The first three pre-season games have been played and our squad at Stoke City is beginning to take shape.
The new league season is but two-and-a-bit weeks away and this Saturday we play our first competitive game of the campaign when we take on Blackpool at the bet365 Stadium. The closer this new season gets the greater the realisation that we, the fans, are not going to be there to witness it. It’s a sobering thought.
Sure, we missed the end of last season. The lockdown came and we all understood that a sacrifice had to be made. It wasn’t easy to miss those last nine league games but there was almost a novelty value to it and we accept it, especially given that every match was made available to supporters, via TV and official club streams.
As we await the start of the 20/21 campaign though we don’t know how long it will be before we will get to set foot inside a stadium again, either our own or anybody else’s.
We hear talk of a hoped-for October possibility but with cities across the UK either going back into lockdown or at least being faced with that very real prospect, the truth is that we have no idea. Less people seem to be dying of Covid-19 these days but experts warn about second waves and the need to remain vigilant and none of us truly knows what to think.
And that’s the hard part; the not really knowing what’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen. When will we be able to go back and under what circumstances?
Will family or social bubbles have to stick together and will spaces need to be left between different sets of fans? How on earth would you be able to implement a ‘track and trace’ system for five, 10 or 20 thousand fans inside a stadium?
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Unless a blanket decision is made to allow fans back into sporting arenas any time soon then it’s hard to imagine how football is going to implement a return for supporters. If it’s a phased return then who gets priority and how are they informed? Who makes the decisions and how will it be decided?
It’s often not until you lose something that you truly appreciate what it is that you’ve lost.
The longer we are forced to stay away from the games the more we all realise what we’re missing. For me at least the football has never just been about the result on the pitch. In fact, in some write-off seasons it’s barely been that at all!
Of course, overall, it’s the most important thing but the social side of the day, whether it be a home game or an away game has always been important. In fact, as I get older it has become more and more important to me.
Saturdays and Stoke games are when I meet up with friends. It’s the chance for a chin-wag after a week at work, a chance to catch up on all the news, to let everyone else know how we’d easily sort out the problems on the pitch and which team the manager should pick for that day’s game.
For those of us who travel to the away games it’s a time to trek once more up and down the country; an opportunity to return to favourite pubs at destinations we’re well familiar with and a chance to discover new establishments on fresh stomping grounds.
I love the home games and the chance to meet up with friends as we enact our matchday routines. Those routines have changed down the years, through childhood, to adolescence, adulthood and then to the old man I’m becoming now and, of course, due to the move from the Boothen Road to Trentham Lakes.
At their core though these routines have all been about the same thing; an opportunity to spend time with family and friends and the chance to cheer on The Potters. A time to lose yourself for a couple of hours, to forget about whatever else may be happening in your life, and to invest yourself totally in those red and white striped heroes out on the pitch.
There are times when I’ve despaired angrily at the way the team has performed, others when I’ve silently vowed not to return for the next game as I leave the ground and wonder why I pay to put myself through such agony.
But there have been other times, far more numerous and infinitely more memorable, when I have been overcome with joy and emotion and lost in the love I have for Stoke City. There are occasions when I have left both The Vic and The Brit walking on air and as happy as it’s possible to be.
I think only my children have ever made me feel so alive and happy to be alive as Stoke City have down the years.
No matter how well the club and the TV companies cover the games in this time of national and international crisis, you simply can’t compensate for what we lose when we watch the game behind a PC, tablet, phone or TV screen.
The results still matter, and you still feel the sting of defeat and the overwhelming emotion of victory, but nothing can compare with being there and with sharing those experiences with your friends, family and loved ones.
I pine for a return to that time and it pains me to not know when it might be.
For now then all we can do is get on with preparing ourselves for whatever the new season will be and to hope that the new campaign delivers what we all hope it will.
Our first three pre-season games – 1-0 v Linfield, 0-1 v Burton and 5-1 v Shrewsbury – have been something of a mixed bag and there’s been something there for everyone, from the eternal pessimists to the raging optimists. Read into them what you will.
I suppose we’ll get a slightly better idea of what we’re all about when we take on Blackpool in the Carabao Cup on Saturday but we’re not going to be there and that hurts.
All we can do is hope that the team starts to show what it’s all about and that the game moves us one step closer to a time when we’re allowed back into the games to cheer on our team in person!