The Select Car Leasing Stadium pitch is empty except for one man.
Veljko Paunovic has high-fived his assistant Marko Mitrovic, fist-bumped Tom McIntyre and hugged Rafael Cabral, sending them on their way down the tunnel to join in the dressing room celebrations after Reading’s 2-1 win over Preston North End.
He will join them later, but for now he is conducting his own celebration out on the turf, applauding and waving to supporters who are showing him appreciation that is long overdue.
Paunovic has been Reading manager for just shy of a year, but it is the first time he is experiencing, in his words, a “real” crowd at home. There have been small attendances at test events last December, pre-season friendlies and Tuesday’s EFL Cup tie, while last weekend saw the return of away days, but they do not compare to this: all four sides of the stadium - Club 1871, the newly-named Sir John Madejski Stand, the Eamonn Dolan Stand and the West Stand - decorated in blue and white. It is worth taking it all in.
This solo parade is one of many heart-warming moments throughout the afternoon. The game itself was not a high-end spectacle - Reading had just two shots on target and Preston look like a team who could be in trouble this season - but it was a reminder of just how brilliant it is to be able to go to football again. To be back where we belong.
First, there is the reception that greets the Royals’ starting XI as they emerge at five minutes to three. Every supporter on their feet, many back here for the first time since you know what. The team is the same one that started against Stoke a week ago, meaning Josh Laurent plays in front of a strong home crowd for the first time in Berkshire.
Academy graduates Ethan Bristow and Femi Azeez experience the roar for the first time. It must be a special moment for boyhood fan Tom McIntyre, who has established himself in the squad since supporters were last here in great numbers. There is a fresh feel to the side, certainly compared to the one that featured Charlie Adam, Chris Gunter and Garath McCleary 18 months ago.
Reading look fresh from the off too, as Andy Rinomhota volleys over inside two minutes and John Swift oozes class as he picks out passes left, right and centre. There is nearly a dream moment for Bristow, who arrives on the left hand side of the box as Lucas Joao slides the ball across, but the teenager can only manage a tame effort on goal that Daniel Iversen saves. Bristow and Andy Yiadom, deployed as wing-backs in Pauno’s switch to a 5-3-2, give Reading strong width and look dangerous with a number of overlapping runs.
But the wait for an opener does not go on much longer, as the other novice on the pitch, the lively Azeez, finishes from close range at the back post after Josh Laurent’s cross from the left is not cut out. There is no stopping the 20-year-old’s ecstasy, as he marks his first senior goal with a delightful knee slide in front of Club 1871 - already a contender for picture of the season.
Five minutes later, Azeez nearly has a second. He latches onto a ball over the top and sprints towards goal, but his strike is just wide of the post. It is a move that sums up Reading’s approach to the first half: react quickly and attack with speed. Preston go into the break having had 60% possession but no opportunities to show for it, while the Royals are in the lead and looking hungry for more.
The interval does not halt the momentum or change the game - whatever Frankie McAvoy said to his troops has not worked - as Reading continue to burn forward attacking the Eamonn Dolan stand. Joao strikes the post and Azeez’s inexperience shows as he lacks the composure to finish off a couple more breakaway moves.
Then the feeling that no one has missed. Having been virtual bystanders in the game, Preston get a penalty. There is no controversy involved - Michael Morrison looks as if he is hailing a taxi as he blocks the ball with his hand - but there is certainly frustration. Reading throwing away control at a key point in the game? It’s hardly something new. Daniel Johnson scores the spot-kick, despite Rafael going the right way.
This is either where Reading collapse at the feet of their Lancashire visitors, or they reassert themselves on the game. Thankfully, it is the latter, and of course they have the brilliant Swift to thank. He picks the ball up in midfield, plays a one-two with Laurent and then engages in a similar exchange with Joao, whose first time touch back to him is delicately perfect.
Swift is now in the box and Iversen makes himself big, but the magician slides it past the Dane, off the post and enchantingly over the line. That’s two in two for Swift, a reminder of his immense talent and importance to the team. Should he stay fit, he will be one of the Championship’s standout performers this season.
The game is nearly wrapped up but for Azeez’s rawness again. The youngster wins the ball from Preston’s corner and races away downfield, he has options either side but opts to shoot himself - sadly the wrong choice as the ball sails high and wide. It is clear that the former Wealdstone attacker can be a real threat for Reading this season as his pace and energy will prove a handful for teams, particularly in the absence of Yakou Meite, so hopefully his knowhow and in-game decision making improves with time.
Azeez’s miss does keep Preston in the game though, and the final 15 minutes are more stressful than they really should be. The Lilywhites wake up to the fact that there are points on the line, and Liam Lindsay and Alan Browne go close with headers, Brad Potts proves a danger at the back post and Rafael is forced into a good save from Ben Whiteman’s free-kick. But the full-time whistle finally goes. There is a collective sigh of relief.
Paunovic begins his lap of appreciation, knowing what a crucial victory this is for his side. After conceding late on last week, getting off the mark here was more important than is perhaps recognised - you do not want to be in the position of waiting for your first win week after week. Three points gives the squad a confidence boost, lifts the spirits of supporters after a fractious couple of weeks and provides a platform to build on going forward.
Simultaneously, it rounds off a glorious afternoon. Everything has gone to plan. The weather has not faltered, supporters have been reunited and have not stopped singing, an academy graduate has got his first goal for the club and even an undeserved equaliser does not deter Reading from gaining victory courtesy of their slick midfield talisman. It’s so good to be back.