Stoke City turn their attentions to Wycombe Wanderers this weekend as they try to get back to winning ways. Michael O’Neill has run through the latest injury news and build-up to the clash at the bet365 Stadium.
Following three games against teams who are chasing promotion – and a hotly disputed penalty on Wednesday – you’re up against a Wycombe team who are fighting for their lives?
Michael O’Neill: We have to put the injustice that we felt after the game on Wednesday to one side and I think we’ve done that. The players have been in good spirits today. Thursday morning was difficult for everyone because we’d put so much into the game and ultimately took nothing from it. I think we deserved a lot more than that but that’s the nature of the game and how refereeing decisions can go for or against you.
But it’s a three-game week, we get another game and this one presents us with a good opportunity to get back to winning ways.
It’s a team that is fighting for its life but it’s a team that came into this league knowing that’s exactly what they would have to try to do. I think they’ve enjoyed the experience of being in it. It’s a big step up.
The main thing for me is that they’ve been very competitive. In the games we’ve watched they are not beaten easily, they play with great spirit and good intensity as well and they’re a threat at set pieces.
We have to make sure we counteract that, play our own football and do everything we can to try to win the game.
A busy period but no mid-week game to come – how much do you have to freshen up the team?
We look at the team and we’ve arguably got five players who would start in our team who are unavailable due to injury at this minute in time.
We just have to be mindful of that. The most important thing is to pick the strongest team to win the game. The players have had a good response, they seem fresh, they’ve trained albeit light over the last couple of days. The lads who didn’t play have done a little bit more on Thursday.
I’ve no doubt we’ll be ready to play.
How are Stoke looking on the injury front?
We’ve no additional injuries. Nick Powell came off in the game, he was feeling his groin a little bit, but he’ll be ok for Wycombe unless he has a reaction to training today.
The nature of that injury is that it’s a little bit of fatigue as the game progresses. You can see his mobility is compromised a little bit and he’s in quite a lot of discomfort and we had to make that decision at that point in the game to protect him.
Our preference would have been to keep him on and strengthen our case to win the game.
Clucas and McClean are still a number of weeks away, Fox is still a number of weeks away, Collins and Campbell are both out next season. There’s nothing changing on the injury front at this minute in time.
Is Danny Batth fit and available after his cut to the head?
We’ve got to just monitor that. We haven’t had him out to head the ball yet because of where the cut is. We’ll need to assess that tomorrow. We’ll give it as long as possible.
Danny will do a fitness test in terms of whether he’s compromised heading the ball in any way. It was quite a horrific cut to be honest and it would have to be something like that to make Danny go off.
We’ll give him up until tomorrow to see how he responds. The cut is at the top of his head, a very, very deep cut. He had to go to A&E at that point in the game to be seen by the specialist rather than have the doctor stitch it up because it was so deep.
It isn’t in a particularly good area but we’re looking at if he could possibly wear a head guard if that’s necessary.
Play-offs a big ask, players coming up to the end of their contracts and youngsters on the bench – are you tempted to give more a chance?
I think we’ve only one player out of contract so there’s not many in that situation to be honest.
We’ve had younger players on the bench in recent games and that’s been driven by the nature of the injuries we’ve had at this minute.
I think realistically those players are still a little bit away from starting games. The Championship is a tough league to blood players in at that age. Most players will have to have a pathway where they go out on loan.
They’ve no experience of playing senior football, they’ve been playing at under-18s or under-23. It’s a massive jump for a young player to make to the Championship. We’ll look.
The most important thing between now and the end of the season is to win as many games as possible. That’s our only focus. If we have young players that deserve to play, they’ll have the opportunity to play.
But I won’t necessarily pick teams without a purpose, the purpose will be to try to win the game.
You can say the younger players but I think at one point this season Stoke have played the youngest team in 17 years. I don’t think you can say we haven’t blooded younger players this season.
Given how you’ve blooded younger players, do you think Stoke are in a better position than this time last year, in terms of players to bring in to bridge the gap of 23 to 28 year olds?
The biggest obstacle to that is the number of players we have under contract rather than how Stoke is perceived as a club. I think the perception of Stoke as a club is still very high.
People look at the size of the club, the fan base and passion, the facilities. It’s a very strong option for players in the Championship and a very strong option for even for some players dropping down from the Premier League as well.
Again we will have a situation in the summer when we have 12 players returning to the club who are under contract. While we possibly see that there future lies elsewhere, they may not. Until that situation is resolved we have to be that little bit more careful in how we build a squad.
We have restrictions financially because of that as well.
And parachute payments stop next season?
Yes, you have your parachute payments for three years in the Championship so that changes the financial model of the club to some extent.
We may have great owners who want to back the club as much as possible but we have to operate within the rules of the EFL as well.
There are a number of challenges but are we stronger than we were? I think we are.
We also have a lot of players who will be in the last year of their contract next season and that will probably be a period when we have to make decisions on players and maybe the greatest transition of the squad will happen at that point.
It will be a fourth year in the Championship and the club invested in a number of those when they came down to the Championship. We don’t have that many left from the club’s last season in the Premier League, the majority are acquired when the club came down. There is a natural transition on that as well.
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Do you wish VAR had been brought in for the Championship?
I wish VAR had been used in 2018 first of all when we had a very harsh penalty decision for Northern Ireland which stopped us going to the World Cup!
At that time Fifa didn’t use it for qualifying play-off games, it was subsequently used in Euro 2020 play-offs.
Is it realistic to think that VAR could be rolled out into the Championship? I’m not so sure to be honest.
The disappointing thing for me the other night was that the referee’s assistant clearly didn’t give it, he admitted that after the game. The referee chose to give it. I think it would be hard to argue that the referee had a better view of the incident than the assistant.
But it’s gone now. We got rid of our anger on Wednesday night and Thursday morning and we move on to tomorrow’s game.