For the first time in nine months, fans were... blah blah blah. “Yeah, we know Ben! 2,000 supporters were let back in under the government’s Tier 2 ruling and guidelines!” I can hear you shout at your smartphones (or literary-based tablets if you are old). “But what was it like?” Well, I shall tell you after this dramatic pause...
Surprisingly, it’s incredibly difficult to write this. On one hand, I could go into the tiniest of detail about the set-up, the match-day experience and the overall way the game was conducted. On the other, that would be proper boring to read. Likewise, I could go on forever about how accomplished, skillful and confident the performance was, but far more analytical writers will do that for you.
I arrived at the stadium at 10.30, having spent 45 minutes in the car travelling from Upper Tilehurst to South Reading (bloody M4 was shut wasn’t it?). Why 10.30? Well, I don’t want to go on about it, but I had a number of media commitments to fulfill, with TalkSport and Sky Sports respectively. Again, I don’t want to talk about it really, but I was also on BBC Berkshire on Friday morning.
By the time Jonathan Oakes (of Sky Sports) turned up to interview me, I was word-weary to say the least. I also had to wait patiently for the kit man to move his white van, which was in full view of the shot of the camera. After I’d finished speaking, I walked away from the shot. “Why did you walk off at the end?” Jon asked. “Because I’d finished speaking, Jonathan,” I said. We had a laugh about it but you could see he was fuming. TalkSport was also fine. But, as I say, I don’t want to go on about.
Media shizzle done, I headed back to the warmth of my car for 30 mins or so, exiting my vehicle just before 11.30. It’s hilarious watching people park in a car park without a steward guiding them and trying to utilise the space they have. I honestly wish I’d recorded it for the lols. I had a little wander around the fairly barren stadium, saw the Forest players get off the coach like they were a good team (they aren’t and they deserve to be relegated - their only saving grace is Chris Hughton, a man I have the utmost respect for) and made my way down to Costa on the industrial estate. Cappuccino and sausage bap ordered, I made my way back to the car to eat in warmth/privacy.
Then, it was show time. I made my way to gate eight of the East Stand, giving my usual gate a glance and a knowing nod on the way past. I wasn’t in the Dolan, but it didn’t matter. I was going home anyway: home to a place that has been a very important part of my life for over 20 years. I looked across at the catering (which I didn’t and won’t use until Blue Collar are reinstated) and it just looked like half-baked nonsense. How I would have paid triple dollar for a flat white from my good friends at Anonymous Coffee at that point. Plenty of hats, fleeces and winter boots were on show, confirming to me that the average age of today’s crowd was probably 63. And Sim thinks Royalty Points are outdated! Pah! But yeah, I agree with him...
Going through the turnstiles with a proper paper ticket was weird and not seeing any real congregation on the concourses was also slightly alien. Plenty of hand sanitiser, directional arrows and luminously jacketed stewards were on hand to keep the replica-clad lunatics at bay and socially distanced.
And then it hit me: the moment I had been waiting for for what felt like nine years as opposed to nine months as I walked through the concourse and into the light of the winter sun, cascading down like a waterfall of dreams onto a pitch of expectation, hope and drama. The Berkshire Arena. The South Reading Stadium. The Mad Stad. Home. All the colours merged into one as I wiped a single tear from my eye, readjusted my face mask and cast my eyes towards my seat which would transport me back to a place I’d not been for three quarters of a year. Would we win? Who cared?! What mattered was that this team was once again live and in the flesh and that the bond between fan and player and referee and steward and then fan again was up and running once more.
All I will say about the game is that we were excellent and committed and that for once, every single player in our team can pass the ball. At half time, I needed to give my legs a stretch so wandered outside. The queuing for the “food” was pretty haphazard. A condescending chap came over the tannoy to thank everyone for wearing a mask. I overheard one fan complain. I felt like pulling him aside, getting in his face (from two metres) and saying “listen mate, Kane wore a mask in the 2001 Royal Rumble for 60 minutes and physically eliminated 11 (if I remember) other wrestlers. The least you could do is have some respect and stop complaining, yeah?”.
The second half went off without a hitch. We were superb, really superb and it could have been more than two. The icing on the cake was that it sent us top once again, but that was a side note. My overwhelming feeling was one of pride, positivity, hopefulness, connection and pleasure. If I had to pick one, I’d say joy (yes, I know I didn’t mention that in the first list, but joy seems a bit more succinct and less dramatic than the others).
Fans are back. The team are back. And there’s no stopping the march to promotion now.
Until next time.