There was a time when ‘social distancing’ meant the gap in behind Stoke City’s left-back, the only daily press conference Stokies cared about was Michael O’Neill’s and the only reference to Durham we gave a fig about was responding to the inevitable bashing we received at the hands of Talksport’s DriveTime host Adrian.
But now football is back and it appears the ‘new normal’ includes hardman, tattooed winger Jimmy Mac wearing an Alice band, while we all watch at home on live streaming or follow incidents via an internet text update service.
Weird as it was, there was something strangely comforting about watching Stoke play, albeit with cut-out home fans in the stands. And even seeing the team fall behind to a goal created in our left-back position made you think ‘yep, we’re back…’.
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Terrible, but reassuringly familiar.
Mind you, when the team was announced for the first time in 105 days at 2pm on Saturday it was something of a surprise to find that the ‘new normal’ also included a retrospective feel as O’Neill named four centre-halves in the back four.
Not only that, far more sadly, Ryan Shawcross managed to pick up an injury meaning his first appearance in 2020 was curtailed to just 45 minutes. It was incredibly sad to see, but also an all too familiar sight.
I was really hoping that Shawcross could play a significant part in a successful fight against relegation in these last nine games, but it may be the last we see of him until the start of next season, whenever that is.
As for that defensive selection, it’s fair to say it took all of us aback.
Now, I’m all for teenage star Nathan Collins playing in the first team, but at centre-half, not right-back please. It was odd that the manager referenced needing height at full-back to compensate for selecting James Chester at centre-half. Why not just pick Collins at centre-half and an actual full-back at right-back?
We looked so much better when Tommy Smith came on later in the game.
Over on the other flank, the limitations of that centre-half at full-back policy were being cruelly exposed as Bruno Martins Indi suffered a very trying first 45 minutes.
Reading’s goal came from his fluff and then so did at least two other great chances for the Royals to score a clinching second when they probably deserved it.
Thankfully, both opportunities went begging and the second half was much more even. Both sides hit the woodwork before the late drama that saw Stoke equalise unfolded.
That it was young midfielder Lasse Sorenson’s corner which found not one, but two unmarked Stoke players at the back post will give the young Dane a huge confidence boost. As will being allowed to play the full 90 minutes.
That he was in the running for Man of the Match will also help.
But it was the man of the pre-lockdown moment, Nick Powell, who nodded the ball home. Even though he had been extremely quiet and profligate when he did have the ball during most of the game, Powell was in the right place to take advantage and nick a point when really we probably didn’t deserve one.
That’s two headed goals in consecutive games from Powell now. Who knew he had that string to his bow?
So, we’ll take that point and move forward to three vital games. Results on Saturday meant City are only two points above the drop zone, so games against Middlesbrough, Wigan and Barnsley are crucial six-pointers.
In normal times we would be right up for these games, packing the stands and giving our vocal support to the team to ensure they come through.
Now all we can do is contribute the odd video to the Stoke City media department and show our support via Twitter. It’s frustrating and slightly dislocating.
And not at all ‘normal’.
But the teams who adapt best to this oddest of situations will prevail and to a degree that will include how we can make the players and manager feel our support by all these rather less direct methods.
So, find a way to show your backing, be it sticking your scarf in your window, making a video or calling in to Praise and Grumble to motivate the lads.
Anything you can do to help might just get us another injury time equaliser… and possibly even persuade the manager to go back to selecting players in their actual positions!