Michael O’Neill hopes that Stoke City are moving in the right direction to make sure they are a real option this summer for players like Jamal Lowe.
Lowe visits the bet365 Stadium on Wednesday (8.15pm) as star of a Swansea side who are bidding for promotion from the Championship, seven months after Stoke had been in the race to get him at a knockdown price from Wigan Athletic.
Stoke saw the potential of the nine-goal 26-year-old forward, who has formed a promotion-chasing double act with Andre Ayew – but on the back of a campaign fighting against relegation, it might have been a more difficult sell the other way around.
That should be different a season on, when Stoke are expected to be shopping for players who will make a real difference to the first team.
O’Neill said: “We met Jamal and tried to sign him but he was already well down the road with Swansea and unfortunately that’s where he decided to go. It’s been a good move for him, let’s be honest. He’s done very well.
“That’s the market we’re in. He maybe looked at it and saw Stoke at the wrong end of the table and saw Swansea as a club who were in the play-offs. All of that is what we’re trying to build so it becomes more attractive to come to Stoke.
“The important thing is that you come to Stoke for the benefit of your career, that you’re well looked after and that’s what we have to sell to players.”
He added: “I think it is (getting easier to sell the project). If I look at where we were last year in the January window, we weren’t attractive to those young Premier League loans. More importantly, clubs were wary of sending players out to teams who are struggling.
“They recognise that the manager may have to do anything to get results. Game time is a priority in their thinking. We had a conversation regarding Rhian Brewster but we were never in a position to get him because Swansea were a more attractive proposition for the player and Liverpool at that point in time.
“That’s how it works. You try to sell what you have to be attractive to younger players and to those types of players who are out of contract.
“And what we do have to sell is a fantastic club, great facilities, great stadium, huge fan base. We’ve just got to get people to see we’re a club that is really determined to move in the right direction and get out of this league.”
Stoke, with the pressures of the EFL’s financial restraints, are expected to be looking at free agents again – and particularly those between the ages of 23 and 28 to improve the starting XI rather than squad.
“It’s a market that we have to look at,” said O’Neill. “We’re well aware of the players who might be available in that age bracket. We have to marry the availability and age with the level of the player as well.
“When you’re looking at players of that age you’re bringing them in to make your team better, not necessarily to make your squad better. We’ve added younger players around the periphery of the squad who we believe can grow into established players.
“Tashan Oakley-Boothe is a good example of that. He hasn’t played as many minutes as we would have liked but we still believe that over time he can establish himself as a starting player in our team.
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“When you go into that different age bracket of 23 to 25, 26 to 28, you’re at that point where those players need to be coming and affecting your starting – and they can’t block the pathway of the younger players if they’re not of a high enough level.
“They are difficult players to find because clubs protect themselves and realise the value of the asset. Our younger players, for example, are all on long-term contracts. By the time Harry Souttar is 24 he still has a long-term value on his contract. He’s an asset to us.
“It’s really difficult to find players who are coming out of contract. We were well aware of some of the players who were available but they’re highly sought after. Ben Pearson is a good example, he left Preston to go to Bournemouth, Ben Davies is a good example.
“These are all conversations that we may or may not have with players but ultimately it’s a very competitive market for these players.”