Sam Vokes admits a return to Clayton Wood has felt like the first week of pre-season training – even if it’s nothing like anything any players have previously experienced.
The Stoke City squad has been welcomed back for training in small groups, with strict health procedures, having only been allowed in after testing negative for COVID-19. Players, coaches and staff will be tested twice-weekly, on top of even more regular temperature screening.
It has been 80 days since the last match – a 5-1 win over Hull – but there is hope they can return starting next month to complete the final nine fixtures behind closed doors.
And they are potentially huge games, with Michael O’Neill having hauled the team up from the bottom of the Championship since taking charge in November – but still only sitting three points outside the relegation zone.
Vokes said: “Monday very much felt like the first day of pre-season. We’ve had nine weeks off and if I base it on pre-season terms, that’s normally a six to seven week schedule with six to eight games to build up 90 minutes to total fitness.
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“That’s the normal time frame if you’ve had that length of time off the pitch.
“If the games get back going again it doesn’t look like we’re going to have that opportunity. In terms of match fitness, whether we have the opportunity to build up to that, I think it’s going to be very hard to be at that level when it looks like the season’s going to start again.”
He added in an interview for Radio 5Live: “It’s going to be very strange (with no fans). I’ve played in games behind closed doors before when I’ve come back from injuries, for example, and it’s intensity you miss in those sort of games.
“It’s hard also on a mental side to get your head around. We could be potentially going back to six-pointer games, massive games towards the end of the season which define what league you’re going to be in and to not have that passion to bounce off and fans bounce off as well will be the hardest thing when you get back to it.”
Championship clubs will still be asked to vote on what should happen with 2019/20. It is understood a majority is in favour of returning but there is also fierce opposition.
Clubs were allowed to return to training this week and they will follow government advice about when it will be safe enough to allow contact training.
“I say it’s training but it’s training in a completely different way than I’ve ever been used to,” said Vokes.
“We have a one-way system in the car park, you have to walk around the building not go in. You’re in groups of five, like this morning for example five of us were in at 9.30am. Then you basically go on the pitch, the five of you, coaches are dotted around the pitch and you do you’re one session with each coach then move onto the fitness part.
“Physios are available but you’d have to use masks and they are PPE-ed up – then you have to leave the building around the back while another group comes in the other entrance.
“It’s a very strange way of doing it but it’s something we’re going to have to get used to.”
He added: “I do see staff members cleaning the balls after each session. Mannequins are wiped down after every activity. It’s a strange way of doing things but until we can enter the contact phase, which I believe is the next phase, it has to be done.”