Michael O’Neill is happy that Stoke City will be back playing in front of fans again for the first time in eight months – even if none will be supporting Stoke.
Wycombe Wanderers can host a crowd of 1,000 (Wednesday, 7.45pm) after Buckinghamshire goes into tier two today, the first time fans will get to see their club in the Championship in the flesh since promotion to their highest level.
Stoke will have to continue to play at least their next two home matches behind closed doors but are hoping a review on December 16 will bring the city out of the toughest restrictions.
That could mean the bet365 Stadium doors open to very limited numbers against Blackburn Rovers on December 19 – and a Carabao Cup quarter-final against Tottenham two days before Christmas.
O’Neill said: “There’s a review later this month when we’ll be assessed and hopefully Stoke-on-Trent will be moved down a tier.
“We would love home support. It would be brilliant not only for big games in the league, trying to push into that top six, but also a big game in the Carabao Cup to come.
“Spurs are coming and that’s a glamorous game that in an ideal scenario we would have had a full stadium and type of atmosphere we know the bet365 can generate.
“Hopefully the review is kind to us and we get our own fans back in at the earliest opportunity.”
Stoke have now played 27 matches in empty stadiums since the Championship resumed in June.
There are nine clubs in the division who are in tier two and able to start bringing back supporters and, even if the rest have to wait, O’Neill sees it as a positive step.
He said: “I think players will welcome it to be honest. I think the fact that it’s a tight stadium will benefit from 1,000 fans. It will make a difference in a stadium of this size and nature as opposed to if there had been 1,000 fans in Hillsborough on Saturday, who would have been a bit lost.
“I felt the game was a little bit eerie on Saturday. I think sometimes you get that in some of the older stadiums.
“But certainly I’m not against the fact that there will be home fans there tomorrow. I’m sure supporters will make a big noise and back their team. It’s the first time they’ll have had a chance to see their own team in the Championship.
“It’s a big occasion for them and we have to be ready to deal with it.
“The best part of being a footballer is being able to deal with the crowd, whether it’s at home or away, and we want to see that character from our players. We don’t want to be bench-marking ourselves constantly playing in empty stadiums so I’m glad supporters are back.”
Ryan Shawcross and Thibaud Verlinden in the squad for the first time this season as they return to fitness following long-term injuries. Both played 70 minutes in a 1-0 win for the under-23s against Crystal Palace on Monday, when Kieran Coates scored the only goal.
Steven Fletcher (knee) and Lee Gregory (groin) are out, however, and John Obi Mikel (calf) is a major doubt.