Stoke City are closing in fast on a long-delayed trip to Reading and being able to finally finish the 2019/20 season.
The Championship has been in hiatus since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic and the final nine games will now be played out behind closed doors, with players tested twice a week and still being made to follow strict safety measures.
The return date has been pencilled in for June 20 and, although fixtures are yet to be finalised and TV schedules, stadia and travel arrangements assessed and confirmed, clubs have a rough idea of how everything will work.
Michael O’Neill welcomed his squad back for training in small groups last week and squads are hoping to enter the third and final phase of the protocol next week, allowing full training albeit with restrictions, and 11 v 11 games.
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The fixtures will be played out in the order they were originally intended – over just 32 frantic days with plenty to decide at both ends of the Championship table. It is expected that teams will play on Saturdays and in mid-week, with kick-off times to be confirmed.
Here are the key dates for your diary as everything unfolds.
Dates do, however, remain provisional and subject to all safety requirements and Government guidance being met, as well as clubs receiving clearance from their local Safety Advisory Groups to stage matches at their home grounds.
Tuesday, June 9: EFL meeting to vote on regulation changes – how to resolve seasons if play is curtailed. Government guidelines suggest competitions should only re-start if there is a contingency plan in place to decide matters in case of curtailment.
Saturday, June 20: Championship season starts.
Wednesday, July 1: First mid-week match.
Wednesday, July 22: Season completed.
Late July: Championship play-offs.
Early August: Play-off final.
Such a timetable at the height of summer – yes, even at Stoke – will mean managers will have to rotate selection.
Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross said: “Luckily we’ve got a big squad because there are a number of games and I’m sure we’ll have to rotate a lot. I don’t think it will be possible for players to play every single game. There’ll be nine games in five or six weeks.
“We’re in a fortunate position that we’ve got a big squad with good players and hopefully we can use it to our advantage.”
Stoke City remaining fixtures
Reading v Stoke City
Stoke City v Middlesbrough
Wigan Athletic v Stoke City
Stoke City v Barnsley
Leeds United v Stoke City
Stoke City v Birmingham City
Bristol City v Stoke City
Stoke City v Brentford
Nottingham Forest v Stoke City
Will matches be shown on TV?
Stoke games will all be broadcast or streamed live but Championship clubs are waiting on a confirmed fixture list and for Sky Sports have its pick before they can finalise details.
Most clubs are expected to offer deals to season ticket holders to use the iFollow service for home and away matches.
Stoke City fans’ council chairwoman Angela Smith said: “We’re acutely aware that not all supporters have access to good internet and stream possibilities.
“The council will talk to the club about how best to access streams because everyone will want to follow the team how they can. We will continue to try to get the best deal for fans.”
EFL chairman Rick Parry said: “Plans are continuing to be worked up for all games to be broadcast either via our broadcast partners, iFollow or equivalent club streaming services. We will update you on this once we know when matches will recommence.”
Will Stoke have cardboard cut outs in the stands?
It’s not been ruled out, even if it’s probably unlikely.
Would you pay £20 to have a lifesize cardboard cut out at Stoke City for behind closed doors games?
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Will Stoke have warm-up games?
Stoke have to get the green light to move to the third and final phase of the training protocol before they can arrange friendlies, even if the opposition would have to be within a 90-mile radius, players will have to make the journey in their own cars, possibly in kit, and members of coaching staff will have to referee.
It had been hoped to have a game lined up against West Bromwich Albion next week.