“Barring any last minute set-backs, it seems as though the 2019/20 Championship season is set to recommence on 20th June and that there will be a completion to the campaign.
This mean The Potters have got to hit the ground running when they take on Reading then and also have to be firing on all cylinders for the other eight games too.
The current lockdown may have seen many of us losing some focus and sense of direction, but the reality is that a very unpleasant outcome, and a journey in a very serious direction, could await any Premier League or Championship club which comes sleepwalking into these final few games of the season.
Some club are going to be ready for the restart and some aren’t going to be as well prepared. The same goes for the players. Just like a start to any season, some are going to come racing out of the blocks and others are going to struggle to find their feet.
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For Stoke City that means making sure we get a minimum of 10 points to guard against the possibility of a disastrous relegation.
Come the end of the regular season on 22nd July it may be that 10 points is more than enough, or that we’ll need a couple more. In the meantime, it’s a good target to set our sights on and to give us all the focus and purpose we need.
On the face of it three wins doesn’t seem to tall an order. There should be at least six to eight points for us in our four home games against Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Birmingham and Brentford.
And away games against Reading, Wigan, Leeds, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest offers the promise of another half-a-dozen points IF we hit the ground running and can pick up where we left off.
The question now is what team are we going to be fielding? Joe Allen won’t be available to us unfortunately, but beyond that we seem to have most if not all of our other players available.
That should mean we have Jack Butland in goal and can choose a defence from the likes of Danny Baath, Ryan Shawcross, James Chester, Bruno Martins Indi, Tommy Smith and Tom Edwards.
From that bunch you’d imagine that the four who finished the last game against Hull – Smith, Baath, Chester, Martins Indi – would be the manager’s preferred choice, though he could be mightily tempted to bring in Ryan Shawcross, with all of his experience and leadership qualities.
Our manager might have to scratch his head a bit more with midfield, as he ponders how to fill the gap created by the absence of Joe Allen.
You’d imagine that Sam Clucas, Nick Powell and James McClean (with the weather hopefully a little too warm for him to need his balaclava) will be absolute shoo-ins, and Tom Ince probably will be too.
Assuming that O’Neill does go with just one up front, that leaves the likes of Jordan Cousins, Jordan Thompson and Tashan Oakley-Boothe to fight for the remaining spot.
And if we are going to go with just the one striker then it’s hard not to see the manager going for the pace and young enthusiasm of Tyrese Campbell.
He’s certainly done more than enough under O’Neill to deserve to lead the line when hostilities resume in less than two weeks.
Given the squad we have available to us, those players who are out on loan and the form of the team prior to the interruption, the side comes pretty close to picking itself and so any of us could have come to the same conclusions I have.
The only variables are possibly going to be those players who just don’t look ready after the lockdown and if the manager decides to approach things differently in his pursuit of guiding Stoke to safety.
All things being equal, though, it seems that we can take a pretty good guess at how we’ll line up at the Madejski Stadium.
We’re certainly going to be entering unchartered waters, aren’t we? I’ve been at some pre-season warm-up games and the occasional behind-closed-doors friendly when there’s been little or no crowd inside the grounds, but this is going to be completely different.
This is going to be an almost completely deserted stadium, with voices echoing around the empty seats, yet with priceless points to be played for and huge stakes up for grabs.
All we can do is settle down in front of a screen, absorb the surreal experience, accept that it’s real, it counts and hope that our team can get the job done.
The decision to make all games freely available to watch to season-ticket holders, via the club’s official page, is to be welcomed and for those who are not season-ticket holders then, if I’ve understood the situation correctly, that any of our matches can be viewed for £10.
It would have been nice if all the games had been free for everybody, but a tenner is still a lot less than most supporters would have to spend to go down and watch the game (especially if you’re several members of the same family) so, in that respect, it still represents fair value for fans as far as I’m concerned.
My only worry now is that my TV can make it through these final nine games unscathed. On the precious few occasions in which I’ve not been able to attend a game, and have instead watched either on TV or via a live stream, I have been known for throwing both abuse and objects at the screen.
My cats sensibly retreat upstairs for the duration and the wife knows not to utter the words “don’t be silly, it’s only a game”.
In fact, she usually goes upstairs with the cats.
The kind of self-restraint I am able to exercise (with an occasional lapse, usually reserved for match officials) in person at the match, out of consideration for the people who have to sit around me, goes out of the window and all of my anger, frustration, joy and emotion is unleashed when I’m watching from my living room!
Whether that sort of raw energy and passion will display itself in the final nine games of the season will depend very much on how The Potters perform.
If we slip straight into gear and quickly continue to move away from the foot of the table, then I’ll be fine and it’ll be feet up and smiles.
But if we make the sort of start we did in the past two campaigns, under Gary Rowett and Nathan Jones, the missus and the cats will be taking shelter upstairs and the ‘Widescreen’ or PC may need some kind of protective screen to get them through the experience.
Here’s to 20th June when we get to find out. “