This weekend has brought up half a century of Stoke City games in the 12 months since Stoke supporters were last allowed in to watch.
It has, hopefully, been a unique year of rattling seats and live streams, showers in concourses, changing in portable cabins and trying to make the most of a terrible situation.
Michael O’Neill had won seven and drawn two of his first 11 home matches in charge of Stoke, having taken over a side four months previously which had won just one in 13 at the bet365.
A 5-1 whipping of Hull City in front of a crowd of 23,126 on March 7 had seemed like a big step towards steering clear of relegation, leaping up to 17th with nine games to play, even if they were still just three points off the bottom three.
Finishing that job and starting the next chapter – the big task of building a team to challenge for promotion at the same time as dismantling a squad that had got the club into that mess in the first place – has been played out behind closed doors.
There are hypothetical questions about how it has affected results and a consensus that there will be a huge sigh of relief and big smiles all around when the stands are full.
O’Neill said: “I look at the games and I look at where we’ve been as a team and if you look at us as a team, we’ve been extremely good in the first half, arguably as good as any team in in the league. Possibly, supporters would have helped us greatly in the latter stages of games.
“When the stadium is full and noisy it’s a big, big help to us and it’s an intimidation to the opposition as well.
“We’ve certainly missed playing in front of our own fans and we typically have a great away support as well.
“I look back to the early days and the support we had on my first day at Barnsley, for example, at Huddersfield on New Year’s Day and it was incredible support. We miss that and the sooner we get back to fans in stadiums, it will be a real boost to everyone.
“It will have a feel of normality about it. It still feels a little bit hollow at times.
“It doesn’t affect your determination to win games but it can give you that extra edge.”
‘They’ll never admit it but they love adulation’
The past year has seen one run to a cup quarter-final, one home game which wrecked Brentford’s promotion surge, one away match which blew up Nottingham Forest’s play-off status, one game which almost disappeared in the fog.
There have been refereeing horror shows and injuries and all the unscriptable dreams and nightmares that football can deliver even in the thick of mid-table.
There have also been 11 debuts – 10 first appearances and a league debut for Harry Souttar – and moments that can sometimes be underappreciated, like the explosion of noise from fans in the final few minutes to get a result over the line or the welcome that should have been awaiting Joe Bursik as he ran towards the Boothen End as a 20-year-old recalled from loan in a goalkeeper emergency.
There was the poignant silence – even in an empty stadium – before the visit of Bournemouth in January while a big screen tribute played to the former players, coaches and supporters who had died in the previous year, including those who have gone much too soon.
“Even last week Ryan Shawcross leaving the club after 13 years and no supporters there,” added O’Neill.
“Football without supporters is nothing. I think Jock Stein said that and it’s true. It doesn’t have the same emotion in the stadium, it doesn’t have the same feeling about it.
“As a coach you still come away every bit as disappointed if you don’t get the result, it certainly doesn’t change the emotion for me as a coach and a manager, but there’s nothing better than winning your game at home and having a home support and coming off the pitch and there’s a relationship building between the team and the fans.
“That helps players, it builds confidence… There’s nothing better as a player than running out knowing your fans are keen to see you play, that they are singing your name. All of those things are why players play the game. They’ll never admit it but they love adulation, that’s the truth of the matter.
“I didn’t realise it’s a full year, it’s been very challenging from that perspective – but equally we know how much and how difficult it’s been for fans not to be able to come to the games.”
The new match day routine for supporters
Thousands of those fans have been trying to follow however they can.
All matches have been available to watch either online or on television but it has been weird.
Paul Ruane and his wife Carolyn, from Trentham, hadn’t just been going to every first team fixture for years but every under-23s and under-18s game too that didn’t clash.
He said: “The current match day routine on a Saturday is to go shopping, do some chores around the house, try to follow the under-18s game from whichever source I can find, bacon and cheese oatcakes for dinner, try to remember to check the team news, prepare food for tea and try to get mildly enthusiastic just before kick-off. We try not to fall asleep watching the game on the stream, shrug our shoulders and then make tea.
“For an evening game, it’s shrugging shoulders, catching up with what’s going on in the real world and then bed.
“It’s all a bit of a non-event. The sooner we can get back to some kind of normality the better.”
It’s not just the action, whether it’s dramatic or not.
“I am really missing seeing friends before and after games,” he said. “I’m really missing the banter on coach two – and Ann’s cake. I’m really missing seeing the under-23s, 18s and 16s games and catching up with players, parents, coaching staff, kit men and stewards.
“I’m still buying programmes for all first team games. They’re probably better as they’re smaller, easier to store and sometimes cheaper than the ones prior to lockdown.
“Will I just pick it up where I left off when fans return? I hope so. It remains to be seen whether the experience will ever be the same again.”
Ant Bunn might be forgiven if he didn’t always miss standing in the wind and rain outside the stadium selling copies of Duck magazine.
But he said: “Like many folk, my match day routine was like clockwork. My lad had training at 9am every Saturday morning so it was take him there, go get some oatcakes with the other football mums and dads, get home, grab some food and then head down to the ground early to sell Duck. “The next two hours would fly by, with chats aplenty with regulars or away fans. The game was so often the time to have a rest and maybe get a bit of sleep in!
“I’m missing those chats. They were nearly always the best part. I could set my watch to when many regulars would get to the game. Football is about people.”
There was the best part of three months during the first national lockdown last spring when there was no football at all, even if it’s been pretty non-stop since coming back in June.
“I really enjoyed the end of the season, especially Forest away but looking back it’s all just so plastic, isn’t it?” said Ant.
“Watching on my lad’s iPad, we just don’t get into it as much. Yeah, we celebrate, we go mad, we scream at mistakes but it’s nothing like the real thing. You know that cheapo supermarket cola that is 19p a litre? That’s what watching Stoke for the last 12 months has been really.
“I also spend most of the game on Twitter too – a sign of both how we’ve been playing, and how you need social interaction when watching football.”
He added: “There have been things I’ve enjoyed. Rotherham’s commentators were brilliant, and it was great to have a Twitter chat to them even while the game was going on. They even said happy birthday to my daughter.
“It’s been great to see the younger players doing so well – my lad loves seeing academy players coming through.”
What happens next?
The changing world has forced changes too and the way Duck of 2020 and 2021 is produced is a long way away from the photocopied and stapled fanzines that were treasured for so long.
“We’ve loved doing digital-only magazines,” said Ant. “We started by sending more than 30,000 free back issues during the first lockdown to keep folk occupied and get them reading.
“Then through the year we’ve made almost £9,000 for local charities from two special issues. That was great. To hand over some money to those who deserve it most was the best thing we’ve ever done as a magazine.
“We obviously have had no games to sell at for a year, so if we’d carried on producing a printed magazine we wouldn’t have lasted more than two months or so. Luckily, we have had great support from Stokies and so continue to bring one out every month.”
The big question remains about what happens next.
Up to 10,000 fans will be allowed back in stadiums in England from May 17 and current Government plans hope that all restrictions on numbers will be lifted on June 21.
An innovative workaround solution for a much-reduced capacity had to be put on hold for 2020/21 but next season, touch wood and with crossed fingers, the hope and expectation is that turnstiles will finally open.
For many it might not, however, just be a case of picking up where they left off.
“I’m not sure to be honest,” said Ant. “There are far more important things in life than a football magazine, and we’ll see what happens over the next few months. I’ll be really honest, the thing I’m looking forward to the most, football-wise, is watching my youngest lad play again. But I’m desperate for fans of all clubs to get back that match day feeling again.”
The idea of that long-awaited ‘mental’ for a Stoke goal
Stoke’s last goal in front of their own fans was Nick Powell making it 5-1 late on against Hull in one of their most comfortable wins in a long time.
But it was a season which had its share of proper celebrations.
There was Scott Hogan’s last minute winner at Swansea, Sam Vokes’s injury time winner against Sheffield Wednesday, Tyrese Campbell’s winner at West Brom, the whole day at Barnsley.
Jamie Leese, a season ticket holder since 2006 from Warrington, said: “It’s been good to be able to watch the away games so easily but it’s still not anywhere near the same as going and never will be. The whole experience just feels more mundane. But that’s good and bad. I’m not half as stressed as when I actually go to a game. I kick every ball, shout, gesticulate, get stressed, get angry, sing and cheer at the game but at home that’s almost taken away.
“There are still moments where someone will miss a sitter or the ref will make a mistake but watching on the telly takes that feeling of reality away almost.
“It doesn’t feel like you can make a difference and it’s just a whole more relaxed affair. Which has some good sides but I can’t wait to get back into the ground and sing and shout at the top of my voice.
“And just the thought of having a ‘mental’ again and hugging people you’ve never met over a shared feeling of joy is something that I hope can happen again soon. Pure unbridled joy essentially at a bloke kicking a bag of wind into a net, it can’t be beaten.
“I can’t wait to go to a game again even knowing that the first time it will happen there will almost certainly be restrictions and hugging of strangers after a 90th minute winner will be strictly forbidden. Just to be there, to see the pitch as you exit the concourse, to say hello to the people you share so much with, it’s priceless.”
Stoke’s role outside of football
The first lockdown might seem a long time ago and furlough wasn’t a household word let alone a policy when bet365 and the Coates family committed to looking after employees through the first few months of the pandemic.
The stadium car park was turned into a testing centre and players and staff volunteered to do what they could while they couldn’t play.
The fans’ council and Community Trust have been trying to come up with ways to foster engagement. On Tuesday Tyrese Campbell and Nathan Collins will hold an online Q&A with fans while similar events are planned for over the next few weeks.
Jamie said: “It was lovely to see the club ringing up our older supporters to make sure they were getting on again. That must have been lovely for them to hear from the club and to know they care. The club is a massive part of the community and I think alongside the Vale we can all be proud of what both clubs have achieved so far during the pandemic.
“I do think getting people to go back to the games once we can could be an issue and hasn’t been helped by a general lack of engagement.
“Most of us have got to grips with the wonders of Zoom and there has definitely been scope for meet the manager or player events. I also think the match day offering could be so much better. I noticed Doncaster do a pre match build up to the game and a few other clubs do this too. I think it would just allow the fans to feel a little bit closer to the game.”
That Rotherham commentary team
One of the most unexpected hits of the past year has been a trio of Rotherham supporters.
Former Rotherham player and coach John Breckin joined long-serving reporter Les Payne and club commentator Matt Goodwin to provide the audio feed for Stoke’s match stream at the New York Stadium back in January.
They were called upon in pretty exceptional circumstances, with the BBC preventing local radio presenters from travelling outside their region to cover their team’s matches.
Stoke supporters who were braced for a one-sided appraisal were instead left scrambling to get in touch with the men behind the mics and Rotherham to thank them for their entertainment.
Boothen Ender Adam Boulton, from Stafford, said: “I’m enjoying the different coverage of each match and the perfect example was the Rotherham match and the commentary was one of the best I’ve heard in a very long while.
“Some teams have their own channels for coverage and I really wish Stoke would do the same because I think it would attract more people to watch it.”