You can have the benefit of trying to cause a real upset.

We’ll try that regardless. The most important thing is that we get a good level of performance and hopefully a positive result.

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Carabao Cup was chance to blood youngsters – the same here, with someone like Thibaud Verlinden?

I think we have to look at the rationale between why we brought Nathan (Collins) and Harry (Souttar) into the team.

Harry had come back from loan and we had to assess between the start of the season and January whether he was ready to play in the first team. He has demonstrated that.

Nathan was a player who had been around the team for a season or two. He’s still very young to play on a consistent basis in the Championship at centre-half. He’s played a little bit at right-back and right centre-back as well.

Thibaud is slightly different because he’s coming back off an injury more than anything else. He had a long period back.

We brought him back last January with that intention of making an impact but that was taken away from him because of injury. Like anything, the squad moves forward.

But he’s around the squad, he’s been training, he’s been on the bench a number of times.

He’s probably hindered a little bit – like all the wide players are at the moment – by the system. We are forced a little bit to play three at the back. I don’t think Thibaud is a wide player who can play as wing-back, for example.

We will see against Leicester. We still have one or two things to decide and if he gets the opportunity it’s down to him.

What’s the latest on injuries?

Steven Fletcher won’t be available. Lee Gregory won’t be ready either. Of the longer term, both goalkeepers are still not back yet.

We have a doubt about Nick Powell and James Chester as well. Those are the ones who are giving us concern at the moment.

Does letting Andy Lonergan go mean the goalkeeping situation is getting better?

We didn’t really have a choice to keep Andy to be honest. He signed a short-term deal and we weren’t really in a position to offer him anything until the end of the season because of the numbers we have in the goalkeeping area.

He had the option to go to the Premier League on a contract until the end of the season.

He did every well for us when he was here. He did well in the game when he was required to play and he was a very positive influence, particularly around Joe Bursik. We thank him for that.

We felt that the goalkeepers coming back – Adam Davies and Angus Gunn – and with young Blondy (Nna Noukeu), that we could continue with just the two young goalkeepers to get us through to that point.

How close is Adam Davies to fitness?

He’s still a little bit away. He’s out on the grass and doing a bit of work and I’d say the end of the month was a realistic target for both him and Angus to come back into contention.

We had to make a decision but it wasn’t so much that we let Andy go, that was his decision. We’d only signed him on a month’s contract.

We already had Niki (Maenpaa) under contract although he got injured on his first day in training and we felt that with the two young goalkeepers we could get through to that point that Angus and Adam come back.

If that isn’t the case, we’re in a better situation than we were previously because the transfer window is open and January would give us the ability to look at a wider pool of goalkeepers if needed.

Hopefully that won’t be the case. The two lads will come back and we’ll have good competition there with the two young goalkeepers we have at the minute as well.

Is Rabbi Matondo likely to start? Is he up to match fitness?

The paperwork was only concluded yesterday. It was a bit convoluted and took longer than we would have liked but that’s what happens with these deals, particularly coming from abroad.

He’s trained on Friday morning and will be in the squad. Whether he starts or not we’ll have to make a decision.

He’s a very exciting young player. He’s demonstrated that already in training and we’re delighted to have him on board.

He’s the type of player I think we’re going to need in the second half of the season.

You’ve always said pace is important – he’s certainly got that?

He has. I think at the top end of the game now that pace is essential really, particularly in attacking areas, and Rabbi has electric pace. You can see that even from the first training session, that was clearly visible.

He’s a young player with massive potential.

He took a brave decision at a young age to go abroad and he’s had good experience in the Bundesliga playing at a very big club.

But he’s got a target in his mind now. He’s come back to the UK, he wants to be part of the Welsh squad for Euro 2021 and we’ll give him that opportunity.

Pace is what frightens defenders and he certainly has that in abundance.

Leicester are flying high – it will be a tough ask?

They’ve got a fantastic squad. I think Brendan went in and inherited a club in a good situation and he’s improved it, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

That’s a combination of the manager and good recruitment. I think they’ve bought very well, they’ve bought players at a good age.

Brendan hasn’t just managed to get the most out of young players but he’s getting it out of the likes of Jamie Vardy as well, the likes of Jonny Evans, who I know in there.

They are in a very good place. They’re an excellent team, a very attractive team to watch, they play great football.

It will be a big, big test for us.

A rumour that Peter Etebo might return in January – any truth?

It’s definitely a rumour! The players who are out on loan are out on loan for the season and that won’’t change.

It was what they wanted at that period in time. They made that decision and we made that decision as a club. Maybe because the loan hasn’t gone well, you can’t just decide you want to come back. It doesn’t work like that.

We don’t envisage any of the loan players who are currently at various clubs returning to Stoke in January.

Would you prefer Vardy and Morrison to be rested?

That goes without saying. Vardy, for me, is a phenomenon given his career path and his ability to stay as one of the best strikers in the Premier League. It’s a bonus for us that he’s not playing.

But like any Premier League side, particularly in the top six, the players they bring in are of such a high calibre as well. (Kelechi) Iheanacho will play if Vardy doesn’t, I imagine.

Brendan has other choices he can do with this team. He can be flexible.

Whatever team Leicester play and whatever system, they will be well structured, well organised and have quality all over the pitch.

You want to go as far as you can in the FA Cup?

Of course. A cup run is good. It helps create that positive atmosphere within the team and the club.

While we’ve had a tough schedule of games, we don’t want to just fulfil a fixture. We want to give a good account of ourselves.

In doing so we want to try to progress to the next round.

It’s always nice to be able to take the scalp of a Premier League team, particularly one like Leicester who are riding very high at this minute in time.

That’s what we’ll be aiming to do.

Any more plans to add in transfer market? You have been linked with several players, including Alfie Doughty

We’ve been linked with a number of players, which is typical. I know you have to come up with some names and some of them have surprised me to be honest.

We want to try to improve the squad. January is a difficult window to try to do that.

We’re not in a position when we can spend the money that we would have spent in previous years in the Championship. We have to be very selective.

Whether that’s Rabbi Matondo coming in on loan, a young player with massive potential, or the likes of an Alfie Doughty, those types of players, we’re looking to improve in certain areas of the pitch.

We’d like to add a bit of youth to the squad, certainly a bit of pace to the squad if we can do that.

But having said that, we still have a number of players in the building, we still have a relatively big squad. The window will be a day by day process but we hope we will do more than just Rabbi.

The bet365 Stadium will host pre-season dinner

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Worrying times with Covid in football – might we see a circuit break?

The news that is coming out is a little bit alarming. It’s not positive.

Clubs have done very well to get to this point. It certainly seems more prevalent with the new strain of the virus. The numbers are obviously increasing.

Hopefully (a circuit breaker) isn’t the case, hopefully we can continue to play, but that’s a case and decision for the authorities.

We have to protect the safety of the players and the safety of the public in general.

But hopefully we can continue to play although the recent information coming out is a cause for concern.





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