Joe Allen has taken a big step closer to Stoke City’s first team after coming through a 75-minute outing for the under-23s.
Allen played his first competitive game since March today when he started for a 4-3 win over West Bromwich Albion at Clayton Wood, with Ethon Varian scoring a first-half hat-trick.
The 30-year-old has missed 33 first team matches since rupturing an Achilles tendon in a 5-1 win of Hull just before the first national lockdown. He has been increasing his training regime over recent weeks and will now be eased back into the fold for the Championship.
It is a major boost for Michael O’Neill, who has had to deal with a challenging and mounting injury list on the back of a hectic six months since football resumed behind closed doors – and the rest of the treatment room could soon start to look a lot more healthy
Stoke have played every weekend and mid-week since late August barring international breaks thanks to their run to the Carabao Cup quarter-finals, hosting Tottenham at the bet365 Stadium tomorrow (5.30pm).
But they will have at least two full weeks between games in January – or three if they cannot get past Spurs, with the winner heading into a semi-final on January 5 or 6. The final has been rescheduled from February to April 25 in hope fans will be allowed into Wembley.
Ryan Shawcross also played another 45 minutes in the youngsters’ win over Albion, when Thibaud Verlinden was also heavily involved in making the goals.
John Obi Mikel is hoping to be available for the trip to Coventry City on Boxing Day, Sam Clucas, Adam Davies, Angus Gunn and Lee Gregory are hoping to be back available by mid-January.
That is giving O’Neill added confidence that his squad – currently level on points with sixth place – can stay right in the mix at the top end of the Championship.
He said in an interview for this week’s Official EFL Podcast: “We got ourselves into a really strong position three or four games ago to be honest but then unfortunately we lost players through injury; John Obi, Gunn, Davies, we’re still waiting on Allen, Shawcross is getting closer and closer…
“We would like to think that as long as we can hang onto that position when we’re in touching distance of the top six that, if we can get a stronger squad with players coming back, then we can have a really strong second half of the season.
“The teams that have come down are always going to be the strongest. We played very well at Watford but lost 3-2.
“The most encouraging thing has been that any game we’ve lost, we’ve been in the game. We’ve not been outplayed by any of the top teams. We managed to come back against Norwich when we’d had a difficult first half.
“As we continue we want to make sure we maintain this position and push into that top six.”
Stoke have not yet conceded a goal in the opening four rounds of the Carabao Cup and are out to reach the last four for the first time since 2016 – and only fourth time ever.
O’Neill said: “We initially used the competition to integrate some of the younger players like Nathan Collins and Harry Souttar and really through the Carabao Cup games they then came through and established themselves in the league team. It’s been a very worthwhile competition.
“Then we went away and won at a very good Wolves team that night when we had a lot of younger players in the team, we won away at Villa as well – and at this stage you have to give it everything else you may as well have gone out in the first round.
“It’s a shame we’re not playing at a full bet365, with Tottenham coming up having had a great start to the season, but we have to make it as difficult as we can for them and believe we can take another Premier League scalp.
“It’s a huge ask but it’s been a good competition for us. It’s difficult in a truncated season to give cups the full attention but the four games we’ve had have been positive because on top of that we’ve kept four clean sheets and we’re hoping for the same again.”