Stoke City launch their 2020/21 season this weekend with an EFL Cup first round tie against Blackpool at the bet365 Stadium.
So that Michael O’Neill has been back up in front of the press via a Zoom conference call to give a lowdown on injury news, transfer updates and how his team is ready for his first full campaign in charge.
How have all the preparations gone?
Michael O’Neill: They’ve been fine. It’s a game that really comes in the middle of your pre-season because you’re building up to the September 12 date in mind. The cup game coming as it does with an international break on the back of it is an added challenge obviously.
We’ve trained well. We would ideally like a few more minutes in players’ legs but Blackpool will be the same. I think it’s the same for every team.
These games are a start of your preparation for your season but equally they have their own significance because it’s a cup competition and obviously you want to progress.
Does home advantage count?
I don’t think so, not really. With the current situation, no. It’s not like there’s a huge travelling distance for Blackpool to have to deal with either.
It’s nice to play in your home stadium and you have a familiarity about it but I don’t think so – and we expect a tough game.
We watched their game and previous game against Everton and they were very aggressive in how they played. We have to be prepared for that.
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Any injury problems?
Sam Vokes won’t be available to us. He’s got a calf problem. Joe Allen and Thibaud Verlinden are not back in training yet.
The other thing we have to do is manage the players that we brought in predominantly because they came in at different stages so need to be on a different schedule, built more towards September 12.
Ryan Shawcross comes into that category as well after having groin surgery at the end of last season.
New signings have had a run out already – is that something you’ll consider this weekend?
We have to consider where the players are in terms of their fitness. If you look at John (Obi Mikel) for example, he’s not played since March because he terminated his contract at Trabzonspor.
Steven (Fletcher) and Morgan (Fox) were still under contract at Sheffield Wednesday at that point in time. That means they are probably all in different places physically.
John has settled in really well, trained really hard and we’ve just got to build up his fitness and his minutes.
Morgan, we’ve been really pleased, and Fletch coming in as well. We can see their quality but we have to manage fitness wise in terms of overall fitness, match fitness and getting minutes in their legs.
How much have new signings lifted changing room spirits?
It’s probably one for the lads to answer. We brought in players who have a pedigree, there’s no doubt about that.
We did a lot of work before we actually met them, spent a lot of time with the players. It wasn’t done without having done a lot of due diligence on the four players, James Chester included – obviously we’d had James for six months already so we didn’t have to do too much on that.
The important thing was considering the stage of career the players are at that we are bring the right types of people into the building. They’ve settled well and I think strengthened the group. They are all good professionals and good types.
Who will you play in goal against Blackpool – and can we read into that who will be number one this season?
I wouldn’t read too much. I will be playing a goalkeeper, I can give you that!
But you’ll just have to find out on Saturday, I wouldn’t get too excited about that at this minute in time.
Jack (Butland) and Adam (Davies) have trained well together – they always train well together.
We’re pleased. We had young Joe Bursik for the first start of pre-season before he went on loan to Doncaster and young Blondy (Nna Noukeu) who has been excellent. He’s been around the first team training since we came down from lockdown and before that even. He’s a really promising prospect as well.
The goalkeepers are on good form.
What are you expecting from Blackpool?
It’ll be tough. They come with a coach who has previously been at Liverpool and has tried to implement aspects of their play.
We expect a team that will come and press and make the game difficult for us.
They’ve got nothing to lose in this situation either.
It’s a good game for us. Against Burton I felt we played too slow at times and caused our own problems. Against Shrewsbury we were better and played quicker, particularly in the second-half, and won the game comfortably 5-1.
It’s a learning curve as well as a fitness curve when you come back for pre-season and that’s we’re on that curve at this minute in time.
Any movement in terms of players going out at this minute in time?
Not at the minute. The market is very, very slow. There hasn’t been a lot of clubs doing a lot of business in terms of bringing players in.
So it will take a bit of time. The window is open until the middle of October so we’re still a good bit away from the end of the window.
But the squad is too big. There are players who for their own benefit and the benefit of the club need to move on. Sometimes it takes a little bit of time but at the moment we don’t have anything concrete to report.
How have the new signings fitted in?
New signings always give the squad a lift – you certainly hope that they do that.
It was a very quick transition and we’ve also had players returning having been on loan at other clubs, the likes of Benik Afobe and Harry Souttar in particular who have been training with the group.
New players, good players, good professionals can settle in quickly. The four boys have done that.
Chezzie (James Chester) doesn’t feel like a new player because he’s kind of felt like he’s ours since he joined us last season but it’s good to have a player like that because he has much more influence as a permanent player as opposed to loan player.
The other three have all made a very positive impression since he came in.
Will the team be significantly different to the one that finished last season – or will you go for tried and tested regulars?
I wouldn’t say we’ll go for tried and tested regulars because I’m not sure we have too many of them to be honest! We’ll pick a team designed to win the game, picked with one eye on September 12 as well.
That’s a combination of fitness and tactics as well. That’s how we’ll approach the game.
We want competition for places. We want the young players to challenge more to start games and the onus is on them.
Many of them have really come back in good shape and trained extremely well. Competition is what creates a team with the right mindset and a team that can obviously be at the other end of the table from where we’ve been in the last two seasons.
How important is a good start – even ahead of the league kicking in?
You want to win games, that’s a mentality thing, and this cup game gives us an opportunity against a team that will come here hungry to win the game as well.
We won’t treat the game lightly at all.
In the two seasons in the Championship the team has started poorly and we want to address that.
We spoke to the players long and hard about this after we knew we had safety – so before we played Nottingham Forest – and explained that was the reason they would only get the time off they were getting.
We want to make sure that in terms of fitness and where the team is tactically and in terms of all the preparation of the team that we are as far ahead as we can be when the season kicks off on September 12.
That’s why it was so important to get players in early as well, to get players we want and get them in the building so you’re not bringing them in two days before the window shuts, two days before the start of the season.
That may still happen but equally it will probably be driven by players going out.
The players we’ve brought in have had a good chance to settle and can make a real impact from the start.
With such a hectic schedule are you already going to have to manage players’ fitness?
It’s a very condensed season given that we are starting on September 12 rather than what would normally be early August.
But equally we can’t just throw aside opportunities in cup competitions. Staying in the cup will give us more competitive games to get players up to speed.
This is part of pre-season but it’s got a real edge to it so that’s how we have to treat the game.
We’ve got two further games after this; one at the training ground on Tuesday against Leeds United and a further game away at Newcastle. Two very good games against Premier League teams.
The preparation that we’ve put in place I think is more than adequate to make sure we hit the ground running on September 12.
But I think we can get caught up too much in the schedule. Of course we have to manage that but if we’re worried about resting players in September then we’re going to have problems. We’re not going to worry too much about that.
Have you actually had time for a break?
I had a very luxurious five days in Northern Ireland so I had, on the North Antrim coast – and that was as far as we got. That’s about it – and the phone never stopped.
With Morgan Fox added, do you have as many options as needed on the left?
Yeah, the left side of the pitch we’re comfortable. I think we’ve got the right personnel to allow us to play in both systems.
Bruno (Martins Indi) is very strong as a left-sided centre-back and we know he can play at left-back. Morgan can play either at centre-back, left wing-back or left-back. Josh Tymon can play in either of the two wide positions and James (McClean) can play either as a wing-back or higher up on the left in a 4-3-3 as well.
We’re well covered on that side and the profile of the players is good. It’s good that Josh Tymon has made a real push and his versatility on that side is a big bonus for us as well.
Goals is the bottom line from Steve Fletcher?
He’s brought in for not only that – he’s a quality player. You only had to see him on his first day at training to see that. His link up play is excellent. He’s very strong in the air, times his jump very well. He wins a lot in the air despite not being maybe 6ft 4in or 6ft 5in. He has a real physical presence.
What he has as well as real quality is experience. He knows how to use his body, how to be able to take contact. He’s a handful for any centre-back to play against.
Equally, we’ve brought him in to score goals and what we see day to day in training is a top player.
We would rather he was 25, of course we would, but we wouldn’t be able to buy him if he was 25.
But he’s a player who has come here with a lot to prove still. He still believes he has a lot to offer and certainly from what we’ve seen in training he’s showing us that already.
Do you expect Blackpool to come out firing on all cylinders?
Yes, any League One team that comes to play a team above them has a point to prove. The players have a point to prove because they want to show they should be at your club and should be interested in them.
The coach wasn’t in the job very long before lockdown and they obviously didn’t play after lockdown. They’ve probably had quite a fractured period when the manager was desperate to get his hands on his players but wasn’t able to do so.
But based on what we saw against Everton we saw a team that want to press and press high up the pitch, very similar to what we see with Liverpool where the coach previously worked.
That will be a good test for us because we’ve got to play smart. There will be times to build the game and times not to build the game and hopefully that will be where our experience comes through on Saturday.