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Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

As of today, it’s been a full year since Reading fans last had a normal match day.

This week has been a poignant one for Reading anniversaries. March 3 marked exactly one year since the last time the Madejski Stadium played host to a proper football crowd: the fifth-round FA Cup defeat to Sheffield United. As of today, March 7, it’s been 12 months since the last normal match day: Reading’s 3-1 win at Birmingham City.

If you could have picked any match from the second half of Reading’s 2019/20 campaign to go out on, this was certainly one of the better ones. The Royals trailed 1-0 at the break due to an early Scott Hogan goal, which - bizarrely - was marked by the home supporters letting off a flare by the away end.

However, Reading turned the game around in the second half with a quick-fire brace of set-piece goals. First Matt Miazga turned in an equaliser, then Yakou Meite nodded home for 2-1. A particularly noisy away end showed its love for goalscorer Miazga, who was set to return to parent club Chelsea at the end of the season:

It’s little things like that which constitute a proper match day. It’s a silly joke that only really works for Reading fans, and non-football supporters probably wouldn’t get the appeal of it, but it’s our silly joke.

On a similar note, a thought struck me a couple of weeks ago after Michael Morrison’s goal at Ashton Gate. Had there been fans in for the subsequent home match against Millwall, you could just tell there’d be shouts of “shooooooootfrom the supporters the first time Morro touched the ball - whether he was near the opposition’s box, his own, or the halfway line. Again, a silly in-joke that you and those around you can enjoy for a few seconds, a small thing that you don’t fully appreciate until it’s gone.

Anyway, I digress. Pele wrapped up the win at St Andrew’s late on with a breakaway goal before dancing by the corner flag in front of the home supporters. That kind of trolling only works with a crowd, doesn’t it? At full time, the players celebrated a hard-fought victory from a dramatic game in front of a bumper crowd - one that included a certain T. McIntyre.

It was a proper away day: a day out with your mates on the road to get lost in the football, get away from work physically - not just mentally - and watch Reading knock in three goals to grab a win. For those like me getting the train back from New Street afterwards, there was even the opportunity to mob Andy Yiadom in celebration on one of the platforms.

As I sit here writing this, at the same desk I use for work from Monday to Friday and to watch the football on iFollow, concepts of ‘day out’ and ‘getting away’ almost feel alien. Following Reading has become a very static pursuit. As a bit of a train geek who enjoys (enjoyed?) long journeys around the country on away days, watching matches from a screen is quite the culture shock - as I’m sure it is for all of you too.

Of course, back then we had no idea what the future held in store. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that the following Saturday’s home game against Stoke City was called off. After that, it would be months of confusion, uncertainty and trips down memory lane to pass the time, for a long while not knowing if the season would restart at all.

Project Restart in June and July of last year was a Strange New World. At first it was a Strange New World that few people saw: iFollow broke shortly before the Stoke game, so most were locked out at the time Lucas Joao put Reading 1-0 in front. Naturally, sod’s law decreed that the cameras were rolling again well in time for the Potters’ late equaliser.

Following Reading in such a fashion has long since become normality, with the exception of a brief period in December when a modest crowd of 2,000 was allowed in for three matches. It’s only now, a few months after Reading lost the tier 2 status that allowed the Mad Stad to host spectators, that I fully appreciate how special a moment like this really was:

I was fortunate enough to be there that day. To a large extent it was strange - an eery atmosphere with fans in just one part of the stadium - you don’t realise how much the buzz from the rest of the ground sets in until you’re in a ground with three empty stands - and no congregated mass of people trying to leave afterwards.

But it was still a great day. It’s so much better to celebrate goals with fellow Royals around you, rather than yelling get innnn!at your laptop in your flat.

Full normality isn’t too far away though. Barring a twist in fate, fans will be able to return to stadiums to some extent from May 17, hopefully including Reading supporters watching a successful play-off campaign in person, and restrictions will be taken away in late June. All going well, every matchday in 2021/22 will be a normal one.