I remember the last time I was in the stands at the Madejski Stadium. It was March 3 – Reading’s FA Cup fifth round tie against Sheffield United.
I missed the first goal because the turnstiles were not working properly. In the concourse at half-time, I joked with a friend about coronavirus. I felt proud of my team for battling hard and taking a Premier League side to extra-time.
It was a special night under the lights with a packed crowd, and above all else was a very entertaining game.
But then football, and the world, shut down. When the sport returned in June, supporters were restricted to supporting from home – replaced by cardboard cut-outs and fake crowd noise. I am saddened to say that I have almost become accustomed to the image of empty stadiums when watching matches on television.
But this week there was a slice of good news as the government announced that supporters would be able to return to grounds in small numbers when England’s lockdown ends on December 2.
A maximum of 4,000 people will be allowed in stadiums in tier one, up to 2,000 people in tier two but sadly none in tier three.
The last eight months have certainly not been quiet from a Reading perspective. The Royals have gone from potential playoff challengers to being on the metaphorical beach too early, and then champions elect to now horrendously out of form.
That’s not even touching on the financial uncertainty that continues to hang over the club despite football returning.
Of course the biggest change of all was in the dugout. We have had to watch on from afar as Mark Bowen was ushered out of the door in the same undignified way he was ushered in. In came Veljko Paunovic, who proved you really can fall in love with a Serbian man you had never heard of a month previously.
It almost feels as if Paunovic is merely a figure of the imagination, seen only in pictures but never in the flesh. Forgive me if that sounds bizarre, but the fact that supporters have not been able to be in the ground to welcome Pauno to the club, to see him on the touchline or to applaud him and his team off after a game has felt a little bit odd.
The closest we have come is STAR’s excellent fans forum with Paunovic a couple of weeks ago, in which his intelligent and personable nature came across. I eagerly await the first chant in his honour.
I know the virus has not gone away.
But this is hopefully the start of a return to ‘normal’ life and as Oliver Dowden described it, “a big step forward for sport”.
It will not be the same as before – even if fans do defy the government’s order not to sing and shout. There will be facemasks, hand sanitiser and social distancing, but it will still be football. It will still be that matchday feeling, that escapism and that release. Perhaps we need that more than ever.
By Olly Allen