‘It is certainly ambitious’ – Stoke City boss’s sober verdict on football return



Michael O’Neill has given a soberly realistic verdict on the current intention to try to finish the domestic and international season before June 30.

O’Neill has nine games remaining to finish this term’s job at Stoke City and keep the club in the Championship – and at least one play-off game with Northern Ireland to qualify for Euro 2020, which has been postponed for 12 months.

It is widely appreciated that an initial comeback target of April 30 for the EFL is now impossible – and trying to get everything done for club and country in just three months, when the country is still currently in lockdown due to the coronavirus, might prove that too.

O’Neill said on Radio 5Live this evening: “The plan was as part of the negotiation between Stoke and the IFA back in November – for me to take the (Northern Ireland) play-off games in March and hopefully, the intention was that there would be two of those, and then we would discuss going forward what would happen if we were successful.

“With the games obviously being moved to June at this minute in time – which seems a bit of ambitious date, for me, to think they could be played at that time. Obviously the whole situation is uncertain at the time.

“I have no inside information but based on what I see and the daily updates of where the virus is escalating and what potentially lies ahead in the coming weeks, I think it’s ambitious.

“I certainly think it’s ambitious to play international football because I don’t think it’s feasible whenever we do start playing – to then try to fit an international break in the middle of it, when we’re trying to complete games by June 30.

“I’m not sure why they put them in at that date because when they put the ultimatum down to finish seasons by June 30, it didn’t make sense to then add an international break early in June.

“To complete league seasons and have an international date, in my opinion, is fairly ambitious.”

Stoke’s season was suspended earlier this month on the eve of an away trip to Reading.

A 5-1 win over Hull the previous weekend had lifted the club to 17th – their highest position of the season, but still too close for comfort to the relegation zone.

O’Neill said: “We’ve nine games left and we have to be ready to come back and play – when that is and how you manage it is quite difficult.

“It’s remote at the minute in terms of how we deal with players. They are training individually and we give them as much information as possible. They have regular dialogue with the fitness coaches and everything on a daily basis.

“But ultimately it doesn’t replace what they would do Monday to Friday or Monday to Saturday with a mid-week game factored into that as well.

“We try to do the best we can to replicate what their training week should look like but ultimately there are no games in there and it’s a difficult process.

“I don’t have any concerns about players not being fit because they don’t have anything else to do! I think they’ll actually look forward to it. It’s not like an off-season where you’d be concerned that players were off for five or six weeks, disappearing and go on holiday and abuse their bodies and not do the right things.

“They’re in a situation where probably keeping fit is probably the one thing in the day they look forward to.”





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