Stoke City can consider themselves genuine contenders for promotion. The trouble is, so are most of the clubs in the Championship.
The division is gloriously unpredictable, in fact the only predictable thing is it’s a long, hard, demanding slog for any team that wants to get out of it.
So, I wouldn’t read much into the fact Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth are among the favourites to go up. We’ve seen before how difficult clubs can find it when they are first relegated from the Premier League. Stoke and their supporters know that as well as anyone after what they have been through in the last two years.
But I wouldn’t rule Stoke out just because they finished 15th in a 2019/20 season that only finished six weeks ago.
Let’s face it, Michael O’Neill has already made great progress with a team that was bottom of the table when he took over in November. He was taking over from another manager, with somebody else’s players, and still managed to turn things round.
Now Stoke start with a clean slate and should be kicking off at Millwall on Saturday with plenty of optimism.
I hopes supporters are looking forward to the new season, even though following your football team is going to be a very different experience.
Stoke and Port Vale fans haven’t been able to go to watch their teams since March but at least that’s changing with plans to admit supporters from October.
It’s not going to be the same as generations have got used to over the years – as Stoke’s newly published plans for crowds illustrate very clearly.
But having some fans back is better than none at all I don’t envy any football club trying to come up with a way of getting limited numbers back while being fair to everybody.
In Stoke’s case that’s by refunding everyone who bought a full season ticket before sales were suspended when we went into lockdown in the spring. Instead they are offering tickets that will give entry to half the league games. That’s their way of coping with the fact the capacity is expected to be limited to between 6,000 and 9,000.
You don’t need me to tell you it’s not ideal, but at least it means some supporters can return.
We’re not going to have away supporters which is a shame because having two sets of fans at a game helps make the atmosphere. It makes sense, of course, to have as many home supporters in the ground as possible, but it’s a shame for those Stoke fans who have got used to following their club up and down the country.
You can still watch the games on a stream, but that’s not the same as being there.
I am sure there are plenty of fans who hadn’t missed a game for years before this year.
But this is the new normal. Clubs are having to deal with it the best they can – and at least we are going to see some supporters back at football.