It’s been six weeks since Stoke City fans, coaches and players cheered on the under-18s in a Premier League Cup final against Manchester City.
Little did we know it would be the last match many of us would see for who knows how long.
A meeting on the morning of Friday, March 13 postponed the following day’s trip to Reading due to the escalating coronavirus pandemic and players were sent home from Clayton Wood rather than down to Berkshire. They are yet to return.
It has been a harrowing time.
By that point Stoke legend Denis Smith had already been battling what he believes was the virus – and his old teammate Jackie Marsh is fighting in self-isolation after he tested positive following pneumonia-like symptoms.
To date, there have been almost 140,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, with 18,738 reported deaths as of April 23. Football, sport, festivals and everything else has fallen deeply into the shadows while the world tries to keep people alive.
But plans are still being discussed and made for how and when the normality everyone craves can return.
Premier League chiefs, amid increasing pressure to complete the 2019/20 season, are next meeting on Friday, May 1.
EFL clubs have held virtual meetings this week. League officials estimate that, if and when the season restarts, it will take another 56 days to finish.
There has been no official change to the league’s advice to clubs to not recall their players for training until May 16 at the earliest – and 2019/20 remains suspended indefinitely.
How long have Stoke City been away from Clayton Wood?
Players were training on March 13 for a match at Reading when the football calendar was called to a halt.
Initially the plan was to carry on training but an anticipated return the following Tuesday fell by the wayside as the situation developed and the country ultimately entered lockdown.
Players have been given individual training programmes to carry on at home. Children, wives, pets and plants have brought into routines at times.
What’s happening in other countries?
In Portugal, clubs have started to train again this week while maintaining a 10m distance between each other and not using any of the on-site facilities other than pitches.
In Germany, the top two divisions are now expected to get going again as soon as May 9 – behind closed doors and broadcast live on television, even if that still involves up to 300 people in attendance in various roles.
German Football League (DFL) president Christian Seifert said: “There have been statements and a lot of speculation when that will be. It remains crucial for us to remain politically responsible. Therefore, it is not up to us to decide on a start date. When that day X comes we’ll be ready.
“We haven’t defined a date as we can’t. It would be presumptuous of us to do so. It is not in our hands if we return or when. We have several schedule options.
“The first weekend in May is no longer realistic. If the signal comes in the next week that it can be May 9, then it will be May 9. What we have in our hands is the ability to provide those charged with making a decision with proof that we’re ready.”
What has Michael O’Neill said about plans to return?
“It has been difficult for everyone. I suppose maybe as an international manager I’m a little bit more used to going long periods without seeing players in a sense.
“Initially, we probably thought this was going to be a couple of weeks. I think we realise now that’s not going to be the case and with each measure that’s put in place by the government for good reason, it obviously restricts my life as much as it does anyone else.
“It’s a challenge but then it’s a challenge for everyone.”
He added: “I don’t think you have to worry too much about players maintaining fitness because it’s not really a holiday period for them.
“I’m sure they are actually looking forward to getting outside in their gardens and doing something … it’s probably the only time they are getting out of the house.
“It’s different from, say, an off season which is the players’ down time. Because of the nature of the situation there’s not a great deal that the players can do with their enforced down time other than keep fit.
“The sports science team are monitoring the fitness of the players and working daily with them, albeit remotely. The most contact the players have with the staff is with them because they are doing fitness work at home.
“They have a remote GPS system that allows the sports science team to log the work that they are going and making sure that they are doing the right stuff.”
What are Stoke’s remaining fixtures?
Stoke have nine games remaining, having hauled themselves up from the foot of the Championship when O’Neill took over in November to 17th as things stand thanks to a 5-1 whipping of Hull City in their most recent game.
There are away matches at Reading, Wigan Athletic, Leeds United, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest.
And home matches against Middlesbrough, Barnsley, Birmingham City and Brentford.
When will fans realistically be able to watch games again in person?
If social distancing rules are expected to be in place until at least the end of the year, what chance for crowds of 25,000 at the bet365 Stadium?
Burton Albion chairman Ben Robinson said this week: “There is a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know when the season will be concluded, if it is.
“An even bigger concern is about next season. In the meeting, Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, said that he thought the season might not start until next year when the games are played with fans attending. You can imagine the financial implications of that are considerable.
“He didn’t think crowds would be in stadiums until 2021, that was his personal view. It could take as long as that to get gate receipts flowing back into clubs.”
What’s the latest regarding the Premier League and EFL?
There’s six viable options currently:
1) Scrap it.
Declare the 2019/20 season null and void with no promotion or relegation. It’ll be a clean slate next season, much to the annoyance of the likes of Liverpool and the Championship’s top two, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion.
2) Finish the season now as it stands.
This would mean Liverpool would be handed the Premier League title.
At the other end, Norwich City, Aston Villa and Bournemouth would be relegated. Manchester City, Leicester City and Chelsea would qualify for the Champions League.
In the Championship, Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion would go up – but the issue of play-offs would be another argument.
Luton Town, Barnsley and Charlton Athletic are in the bottom three.
Coventry City and Rotherham United are in the top two in League One – and the next six teams are separated by one point.
The remaining games would be played within a tight schedule with no fans in attendance with minimal back-room staff and media.
In Germany, they estimate that up to 300 people are needed per match, including players, coaching staff, medics, referees, ground staff, safety officers and production staff for television and VAR.
4) Games in quarantine.
All fixtures would be played at neutral venues across the country, with players in lockdown at local hotels to minimise contact and avoid the spread of the virus.
5) Play abroad.
Qatar has been put forward as a viable destination to see out the current Premier League season. The region is said to be much safer with 10 reported deaths.
6) Play until the very end, whenever that may be.
Just wait for when it’s safe?
The new 2020/21 campaign is set to begin in early August, however, and pushing that back will have a knock-on effect for Euro 2020, which has already been postponed until 2021.
There are also the issues of contracts, with a June 30 cut-off point as standard.