General manager of football operations discusses injuries, fans returning, transfer window
iFollow Ipswich spoke to Town's general manager of football operations Lee O'Neill earlier today.
Lee discussed the impressive performance of Blues' youngsters in the EFL Trophy on Tuesday, Flynn Downes' and Stephen Ward's respective injuries, the Club's stance on fans returning to stadiums and Town's business in the transfer window.
A full transcript of the interview is available below:
Lee it was a strong showing from the Academy lads in the win over Gillingham on Tuesday. As someone who works closely with the Academy here, that must have made you and others very proud?
"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. I was fortunate enough to be sat in the stands watching the game with Bryan [Klug, head of coaching and player development], Gerard [Nash, U23 manager] and Adem [Atay, U18 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."
Although it was a good night for the Club and the Academy, there was the unfortunate news that Flynn is likely to be sidelined for a couple of months with a knee problem, and Wardy is struggling with an Achilles issue. Can you reveal any more on their injuries?
"It was very disappointing news regarding Flynn following that contact injury against MK Dons. 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."
It's obviously a blow for the Club, Lee, but you have to be careful in these situations and not rush a player back don't you?
"Absolutely. The medical and fitness and conditioning staff are all working hard to try and minimise those injuries. 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."
A big story in the news at the moment is that fans cannot return to professional football games, but we have seen the EFL and Premier League, along with individual clubs, unite to look at that situation again. How important is it that those bodies are united in their stance?
"I think it's important for the game. 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."
On the local side you met with Tom Hunt (Ipswich MP) to discuss fans returning to Portman Road in particular. How did that go?
"We spoke about 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."
Is it a difficult position for a football club to be in, where you are essentially challenging a decision that has been made, but in a professional manner?
"It is, but what we all agree on is that anything that happens must be safe for people. 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 Tuesday evening 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."
Monday saw the end of the international transfer window, and after the arrival of Keanan Bennetts on loan from Borussia Monchengladbach, is the Club happy with the business that has been done?
"So far I think we are. 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."
How difficult was this window in terms of the circumstances - as a result of the pandemic?
"In terms of players both coming in and going out it's been hard, but it's been difficult for every club. 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 fot 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.
Finally the manager has suggested that there could be younger players going out loan to gain first-team football experience. How beneficial can a good loan spell be and are we any further along in terms of specific players making moves?
"It's huge for their development. We saw the other night (against Gillingham, 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] and Flynn 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 oppportunities come along, it is something we'll look to explore."