O'Neill: Important to Get People Back Into Stadiums
Thursday, 8th Oct 2020 19:15
Blues general manager of football operations Lee O’Neill says it’s important for fans to return to stadiums and to “get as close to a 'normal' in the short, medium and long-term future”.
Fans are currently barred from attending games in the top six tiers of English football due to the coronavirus concerns.
A number of clubs held test events in September aimed at getting a limited number of supporters back in grounds in October with Town having planned to stage one of their own at the Rochdale match a fortnight ago.
However, with Covid-19 cases increasing, the Government pulled the plug and it was subsequently speculated that supporters might not be able to return until March.
O’Neill says the EFL and Premier League and clubs need to remain united in their stance on the issue.
“I think it's important for the game,” he said in a wide-ranging interview with iFollow Ipswich.
“We need to get supporters back in stadiums and we need to try and get as close to a 'normal' in the short, medium and long-term future. Of course, all of that must be when it is safe to do so.
“Without fans coming in, football will struggle - we know that. Football has taken a big hit, and will struggle in the next few months in particular. The way that the game is going at the moment is very different to what it was 12 months ago.
“We have to stick together to try and get through this and I think, if we do get through it, that we'll be stronger on the other side."
O’Neill recently met Ipswich MP Tom Hunt to discuss the issue: "We spoke about how the football club can work with the Government to try and accelerate the process that is trying to get supporters back.
“We talked a lot about the test cases with fans coming back into stadiums and how the club was prepared for that to be the case before the Government made the announcement it did.
“We also spoke about the knock-on effect that comes from the football club not having games on at the stadium that fans can go to. That's very important because when the club does well, the town does well.
“For example, there are secondary businesses in the area that are struggling at the moment. That's one of the reasons why it's important to get people back into stadiums - because we need to try and get the economy back to how it was before.”
In parliament earlier today, Conservative MP Hunt called for the government to reassess its position on fans attending games..
“It was important to ask a question in Parliament today about Ipswich Town and the return of fans to Portman Road,” he told the EADT.
“The club is an iconic feature of our town and is the reason why Ipswich is a name recognised around the world. But like many other football league clubs it’s struggling with the impact of Covid-19.
“The blanket decision to postpone the return of fans is therefore disappointing when we currently have relatively low rates of Covid-19 compared to the rest of the country and our local club is confident it can bring a small number of fans back safely.”
O’Neill says clubs are in a difficult position where they’re challenging a decision which has had a huge impact upon them in a professional manner at a time when concerns about safety are paramount.
"What we all agree on is that anything that happens must be safe for people,” he added. “People's lives could be at risk and that is obviously what is most important.
“But, you start to look at some of the things you are allowed to do like visiting a supermarket, riding public transport and getting on planes.
“I went to a local game on [Wednesday] evening [at Walsham-le-Willows] and there were lots of people there. It's about consistency.
“The government is in a very difficult position with everything that's happening. From the club's point of view, we need to get a sense of normality back to Portman Road as quickly as possible.”
Reflecting on the impressive performance of the young team which beat Gillingham 2-0 in the EFL Trophy on Tuesday, O’Neill, who is also Town’s academy manager, was delighted with the display.
"I was very pleased with the performance, as were a number of coaches who have been involved in the journey those young lads have made,” he continued.
“I was fortunate enough to be sat in the stands watching the game with Bryan [Klug, head of coaching and player development], Gerard [Nash, U23s manager] and Adem [Atay, U18s manager] and it was good to see.
“Of course, there are plenty more people that have been involved in the process that couldn't be there because of the circumstances.
“It was a pleasing night and what's important is that those young players now look to build on what they showed. If they can play to that level consistently then they will raise questions for the manager going forward and that's what we want to see."
Following the game, manager Paul Lambert revealed that midfielder Flynn Downes would be out of action for three months with a knee injury sustained away against the MK Dons on Saturday and Stephen Ward is unlikely to feature at Blackpool this weekend due to an achilles problem.
"It was very disappointing news regarding Flynn following that contact injury against MK Dons,” O’Neill said.
“He's going to be out for a while so we need to monitor that closely and make sure he heals properly so that he's back and fighting for his first-team place as quickly as possible.
“With Stephen it is slightly more of a precautionary thing. We'll monitor his situation over the next few days but, as the gaffer said, it is highly unlikely he'll be involved at the weekend. Hopefully it's nothing too serious for him, though."
“You don't need to go over it again but we've had a long lay-off with the players not doing what they usually do, before returning to a condensed period of training and the pitches are very different to what they're used to.
“Everything is different to what they're used to and the risks of their injuries go up a little bit more.
“There's not a lot we can do when it comes to contact injuries in games but we are working hard to get players back and reduce those injuries where possible."
Turning to the transfer window, which closes for domestic transfers at 5pm on Friday 16th October, O’Neill says the club is happy with the business it has done so far.
"So far I think we are,” he reflected. “Three permanent signings and two loans have arrived and we've looked to add strength and experience to certain areas of the pitch.
“The players we've brought in have started really well but we have a long season ahead of us. It's important that we have a strong squad that we feel is capable of dealing with anything that is thrown at it.
“That could be injuries, coronavirus or performance - all of these things can take their toll on the squad. It's important we have that competitive squad because our objective is to get out of the league as quickly as possible."
“There's a lack of revenue for the club because of what's going on, and when you add the salary cap to that - it's another challenge.
“These are all things that we have to adapt to, but it's the same for all clubs so we won't sit and moan. We've got to be proactive and our recruitment team are working very hard looking at where we can add strength to the squad with the budget that we have.”
A number of young players have moved out on loan - Idris El Mizouni to Cambridge, Bailey Clements and Kai Brown to Dagenham & Redbridge, Adam Przybek to Braintree and Harry Wright to GAIS in Sweden - and boss Lambert has said more could join them.
O’Neill says such spells are important for their progress: “It's huge for their development. We saw the other night [against Gillingham in the EFL Trophy] what playing first-team football can do for young players.
“The players often step up to the challenge that comes with it and when you take a step back and look at previous examples we can see that. Luke [Woolfenden, to Bromley and Swindon] and Flynn [to Luton] have both been out and got games and returned to the club better players.
“It can help us in the long term so it is something that we're looking at, but it has to be the right move for the player.
“Our plan is to get some of those younger players out but it can be a difficult process because every club has their own players that they want to develop themselves. Where possible, and when the right opportunities come along, it is something we'll look to explore.”
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