Michael O’Neill is preparing for one final game of the season at Stoke City, a daunting trip to promotion-chasing Bournemouth. Here is his pre-match press conference.
How’s training gone this week?
Michael O’Neill: Training’s been good. We shortened the week for them a wee bit and had a three-day build-up into the game. Players are obviously tired, mentally as much as physically.
It’s been fine but we have one or two injury concerns and we will maybe have one or two more players out for the game on Saturday than we had hoped would be the case.
How hard is it to get players up for a match when they can only finish 13th or 15th?
It is in a sense but we haven’t changed our approach in terms of how we prepare the team. We have prepared the team with a similar level of detail, similar level of training, similar level of professionalism as we did for the opening games of the season or indeed any game since we came into the building.
Hopefully that keeps their focus and that translates into a good performance.
We recognise that results in recent times in the second half of the season haven’t been good enough and we want to make sure we address that as soon as possible.
This is the next game, the last game, but it gives us an opportunity to take something.
Is there a problem with self-belief in the second half of the season? Do you need to work on the mental side of the game with younger players?
I think the mental side of the game is important for all players but particularly for young players.
It’s been a good season for young players, possibly, to be introduced because there’s not been a crowd there, for example. That will be the biggest thing that they have to adapt to going forward, playing in front of your own fans and the expectation that comes with that.
We look at all aspects.
We had a meeting today with players about the difference between first half and second half of the season and trying to pinpoint why we’ve had the second half of the season we’ve had and trying to address that going forward; what the players feel about that, what we feel about that as a staff.
We’ve got to continue we can progress. I think there’s a good feeling within the group still, we’re disappointed with how the second half of the season has gone.
Our focus is to make sure that where we finish the season that we don’t bring that into the start of next season.
Younger players could get anxious when they make mistakes?
Yes but that’s part of the game. You have to deal with making mistakes.
What we’ve tried to hammer home to players is that if you make a bad decision on the ball or a bad moment in the game is that you have a good reaction to that. Senior players are important in that as well. They help younger players on the pitch.
Young players now have a good support network within the club and dressing room to help fulfil their potential.
How close are you to deciding who is in your plans for next season and who you need to replace?
I’ve known that for quite a while to be honest.
We have 32 players under contract from July 1 with the players who have been away from the club returning. We have to continue to address that as we have done in previous windows.
We know we’re not going to make massive changes to the squad because we’ll be somewhat hindered by that but we will hopefully add key players in the right areas to hopefully help us.
We have to streamline the squad first of all to give us the best chance of getting the best players in to help us improve.
How are you looking injury wise?
We have no one back. I don’t think Powell will make the game and both Harry Souttar and Steven Fletcher came out of training today with stiffness and tightness.
Both will have to be scanned later today but we’re not optimistic that either will be fit for the game on Saturday.
Are you optimistic going forward after improvements made to the squad this year?
The second half of the season for me has not been what I anticipated or hoped for after 23 games.
I felt we were in a good position then to try to replicate that in the second half of the season, to kick on and be closer to a team that can challenge to be in the top six.
But we weren’t able to do that. There are a number of factors in that. We obviously haven’t won enough games. We drew too many games and then latterly we started to lose games.
At times, for portions of games, particularly in the first half of games, we’ve been strong and our performances have been good but we didn’t capitalise on that – and then we tended to lose a goal and have found it difficult to fight our way back into games.
That is something we have to improve. Some of that is mental, some of that is down to quality, some is down to a little bit of anxiety, particularly in the final third of the pitch – I think we saw that particularly in the QPR game.
That’s something where hopefully younger players will benefit from experience and older players can do better in those situations as well.
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People are already talking about Joe Allen moving on – do you find it a frustration or accept it as part of the game?
We have to accept it as part of the game. I ignore it to be honest. It’s not like it means anything until there is a firm offer on the table from a club for one of our players.
We have a situation when we have 32 players under contract and 18 of those are coming into the last year of their contract as well. That in itself changes the dynamic for players who have come here on longer-term deals and are now in the final year of their contract.
There will always be a lot of speculation but that’s all it is. It’s typically made up by people who need something to write about and need something for managers to comment on.
At the end of the day, we’re in a position where unless the right offer comes in for the right player then we won’t have to entertain it.
Bournemouth are already assured of a play-off spot – do you think they might ease off on the final day?
No I don’t actually. They’ve lost the last two games so I think they’ll want to finish strongly with a strong performance and they’ll pick a strong team. They won’t want to go into the play-offs in poor form. They’ll approach the game wanting to win it.
They’ll obviously not take any chances with players who are carrying injuries or niggles but they’ve got a strong squad. They kept the majority of their squad together after coming down – Callum Wilson was a big departure – they have quality and they have the motivation to get back to the Premier League.
You’ll want to finish on a high?
We’ve had poor results in recent weeks and when you’re in that situation you have to try to address it. It will be a very tough game, about as tough as you can get away at Bournemouth, Norwich or Watford.
But we’re not playing under any pressure – nor are they – but we want a good performance and good result.
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Have Stoke been in the ‘red zone’ due to fixture congestion?
It’s definitely been the case. I think you only have to look at the amount of injuries we’ve had and that has been a big factor in it.
The Championship is more demanding than the Premier League because there are more games and there are teams at the top end with European competitions who have got massive schedules as well to deal with – and they do have massive squads with a lot of quality.
It has been demanding. We’re running a little bit on empty at the minute with the amount of injuries we have so what we want to make sure is that we don’t pick up anything in the last game that carries forward into next season.
When we start next season we hope to have Allen and Collins and players like that fully fit and fully ready to come and play. As a result of that we will have a stronger squad.
You want to retain your top players, like Allen and Collins?
We won’t be giving players away. We may have to trade at times but you can’t sell unless someone is willing to buy you.
It’s not something we’re going to encourage but if something happens we have to evaluate any situation or any player at this minute in time to try to freshen the squad, strengthen the squad in certain areas.
Until that happens we’re not going to be in a position to do anything and if it does happen we’ll deal with it as it comes along.
As well as recruitment side, it’s about looking after the development of young players?
The young players we have at the minute – if you include Souttar and Collins, Bursik, Doughty who we brought in, Campbell, Brown who we brought to the club – they are all on long-term contracts and their focus is here at Stoke City.
They are committed to that and hopefully they grow and flourish here as well.
As regards to what we do in the transfer window, that will be governed by what we do with our own squad and people leaving.
The young players are in a good situation. They have stability at the club and stability in contracts, now they have to come in and become not just established Championship players but top end Championship players. That’s the only way that the club can progress and push to being in a promotion situation.
The younger players who have been on the bench in recent weeks are not ready to play first team football. They are there because of the injury situation we have at the club. They need loans.
It’s nice to have them up training with us but like we saw with Souttar, Campbell, Tymon, Bursik, they all had to go on loan to develop to become first team players. For Norton, Coates, Jones, and all these young players, they have to go through the same experience to come back and be closer to the first team.
Is the loan market something you’ll pursue in terms of bringing players in?
It will be for us to bring players in permanently because of Financial Fair Play. The loan market is obviously there to use.
The loan market was difficult this season because Premier League players tended to keep bigger squads due to Covid. They weren’t loaning out as many players as they did in previous years.
The problem with the loan market is that you don’t get an early decision. If we got to Manchester United or Everton or someone like that and ask if we can have this young player, they are never going to say yes on Day One. They are going to see how their squad develops.
We have been in contact with Premier League clubs about players.
Equally, these squads will be decimated in these squads will be decimated in pre-season because players will be away for the European Championships. They will keep their own players at their training grounds for longer.
You will have a dilemma about whether you hold off in the hope you get a young player on loan against one that you can possibly sign on a permanent basis.
That’s the dilemma we will face this window. Hopefully we will get those decisions right.