Joe Allen is hoping to give Michael O’Neill a big Christmas present by returning to 11 v 11 action for the first time since March.
The key midfielder has been on the long road to recovery since rupturing an Achilles tendon in the final Stoke City game before the first national lockdown.
His progress has been hindered by the unique circumstances of 2020, not least the training programme for Stoke’s squad which revolves around getting through a hectic run of three-game weeks from August to January.
But the 30-year-old is now joining in most of the work at Clayton Wood and the plan is to get either an in-house game – which would be the normal path, but difficult to arrange in these times – or with the under-23s over the next two or three weeks.
His return will be a big mid-season boost for a Stoke side which is just one point off the Championship play-off places and three points off top spot.
Manager O’Neill said: “Joe’s training with us every day. His training is a little bit tailored at the moment, he can’t do everything, but to be fair he’s probably doing 90 per cent of what we’re doing.
“I suppose part of the difficulty we have with Joe is fitting games in because we don’t ideally want to drop him straight into a 23s game. We want to manage him through this period. Joe’s is a serious injury and for some players it’s taken 12 months to get back. Joe’s between eight and nine months at this minute in time.
“It’s difficult because we very rarely have a full training group other than the day before a game and that training is not very long. It’s difficult to replicate what Joe needs and to push him forward.
“It takes a lot of individual work, with the medical team have done brilliantly with him.
“We want Joe back. We see him on the training pitch and we see what he brings but we have be careful. We have to make sure that when he does get back he’s at the right place in terms of his recovery.
“Certainly over the next two or three weeks we are going to bring up his 11 v 11 involvement, whether that’s on the training ground or in the under-23s – but there are only three under-23s games now until and (mid-January).
“It’s a difficult season to rehabilitate players in general because there are so many games and your focus, unfortunately for those players, has to be on the next game.
“Joe would really benefit from being part of a full week’s training, a five-day training week – but unfortunately we’ve not been able to have that since the start of the season.”
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Ryan Shawcross has come through two matches for the under-23s after tweaking his training regime to try to prevent breakdowns. He has not completed first team 90 minutes since hobbling through the closing stages at Fulham in December last year.
The 33-year-old club captain took his place on the bench at Wycombe on Wednesday night, watching Stoke keep a second successive clean sheet, and is now available for first team selection.