Michael O’Neill has reserved credit for his Stoke City players for their professionalism in extraordinary times – and for the club for making it possible.
Stoke are entering the third and final phase of the training protocol after a fortnight back at Clayton Wood involving twice-weekly tests and further regular health checks, strict social distancing measures and unprecedented sanitising. There were no positive cases recorded in the first five rounds of testing.
O’Neill is preparing for a June 20 return to fit in the remaining nine fixtures behind closed doors before July 22, while constantly keeping on top of the virus.
He said: “The swab test takes five minutes and that test is then couriered to the lab. It’s very important that you get that result back the next day because if a player tests positive you don’t want there to be three or four days’ exposure. You need the result as quickly as possible.
“We are essentially in a sanitised environment. Everyone in the compound that has exposure to each other has been tested and we still have social distancing.
“The training ground has security and no one can get in from any other area. There is an awful lot in relation to the safety of the players and the Covid-19 officer is here every day to manage things.
“It’s little things like not only giving players their own kits, it’s giving them their own bibs. When we were doing drills in the first part of the week we were wearing gloves to serve the ball.
“It’s been a real challenge for the players to get on with that but credit to our lads here, they have come in and trained as normal. A lot of that is because they have a trust in the environment that has been created here.”
Restrictions and rules meant it was taking coaches four-and-a-half hours to lay on a 75-minute session for players when they first returned to training. Tests are done on Mondays and Thursdays and will continue all the way through the rest of the season, as well as probably next season if and when that starts.
O’Neill said in an interview for the BBC’s Scottish football podcast: “I know some clubs in the Championship are self-testing. Personally I don’t think I’d be able to do it. It’s quite an invasive procedure. There’s a higher risk when you’re self-testing of getting what’s known as a false negative, so the test hasn’t been done properly and results as a negative, which increases the risk.
“But the operation to do this has really surprised me. With the scale that the club has had to go to, we’re fortunate that we have a Premier League training facility here.
“We have a lot of staff and we’re testing upwards of nearly 40 people. We have a full-time doctor and a part-time doctor on testing days to do that. That in itself is up to possibly a four-hour process.
“We have to test very early in the morning on testing days because a courier has to take the tests to the lab to get the results back the next day. It’s an 8am start for the doctors – and they have to change their PPE gear every four tests.
“This is not like you drive in and the doc sticks a cotton bud in your mouth and that’s it, there’s a lot more to it than that. Until you go through the process… it’s a lot more arduous.
“It’s moved quite quickly from groups of five to where we are now but on the day we test, that’s quite a challenging day.”
He added: “I can’t see it changing. I don’t see a situation where in three or four weeks’ time we’ll be testing once a week. Or testing once a week if we start next season. I don’t envisage that is going to happen.
“The one thing that may happen is if a cheaper test becomes available or a vaccine, which is a game changer for everyone and all sport.”