Reading 1, Stoke City 1
Joao (7); Powell (92)
Bramall Lane 1948, Wembley 1972, Meadow Lane 1979, Victoria Ground 1997, Britannia Stadium 2008 and now the Madejski Stadium 2020.
Perhaps the home of Reading, scene of what should have been just another run-of-the-mill Championship fixture, should now take its cheeky place alongside some rather more celebrated occasions writ large in the history of Stoke City.
Thanks to these extraordinary times, this was no ordinary venue, no ordinary football match.
Those fortunate few who were privileged to be invited feel very lucky, but rest assured it will ultimately remain a pretty hollow memory, a sobering reminder of what this awful pandemic has done to our lives and how many it has taken.
The empty stands and ghostly atmosphere – notwithstanding Reading’s noble attempts to remedy that with background crowd noise – was a pretty sorry experience as you looked in vain for the media colleagues and many, many travelling Stoke fans who would otherwise have been there.
There were moments to raise a smile – not least the sight of players dressed only in a towel wandering down the touchline after the game for reasons we couldn’t quite establish – and the various haircuts on parade were something of a fashion show sideline.
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Ryan Shawcross went for the skinhead, James McClean for the alice band – he wouldn’t have done that if Robert Huth was still around – but top prize goes to Tommy Smith’s resurrection of the George Berry look circa 1982.
Down on the touchline, meanwhile, we couldn’t quite make out the verbals – thanks to that background crowd noise – but with Michael O’Neill’s vocabulary being that of an altar boy compared to some of his managerial predecessors, we can be pretty sure no laws on profanity were broken.
His language would have been fruitier than most for much of the afternoon, however, because this was a performance to test his patience until almost the last kick of the game.
Having been found wanting from as early as the seventh minute when Bruno Martin Indi was exposed on the left and the whipped cross was turned in by Lucas Joao, Stoke toiled gamely rather than impressively as they slinked towards a narrow defeat.
The starting line up had an odd look to it with Nathan Collins at right back and 20 year-old Lasse Sorensen thrown into midfield to help plug the gaps left by Joe Allen’s absence, while Nick Powell didn’t look completely at ease on the left.
Sorensen’s younger and fitter legs were a wise choice in the circumstances and he did nothing to suggest he should be dropped/rested next Saturday after what was only his third league appearance and his first for 17 months.
Collins lacked for nothing when it came to concentration and courage, and Saturday’s experience will widen his footballing vocabulary, but central defence would still seem to be his natural resting place.
The starting 11 also included Shawcross for the first time since December 29 and all seemed well physically until shortly before half-time when he went down, and stayed down, long enough to suggest his day was done and a third comeback this season was to be aborted.
But he played on until half-time because, it later transpired, he didn’t want to use up one of the three junctures at which managers can make their substitutions while the game is on.
Shades of him playing on as a makeshift striker after being injured at Fulham in his previous outing because there were no more subs.
Shawcross has a big chest, one he is entitled to puff out to the full, but even he is running of space for all the medals.
Stoke’s first-half pursuit of an equaliser amounted to little more than Tom Ince’s mis-hit shot into the ground by way of a genuine goalmouth threat.
And, in truth, Reading could have extended their lead beyond Stoke’s grasp as Jack Butland palmed one aside and then the goalscorer stretched and just failed to connect at the far post on the half-hour mark.
And in the 55th minute John Swift curled a free kick over the wall and against Butland’s bar to leave their manager Mark Bowen, once of Stoke of course, lamenting the final scoreline.
James McClean undoubtedly enlivened his side’s efforts after appearing as a half-time substitute, it was difficult not to, though it was Sam Clucas providing the opportunity for Tyrese Campbell to whip a slightly deflected snapshot against the outside of the Reading keeper’s right-hand post in the 71st minute.
McClean was then just over with a free-kick and Nick Powell way over with a long ranger as the clock ticked deafeningly towards Stoke’s apparent fate.
But then in the 92nd minute there was young Sorensen providing from a set piece, just like the free-kick he crossed for Peter Crouch to score Stoke’s last Premier League goal at Swansea two years ago.
This time it was a deep right-wing corner that was headed back across goal by James Chester for Powell to sneak in with the decisive header.
There wasn’t too much social distancing amid the subsequent celebration, while a few armchairs and settees were no doubt bouncing on their springs back home, as Stoke were able to toast a potentially crucial point.
It’s a point, if not a performance, we would all have surely taken beforehand.
As for that performance, O’Neill will have learned much, both positive and negative, and will be grateful to have safely negotiated the rigours of an away game in these troubled times of ours.
We remain optimistic of better times ahead, in every respect, and longing for the day when we will all meet again.
They might even play Dame Vera on the stadium PA, to celebrate hearing a real crowd once again.