Michael O’Neill is sure the Championship relegation scrap will go down to the final day – even if he’s hoping Stoke City are well out of it by then.
Stoke head to bottom side Luton Town tomorrow as they head into their final 11 matches of the season with barely a cigarette paper between a clutch of teams.
A win would eight points between the two clubs – and could lift Stoke up to 18th – but Luton are hoping to close the gap to just two points and haul Stoke back towards or into the drop zone.
Luton, second-bottom Barnsley and third-bottom Wigan have all been finding their best form of the season while Middlesbrough and Hull are suffering the opposite and Huddersfield and Charlton have been consistently inconsistent.
O’Neill said: “I’ll expect that the battle will go down to the final game – whether we’re in it or not – given how the teams are doing. The teams beneath us are in great form, winning games, and we’re not in control of that.
“We’re in control of the points that we gather in the games we play. We’re up to 38 points now and we have to try to do everything possible to take three points on Saturday.
“All we can do is play the next game ahead of us and that’s what we will do.”
Stoke’s next six games are all against teams in the bottom nine but O’Neill almost smiled when he suggested that all 20 matches since he was appointed has been sold as a crunch fixture.
He said: “This game’s no bigger than before we drew at Blackburn. The fact that Luton won doesn’t make it any bigger, for me, because at the end of the day there are still three points on offer.
“Every one of the games that lie ahead will be a big game. Since I’ve come in, each of the 20 games has seemed like this. We’re getting used to that, we’re getting used to the stress of it as well.
“I’m already grey, I’m losing sleep, there’s no doubt about that, but all we can do is keep working as hard as we’re doing. Everyone at the club is working extremely hard, there’s no doubt about that, to improve the situation.
“We have to be mindful of the situation when we came in as well and we’re certainly in a better situation than when we arrived. We will continue for the 11 games that remain to do everything possible to retain our status in the Championship.”
Luton key man Izzy Brown is back after a bout of tonsillitis and Kazenga LuaLua (thigh) is in contention.
O’Neill said: “This match was always going to be tough. Everyone is fighting for their lives but even if they weren’t we are going to face a team in a confident mood because they have had three wins out of four now.
“Equally they are in a situation when they are still in the bottom three with those wins and I think that’s mindful as well.”
Stoke announced in a statement on their website this morning that early bird season ticket prices will be frozen for 2020/21. However, coach travel to away games will only be available for free to season ticket holders. There will be 20 per cent off home cup matches.
Supporters have until April 6 to be sure of retaining their current seats.
The club has taken the decision not to run coaches to the under-18s PL Cup final at Manchester City on Tuesday, March 10 (7.45pm).