Gary O'Neil believes West Ham United have the 'quality and experience' required to negotiate the npower Championship Play-Offs.
The Hammers face six-placed Cardiff City after finishing third in the table behind Southampton following Saturday's 2-1 win over Hull City. West Ham have already scored a win at the Cardiff City Stadium this season and the No32 insists lightning can strike twice this coming Thursday evening.
O'Neil, who has returned from a long-term ankle injury to make an important contribution to the club's promotion challenge, spoke at length about the season gone by, his recovery from injury and the Play-Offs.
How did you assess the way Saturday panned out, with us winning but Southampton pipping us by beating Coventry City 4-0?
GON - We had to start well, which we did and we got ahead. Obviously when we found out at half-time that Southampton were so far clear [2-0 up], we took our foot off the pedal a little bit. If we needed to go on from two goals I think we had it in us. Southampton were comfortably clear, so we made a few substitutions and rested a few bodies for the big game on Thursday.
It was sewn-up when we didn't win at Bristol City [on 17 April] - not that it was the one that really cost us because it was the home draws that cost us, really. When we drew at Bristol we knew it would be an uphill task with Southampton having already-relegated Coventry at home on the final day. It was always going to be a tough one for Coventry to get something out of. We did our job and finished with two wins. At Leicester we went 1-0 down and came back and won and showed good resilience. We won on Saturday and were comfortable so we're in a good bit of form going into the Play-Offs.
Were the five successive home draws in February and March what cost you automatic promotion?
GON - I think so. We finished two points and a few goals short after Southampton won by so many on Saturday. We were only one win away from going up and you can count those five games here on the trot where we should have won. We were up against Middlesbrough with a few minutes to go and against Doncaster and only drew with Watford. They have probably cost us a promotion place.
How do you prepare for the Play-Offs?
GON - We just start again really now. It doesn't matter where we finished. League positions don't matter. There are four of us in the semi-final and we go to Cardiff on Thursday and we'll try to get a win. We're in decent form - we've only lost one game in 18 and that was at home to Reading - so we're looking forward to it.
Are you comfortable with the tag of favourites for the Play-Offs?
GON - It's a tag that doesn't really mean anything. We deal with everything that we deal with in the dressing room. We've got a tight unit in there and we can't let outside influences affect us. You can guarantee that we'll be giving it all we can and hopefully it'll be good enough.
Who do you see as the biggest threat in the Play-Offs?
GON - I don't see one as a bigger threat than the others. They have all had decent seasons to get where they are. Birmingham have been on a good run since they got knocked out of Europe and probably have the strongest squad, having been relegated from the Premier League last season. They still have a few of those players. I think the Play-Offs are like that - in the final you only have 90 minutes to prove you are the team who should be in the Premier League, whereas over the course of the season you have 46 games to prove you are the better team. That's why they are a bit of a lottery. Hopefully the quality and experience we have should get us through.
Will our outstanding away form hold us in good stead, considering two of the possible three games will be away from the Boleyn Ground?
GON - I'm not sure. Going away to Cardiff first could be an advantage if we treat is as a one-off game and try to win that game. Coming back here, we'd be confident. It's an old cliche but we need to take it one game at a time. We need to try to be solid and keep a clean sheet, score a few goals and see how we get on. Then we can come back here and finish the job off. They have got in the Play-Offs the other way by scraping in with a win on Saturday so they'll be buzzing that they've made it, whereas we've come the other way from second into third. It'll be a tough tie.
You must be amazed with how many games you have played - and started - this season after your ankle injury?
GON - Yes, I am amazed. One, I didn't think I'd play so many games and two, I didn't think I'd be selected for as many as I have been. I'm really pleased on a personal level that I've made ten starts this season. That's probably about nine more than I expected, so that's a real positive on a personal note. If we can get to the Premier League then we'll have less games and that'll be good for my ankle!
You got a kick on it from Corry Evans near the end of Saturday's game. Any fears you had hurt it again?
GON - I knew it wasn't serious. I wasn't too pleased with the tackle in the last minute of the last game of the season. I thought it was a little bit unnecessary. It was the same ankle and it's a little bit sore, so I'll try to get it ready for Thursday. It's not a worry for me in tackles or anything. It's more the constant grind of playing that takes its toll on it. It lets me know if I've done too much, but I've been playing Saturday/Tuesday most of the time so I'm really pleased.