Stoke City legend Denis Smith expects Michael O’Neill to get his side ready even if the Championship re-start is rushed through.
The EFL has been under growing pressure to re-assess its plan to kick start the 2019/20 season on June 20 and speed through to a finish by July 22. Clubs may only start full training next week and the League Managers’ Association has added to the voices suggesting more time is needed for preparation after a three-month break.
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But Smith, a veteran of nearly 1,200 games as manager, can guess what O’Neill will be telling his players.
“He’s a manager,” he said. “He manages people and he will make them try to work together.
“It’s called your job and everyone has got the same problems. You have to find out how to deal with it in best way possible.
“Once the decision is made, you’ve got to convince the players that what you’re doing is right. You can’t be hesitant. You have to say, ‘This is what we’re doing and this is how we’re going to get there.’ It doesn’t work to say maybe.
“There might be lads who are not comfortable and you have to deal with them as individuals but the group talk has to be clear and firm.”
He added: “Of course there are challenges. I never had to deal with a situation like this – no one has. But you’re all in the same boat and you have to get everyone pulling in the right direction in the club.”
O’Neill took over Stoke in November when the club was bottom of the Championship but only promotion-chasing Fulham had picked up more points in the first 12 games of 2020 before football suddenly stopped.
Smith said: “Of course this is a different situation and we don’t know how everything will work out but what you’re looking for at Stoke is to carry on where we left off and to get the season finished so no one can grumble.
“Hopefully we can look back in late July and say this is where we’ve finished, comfortably in mid-table.
“Michael took over a team at the bottom but there were good points he inherited: a good squad with good players, a good board and supporters who are desperate to give you a chance. You’ve got a lot of good things.
“The problem was that there was a mix of different players signed by different players and you have to deal with individuals as individuals. You have a basic plan of what you want to do and then you have to work to man manage the group.
“I think he has done an excellent job in doing that so far and long may it continue.”
Smith himself is looking forward to normality returning enough so that he can watch Stoke again.
“I will be happy when I get to go down the pub,” he said. “It’ll be interesting what real life is like, I’ve forgotten.
“But I can’t complain too much. It’s surprising we’ve been married (to Kate) for 53 years and we’ve never spent this much time together consistently. We manage one another!”
And the 72-year-old has been keeping busy by making phone calls to fans who have been in self-isolation.
“If it’s making people feel better, I’m glad to do it,” he said. “It’s not doing a great deal of harm when you’re sitting at home with nothing to do. Everybody seems to be happy to receive calls.
“They’re fans and I’ve always said football is only about players and fans. You survive on each other. The rest of us just work off that… although I’m a fan too of course.”