This year, I think we can all agree, some strange stuff has happened.
There’s the obvious COVID-19-related globe-changing pandemic, but there’s also been an election in the world’s biggest democracy which hasn’t yet got an official result, the emergence of Danny Dyer as a speaker of sense and the leadership in feeding the nation’s hungry children of a Premier League footballer.
Even the Pope has made proclamations which have sounded, well, not very Catholic.
As someone once said, ‘you couldn’er make it up’.
My research has not extended to find out if bears have stopped doing their stuff in woods, but my ‘lockdown’ self has convinced my ‘normal’ self that it’s quite likely…
Thank heavens then that normality found its niche again when Stoke City faced up to former boss Tony Pulis, newly-installed as Sheffield Wednesday manager, at Hillsborough on Saturday.
Everything that happened in that game, from the type of game to the end result, to the individual instances of targeting of Stoke players and long-ball tactics was entirely predictable.
It felt like a long-lost friend had finally broken through the nightmare of 2020 to place his arms around Stokies to say ‘it’s OK, I’ve got you. Things are just the same as they ever were’.
For TP’s Owls battled, scraped, fouled, whacked and harassed their way to a hard-earned goalless draw that has been widely decried on Twitter and in the general media as the worst game of football anywhere this year.
Pulis even wore the club shop; could it have got any more stereotypical?
A (very small) part of me, though, did feel an inner warmth because of all that. The fact that you just knew what was going to happen, that it was entirely predictable, formulaic even, brought back all those memories of when we used to do just this: Clint Hill throwing himself in front of shots, Robert Huth going through the back of global superstars, Ryan Shawcross taking down opponents in a ‘professional’ way.
Indeed, there were also some other classic moments from the TP playbook on show on Saturday, my favourite being his substituting of a substitute; poor Jordan Rhodes, just like Pulis did to Tuncay at Hull all those years ago.
But it wasn’t just TP who returned to his roots. It seemed that the current crop of City players were determined to regress to fit in with the theme of the day.
James McClean, newly returned from self-isolation, smashed a free-kick into row Z (or was it ZZ) as he found his match feet again. Then for much of the game Stoke’s balls out from the back were aimed with just enough flight for Wednesday’s obelisk of a defender Julian Borner to smash through the back of the poor attacker it was aimed at, while Sam Vokes drove City’s one, late chance to rewrite the script and take the points directly at the keeper.
Of course he did. It was written in the stars. Not even 2020 could disrupt this level of inevitability.
In a rare moment of heart-fluttering anticipation in the first half, which could have changed everything, Tyrese Campbell had one of those moments when he shot directly into a challenging defender, 25 yards out, instead of playing the ball wide to an unmarked McClean.
It wasn’t to be. But somehow that was how it should be; all was right with the world.
Unlike the previous two goal-laden games, Stoke were slow in thought, movement and passing, rarely heaping pressure on a Wednesday defence which had clearly been drilled within an inch of its life by the arch-defensive-meister.
And, while bravery of the physical type was on show all over the pitch, City lost it in a footballing sense as we played safely, far too much in front of Wednesday and not enough through them to create opportunities.
It turned out, then, that we could take some sort of bizarre comfort from failing to beat our former manager yet again – that’s now 16 games against TP, 10 since his departure as Stoke manager in 2013, that we have failed to defeat him.
It was entirely, if frustratingly, yet somehow reassuringly, predictable.
In fact, the only thing that I got wrong in terms of my pre-match predictions was that it was Lee Gregory, not my selection of choice Nick Powell, who got invalided off the pitch early in the game. Not that Powell wasn’t targeted, as was young keeper Joe Bursik, but both stood up well to the inevitable barrage.
Aside from that, in the first half John Obi Mikel was impressive in midfield, while Nathan Collins caught the eye at right-back, both offensively and defensively. Like the wily old goat of a manager he is, TP soon stopped that by switching lively winger Kadeem Harris over to that wing for the second half, pressing back Stoke’s main attacking outlet.
And that was that. A game that was as forgettable as a wet weekend in Burslem.
But at the same time, it was like the comfort blanket that we have all lost this year. Like wearing your favourite jim-jams all day on a Sunday whilst watching Match of the Day, Quest and live football all day, chomping bacon and cheese oatcakes, followed by your mum’s roast with all the trimmings.
Thankfully, unlike those wonderful, heart-warming and tasty affairs, at least we only have to face TP once more this season.
Thank the lord for that.