Michael O’Neill is casting his eye over several Stoke City youth players as well as senior men after welcoming his squad back to training this week.
The need for twice-weekly tests and strictly organised socially distanced training sessions mean that only a limited number of players are allowed at Clayton Wood – even if O’Neill must also prepare for nine potentially huge remaining matches in the Championship, making sure he is covered in the case of injury or suspension.
Goalkeeper Blondy Nna Noukeu, defender Will Forrester and midfielder Adam Porter are among the juniors who have been promoted to work with the first team.
O’Neill is also boosted by the return from injury of captain Ryan Shawcross and key man James McClean, who had both been on the cusp of comebacks when play stopped in mid-March. Joe Allen and Thibaud Verlinden remain on the sidelines.
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Highly-rated Noukeu, aged 18, grew up in Belgium and is eligible to play for Cameroon. He has impressed for Kevin Russell’s under-23s this season, having previously been on the books of Royal Excel Mouscron.
Forrester, also 18, has been with the club since he was six and has been invited to train with the first team more regularly this season. So too 18-year-old Porter, who captained Stoke under-18s to the final of the Premier League Cup in mid-March.
Stoke’s Academy coaches have been working with youth players through the age groups during lockdown, devising activities and schedules to aid teenagers’ development on and off the pitch.
The senior players have had their own programmes to follow and even though they have been back at work this week, a referendum is still imminent for Championship clubs to vote whether to carry on or curtail the season.
It is believed the majority required is in favour of following the Premier League model to return. A comeback date of June 13 is expected to be pushed through for the top flight this week and the Championship would probably start a week later.
But James Chester, on loan at Stoke from Aston Villa, admitted in his column for The Athletic: “Until we have confirmation of an actual date for a game, there is still a part of my mind that wonders if we still might not finish. There are just so many questions — even things I hadn’t thought about until recently.
“Travelling to away matches is one hurdle. How are you going to get there? Hotels aren’t operating, so I presume we would get a coach on the day of the game. But in some cases, that’s a long, long way. My overriding feeling is that it’s nice we’re getting closer to having football back, though.”