At 3pm this afternoon, Reading were meant to be hosting Stoke City in their 38th fixture of the 2019/20 EFL Championship season. But there will be no game at the Madejski Stadium. No Ovie Ejaria magic. No Heavenly Sausage from Blue Collar Food.
On Friday morning, it was announced that all elite football in England - the Premier League, EFL, FA Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship - would be suspended until at least April 3 due to the spread of coronavirus. That means along with the Stoke fixture, Reading’s games with Derby County (A) and Brentford (H) have also been postponed.
The entire footballing calendar is now in jeopardy. Public health will always remain the priority, but the feeling we’re left with is still one of confusion and bewilderment. How did we go from mocking the no handshakes rule just one week ago to being faced with the possibility of the suspension of the entire season? Quite simply, what the hell happens now?
Boris Johnson has described coronavirus as the “worst public health crisis for a generation”, and we’re now in a situation that is completely unprecedented. This is set to be the longest suspension of the professional game since the Second World War. It almost feels apocalyptic. Carlo Ancelotti once said that football is the most important of the less important things in the world, and never has that been optimised more. In the grand scheme of things, the sport matters very little. The death toll is rising daily both nationally and internationally. But the gaping hole it leaves in so many lives, and the chaos that the wider schedule now finds itself in, is unheard of.
Of course the domestic season breaks four times a year and only runs between August and May, but we still have international football, the transfer window and pre-season fixtures to keep us entertained. Now, there is something about a period in which football is always played, and was set to be played until 24 hours ago, that leaves us all lost and disorientated.
The list of ramifications of this football blackout range from the trivial - what are journalists going to write about? - to the vital - how, and when, does the season end, if at all? For the former I would suggest we may see a frustrating increase in the amount of click bait, as well as plenty more ‘On This Day’ and ‘Where are they now?’ articles. The latter is for people far more important than me to decide, and I don’t envy them.
For Reading, any decision on the end of the campaign shouldn’t matter too much in terms of where they finish. Whether the season is voided completely, decided on the current standings or continued into the summer, the Royals are unlikely to have a strong feeling either way. Sitting comfortably in mid-table with the season petering out anyway, there could certainly be worse years for a situation such as this to happen.
Financially, the club will naturally lose gate receipts if games are not played, or even if they are played at a later date. In the latest set of accounts, released in April 2019, it was revealed that Reading made £4.2 million in matchday revenue that financial year, which was just over 23% of their overall income. That figure will surely decrease. It is not yet clear whether any broadcasting revenue, which made up 42% of the club’s income, will be compromised, or the status of commercial revenue, which made up 31%. It is worth mentioning again how these are unprecedented times, so everything remains speculation as governing bodies rush to prevent anarchy.
There will no doubt be some level of concern behind the scenes at the Madejski Stadium, as the club already have the highest wages to turnover percentage in the entire Championship (197%) by quite some way and continue to walk a Financial Fair Play tightrope. Nonetheless, it will likely be what the club do in the next transfer window (whenever that may be) that sets the basis for our financial future.
Reading’s players trained on Friday morning and will have the weekend off before returning on Monday morning, seemingly in preparation for the game against Luton Town on April 4. But the idea that football returns in three weeks time would appear incredibly optimistic, considering the spread of coronavirus is unlikely to reduce in the break, with the UK peak not expected until May at the earliest. The majority of teams will also have lost a large element of match fitness having not trained or played for several days. More news is expected on a contingency plan following an EFL board meeting next week.
At the time of writing, no Reading player or staff member have reportedly shown symptoms of coronavirus. Lucas Boye, on loan from Torino, had a hernia operation back in Italy recently - the second worst affected country behind China - and is currently unable to return to England due to the travel restrictions in place. Mark Bowen said on Thursday that he was not sure when the forward would be back at the club, if at all. PFA guidelines have been issued to all first team and academy players, whilst staff are being encouraged to hold non-essential meetings over telephone or video call. Player appearances in the community have been cancelled and any visitors to the training ground are being asked to self-certify that they they have not shown any symptoms of illness and have not recently travelled to any of the more seriously affected countries.
The minute that anyone associated with the team does show symptoms, or indeed tests positive for the virus, the picture changes entirely. Following the example set at clubs where it has already happened, the whole squad will go into self-isolation, and Hogwood would probably be shut. The possibility of this happening over the next three weeks seems relatively high, perhaps even inevitable.
When we will next see the Royals in action really is anyone’s guess.