Football is back as Stoke City return to Championship action this weekend at Reading.
Who will be given the nod to start and will the Potters make a point or three in Berkshire?
Debating these points and more are this week’s fans’ panel of ADRIAN BUTTERS, from Stone; JON OWEN, from Seabridge; ANT BUNN, from Endon; and KEVIN BOOTH, from Waterhouses.
WHAT’S YOUR TEAM?
Adrian Butters: Butland, Smith, Shawcross, Chester, Martins Indi, Oakley-Boothe, Cousins, Clucas, McClean, Powell, Campbell.
I’m going with Oakley-Boothe on the right hand side as the potentially classy combination with Powell is an exciting prospect and outweighs the more predictable nature of Ince.
The return of McClean gives Powell the chance to return to the centre and pull the strings from there.
The slightly lightweight nature of Oakley-Boothe makes me think the extra mobility and physical presence of Cousins will be a better bet than Thompson in the holding role.
Shawcross, if fit, simply has to play and it’s Baath that misses out as I think a nine-game mini-season gives Chester the chance to form a partnership with the captain that could have been a pairing at international level some years ago.
It’s a tricky time for managers, players back from injury and the form of players in March is almost irrelevant.
Michael O’Neill has been absent from training and it’s likely he’ll go tried and tested so Ince will probably start.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the Reading line-up, if only to see how my lockdown has compared with Charlie Adam’s!
Jon Owen: Butland, Smith, Chester, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Thompson, Clucas, Powell, Ince, McClean, Campbell.
Ant Bunn: I suppose after three months without a game it depends on individual levels of fitness and sharpness, with the big question being who replaces Joe Allen in the centre of midfield?
With Butland being a shoo-in in goal, the back four I think we’ll go for is Smith and Martins-Indi in the full-back positions, with Ryan and Danny Batth in the middle, unless he thinks that Chester is a better option. For me, Ryan is first name down whenever he is fit.
It’ll be interesting to see the formation and selections in midfield, as James McClean – like Ryan Shawcross – is coming back from injury.
But when you look at the fitness stuff he posts on social media then I wouldn’t be doubting his cardio ability at all! But a lot of his work will have been recuperation since his injury.
I think O’Neill will go for a midfield of Clucas and Thompson in the middle, Ince right, and McClean on the left – with Powell playing in a floating role behind Vokes.
I’d play Campbell, but think the manager will bring him on for the last 30 minutes, when legs are tired.
Kevin Booth: Make no mistake, Achilles victim Joe Allen will be one heck of a miss.
For me, he is the engine that drives Stoke’s midfield and – in a game where fitness levels will be sorely tested after such an extended lay-off – there’s no doubt his incredible stamina and all-action style would have been a big advantage.
But we’ve been aware of Allen’s absence since our last game way back in March.
The real selection poser facing Michael O’Neill is whether to recall two players who have been sidelined through injury but, according to vibes coming out of Clayton Wood, should both be ready to slot straight back into the starting eleven if given the nod.
Assuming he is over the niggles that have decimated his season, I’d reinstate Ryan Shawcross at the heart of the defence. I’d toss him the captain’s armband, too.
His leadership and physical presence could be vital in the run-in and, should he start, I just hope the 32-year-old’s limbs and joints hold out.
If they do, the skipper could still have an integral role to play over the final nine games.
The other returnee would be James McClean. Like Shawcross, McClean is the wrong side of 30, but seems one of those natural athletes who, had he not made it in the game, would most likely have gone on to have a career elsewhere in professional sport.
He’s been among Stoke’s better performers this season and would be a cert for most regular onlookers at the bet365.
Villa loanee James Chester could probably consider himself unlucky not to get a shirt. Chester has done little wrong since making the short trip up the M6 and will still feature before this most surreal of seasons finally runs its course.
All that means another midfield starting role for Jordan Thompson, who I have preferred over the other Jordan, Jordan Cousins.
I’d ask Thompson to sit deep – a role some might argue is Cousins’ best position – but the former Blackpool player gets the vote because of his greater passing repertoire and set-piece skills.
This will free up top scorer Sam Clucas to push forward and link-up with Nick Powell, tucked in behind Tyrese Campbell.
My team: Butland, Smith, Shawcross, Batth, BMI, Ince, Clucas, Thompson, McClean, Powell, Campbell.
WHAT’S YOUR PREDICTION?
Adrian Butters: Very difficult to know because our August performances in prior years have been ordinary to say the least and this feels like a season starter with players returning from injury.
I have a feeling O’Neill will be happy not to lose and keep a gap between us and the bottom three. Both sides were in decent form before lockdown so all things considered I’m going for a 1-1 draw.
Jon Owen: I’d be happy with a point from this, seeing as we usually start slowly. 1-1, with Tyrese Campbell scoring a late second-half equaliser.
Ant Bunn: Not a clue, indeed who can have a clue? Cagey opening, first goal vital… the game against Reading at home was a poor one, and I can see this being a drab, one. I’ll go 1-1, with Powell scoring.
Kevin Booth: 1-1. It’s incredibly hard to forecast this one, given the length of football’s enforced lay-off and, once the players were back at work, the disruption to normal training routines due to social distancing measures.
Reading were defensively solid when they bored us to death with a goalless draw at Stoke and, with both sides likely to be ring rusty, I can’t see more than a couple of goals in the game.
ANY OTHER BUSINESS?
Adrian Butters: The streaming option with partial refund of season tickets is another way the club continues to look after its fan base.
In a very uncertain period where the economic picture looks very bleak, it could be some time before we see a full bet365 and even in this knowledge the Coates family have stood tall.
It would have been very easy to look after their own interests, especially if they thought those they were helping may not be able to afford tickets again for a while.
We are lucky to have such a stable club and listening to other clubs and their desperation to retain their status in Premmier League and other divisions, I fear there are more Burys on the horizon.
Finally, summer football post lockdown is a strange concept and some may see it as a trial for the future.
Having watched the soulless affairs at Villa Park and the Etihad it’s difficult to get too excited by empty stadiums, though David Luiz did his best to keep us entertained and the game in Manchester was probably the better for some winter weather.
Football is a game made for the winter season and drinks breaks, light nights and hot (perhaps) weather take something away.
August to May is fine, not least to protect cricket!
Jon Owen: It feels so strange to be talking about a Stoke game again after the three-month suspension.
Even though the importance of football has really been put into perspective this last few months, I think overall I’m glad it’s back, despite not missing the worry of how we’re doing!
It’s a nine-game mini-season now, and we need to get to that 50-point mark as quickly as we can. We were doing well when the season ground to a halt and I just hope there’s still some momentum there.
We traditionally start slowly, so it’d be nice to get a couple of wins early on to give us some breathing space.
While we aren’t going to be there in person at the games this next month or so, the players can still do us proud. Go on Stoke.
Ant Bunn: It’s been a dreadful three months for everyone, and I know there’s a need for people getting a pick-me-up, but I don’t agree with the season restarting.
And I certainly don’t agree with some leagues starting and others not. I would say the same if we were top.
I can’t get my head around it starting back up, and although I’ll be tuning in, I think it will be surreal and just not the game we love.
As one of the DUCK magazine editors, it’s also been a surreal situation for us: no matches to sell at, no print magazines for sale – but our wonderful readers raised £6,500 for two amazing local charities. Indeed, this period has shown people at their very best.
Adversity often brings out the best of people in this area, and it’s been amazing to see how both local professional clubs have gone above and beyond during the pandemic within the local community.
Football isn’t about the match for me, that’s just a part of the sport. Football is about people, community and hope.
It’s been fantastic to see owners, players and supporters doing so much to help those who have needed help.
Vis unita fortior.
Kevin Booth: Yet again I find myself doffing my cap to the Coates family for the way they have conducted themselves – and Stoke’s affairs – during the COVID-19 lockdown.
To keep staff on the payroll long after other clubs had jettisoned their’s speaks of a caring culture sadly lacking in many aspects of today’s game. Add to that the very fair, even-handed manner in which they have dealt with refunds to season ticket holders missing out on the last four home games, and I think you begin to appreciate the owners’ compassion and loyalty towards the people of this area. Long may it continue.
Finally, I hope Michael O’Neill is well enough to take his place on the touchline at Reading today.
The manager has worked wonders during his short time at the club – at one point even juggling the role with international managerial duties – and I wish him a speedy return to duty.