Michael O’Neill is hoping to wrap up a deal for John Obi Mikel as he builds a squad and spine ready to cope with a unique and condensed Championship season.
Stoke have been in talks with 33-year-old former Chelsea midfielder Mikel, a free agent since leaving Trabzonspor in March due to Turkish football’s delayed response to Covid-19. He is keen to return to English football and a one-year contract is on the table.
O’Neill has Joe Allen in the final stages of rehabilitation – and took him on a training camp to Belfast – but is wary of not immediately putting too much strain on a player who is getting over one of the worst injuries in football, having ruptured an Achilles tendon in March.
That is especially the case when 46 games are being squeezed into a month less than normal, with 13 mid-week matches.
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“Joe’s back and running and doing a lot of great work,” said the manager. “He’s doing everything possible to get back and that’s the most important thing.
“We want him back but we have to be mindful that it’s a very severe injury that he’s had. He’s keen to get back and he’s a huge influence in the team and dressing room.
“We have to be careful with him as well. We have to give him time. It’s important that we have the right balance in the team to begin with.
“Joe’s not going to come back and play in every game because the nature of the injury means that would be unrealistic – and the Championship this season is going to be a lot of mid-week games. We have to be prepared for that with the squad we put together.”
O’Neill has already brought in Morgan Fox, aged 26, to fill the left-back vacancy, brought back James Chester, aged 31, at centre-half; and snaffled Steven Fletcher, aged 33, to add to his strike department.
He fielded a young team in a 1-0 friendly win over Linfield on Saturday – mostly made up of players who had not featured as much in the 2019/20 re-start – but is demanding more from those trying to make a breakthrough.
“The younger players have to be able to affect the starting XI. You can’t just put them in the team because they’re young,” he said.
“We’re restricted in the transfer market because of financial fair play. Young players who would come in and automatically affect our starting XI would cost quite a lot of money so we’re not in a position to buy those players at this minute in time.
“We have to be mindful of that and find the best players available to us. I think we’ve done that with the three signings we’ve made to date.
“We still have young players: Tashan Oakley-Boothe, Nathan Collins, Harry Souttar back at the moment – we’ll see how that progresses, Tyrese Campbell, Jordan Thompson is still a young player as well, Lasse Sorensen…
“We can’t fill our team with 20 or 21 year olds. The Championship isn’t designed for that.
“It’s important we have the right types of players in the building and although two of the players we’ve signed are over 30, they’re quality players and they’re coming down from a higher level and available at no transfer fee.
“We have to do those kind of deals quickly.”
Stoke have lined up further friendlies against Burton Albion, on Saturday; Shrewsbury Town, a week on Tuesday; and Newcastle United, on Saturday, September 5.
They are expecting their Carabao Cup first round tie to be brought forward to Saturday, August 29 but would otherwise have a friendly on that date. The draw will take place tomorrow.