If Stoke City do line up at Reading on Saturday, June 20, it will be a whopping 105 days since their last game.
A lot has happened in that time and fitness will have been gained, or lost, for players up and down the Championship. Clubs are also hoping to arrange warm-up friendlies to try to build and assess form, work on tactics and get back in match mode.
But, from what we know so far, how will Michael O’Neill set his team up at the Madejski Stadium?
BETWEEN THE STICKS
Jack Butland has shown real class during the lockdown, whether it was calling supporters who were in strict self-isolation or having a half-hour FaceTime chat with a 10-year-old fan who had raised money for the NHS.
He’s been trying to get Stoke-supporting key workers the hero status they deserve and, beyond that, he’s been working like a trooper in his back garden to try to stay sharp.
There is only a year left on his contract and there is always talk about what will happen next but with all this, on the back of his ambassadorial role amid tributes to Gordon Banks last year, has highlighted his value off the pitch.
On it, he would probably be one of the first names on the teamsheet for anyone in this division and, as long as he’s fit, he’ll start in goal.
Adam Federici is out of contract this summer while Adam Davies hasn’t had the game time he would have envisaged. Keep an eye on the progress of Blondy Nna Noukeu, the 18-year-old rising star who has been promoted to train with the seniors.
AT THE BACK
Tommy Smith has come back to Clayton Wood with a smile and the curliest hair since Carlos Valderrama. If most players seem to have nabbed a trim from their partner or embraced the clippers, the right-back has let it go wild.
Regular selection meant he had been finding easily his best form since his summer move from Huddersfield before the shutdown. Tom Edwards will be breathing down his neck hoping for an opening.
Bruno Martins Indi had nailed down the left-back slot. He might not be the long-term answer in that position but Stephen Ward, also out of contract at the end of the season, had been struggling with injury in 2020. Josh Tymon will have to prove he deserves another opening.
There are decisions to be made in the middle, where captain Ryan Shawcross returns and surely bags the first starting spot.
Shawcross has unwittingly been proving his fitness to the public over the past few weeks thanks to regular posts from STATSports, the company which manages players’ GPS vest monitors. Who could have predicted it would be this 32-year-old centre-half who would be challenging the likes of Daniel James and Aaron Lennon for the title of England’s fastest footballer?
Who gets the gig next to him? Danny Batth has been top of the pecking order most of the season and James Chester has been in since joining in January. There’s Liam Lindsay too, as well as star prospect Nathan Collins and emerging teen Will Forrester.
IN THE MIDDLE
Joe Allen might have picked up the worst injury in football when he tore an Achilles tendon against Hull in March – but so far he has only missed 45 minutes. The recovery has been going well, touch wood, but he will not feature again for quite a while yet.
So who will fill the third midfield role next to top scorer Sam Clucas and creative key man Nick Powell?
Contenders include the Jordans Thompson and Cousins and January signing Tashan Oakley-Boothe, who made an eye-catching cameo in the attacking third in that last game out.
There’s Lasse Sorensen as well and thanks to STATSports we’ve had an insight into just why his coaches have always raved about his approach to training. He has been spending his lockdown sprinting from dawn until dusk by the sounds of it. Under-18s captain Adam Porter has been training with the seniors too.
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O’Neill’s approach will probably be swayed by the game – and Thompson and Cousins have been his go-to men if he needs more of a shield.
James McClean has had that bit more time to return from a knee ligament injury – and running four miles every four hours for 48 hours a couple of weeks ago in honour of a tragic youth coach suggests that he, yes, he’s probably fit again.
His return gives a chance for Powell to be shifted back inside after his impressive stand-in stint out on the left.
Stoke’s attack had rarely looked as rampant in a long time than it did in the first half of their last game, against Hull, and Tom Ince will be looking to build on that – and add more goals to his game in the process.
So too Tyrese Campbell, who had bulldozed his way to the front of the queue at centre-forward. His pace, power and skill – and that instinctive finishing ability – gave defenders a 90-minute headache. And, yes, it was 90 minutes after all that talk about stamina last summer.
Lee Gregory and Sam Vokes will hope to show the value of their experience whenever there’s a sniff. Vokes has been another name cropping up on STATSports’s scoreboards – amid tongue in cheek allegations from his teammates that he’s been fastening his GPS device to his dog.