It may only be 94 days since I tried to give an optimistic look at an almost unprecedented concept of life without football, but it feels so much longer than that. The last few months, which should have featured the 2019/20 season’s conclusion and start of the summer transfer window, have instead been a period of turmoil for the global football community at all levels of the game.
For us as fans, it’s been a pretty miserable time. Reading’s 2019/20 campaign, which should have played out with nine enjoyable games - for once without the threat of relegation looming large - was put on ice. It’s one thing to sit through the tedium of a two-week international break, or even the months-long summer recess and pre-season, but an indefinite pause is harder to come to terms with.
To be honest, writing that football will inevitably come back, sooner or later was as much about lifting my own spirits as it was (hopefully successfully) about reassuring you. This game we love - and are for some reason obsessed by, often unhealthily - is one hell of an emotional ride, and it being abruptly snatched away is bound to give us all withdrawal symptoms.
The last few months haven’t been easy. As much as we can try to pass the time with nostalgic looks back at Reading’s historical highlights or - God forbid - talking about things that aren’t football, it’s current, competitive action that we desperately crave.
Thankfully, that’s about to return.
By the time Reading take to the field against Stoke City tomorrow afternoon, it will have been 105 days (tantalisingly close to the magic 106) since the Royals last did so, winning 3-1 at Birmingham City. No one in the crowd that day could have predicted how long it would be before the next Championship fixture, and no one knows when we’ll be back in the stands to watch it in person.
For many, that last point has understandably taken the shine off football’s return. Matchday is a unique experience: heading to the ground, getting excited for what’s about to unfold in front of your eyes and revelling in the atmosphere around you. That can’t be replicated and it’s no surprise fans religiously follow it, even when Reading are going through a rough patch, and less of a surprise that we miss it so badly when it’s gone.
We’re fortunate though to be living in a time when technology can at least offer us the next best thing. We take it for granted that all of Reading’s nine remaining matches will be streamed online on the club’s iFollow service - something that wasn’t feasible until a few years ago. It’s a very recent development that football ‘behind closed doors’ doesn’t mean football that’s completely shut off from the supporters.
The result, football without fans (or rather, fans that aren’t made out of cardboard), is a proposition that’s far from perfect. Some will, understandably, argue that such an idea isn’t football at all - that having punters in the stands gives matches life and atmosphere, and without those supporters, 22 players kicking a ball around a pitch means little, if anything.
I sympathise with that view. Football is very much an emotional pursuit - often more akin to a rollercoaster ride than a spectator event - so it’s not for anyone, certainly not me, to tell you how much passion to put into watching the game or how much enjoyment to take out.
But for me, football is more than that. It’s a very unique kind of escape that goes far beyond what happens for 90 minutes on a pitch, or even on the rest of matchday. Throughout the week, we get wrapped up in the excitement of pre-match build-up, then the finer points of post-game analysis, before repeating that process all over again.
Football is a 24/7 immersive experience that allows us to escape both the humdrum of daily life and, sadly, a global pandemic. We’re all going through tough times at the minute, whether because of changing circumstances or bereavement, which has tragically affected far too many people both in this country and around the world. In the face of that, watching Reading in all likelihood play out a mid-table finish is a triviality.
But for me, football coming back after being away for months is also a sign that we’re getting through these tough times. Reading are back, albeit in a way we’re wholly unused to, and it won’t be long before we’re through this wretched pandemic and back to something much closer to normality.
That day will come, even if it feels far off. Stick in there.