12.30pm Saturday 5th May 2018. There’ll be over 30K crammed into the bet365 Stadium, the vast majority of whom will be hoping beyond hope that Stoke City can take our relegation battle into the final ninety minutes of the 2017/2018 season next weekend.
It’s been a simply dreadful season. And a completely avoidable one, too. But one that many, many Stokies saw coming quite a while ago. Many were shouted down at the time – berated for having an opinion that clashed with some others. told to “F off up the Vale”, give their “heads a wobble” and told that they were “pessimistic” and “glass half empty”. I’m sure not one of those Stokies will glean any satisfaction from being right.
I was asked on both Radio Stoke and TalkSport before the season started how The Potters would fare. Whilst age has possibly made me more pessimistic by the year it’s also given me a slightly more objective and balanced view on my beloved football club, too. I responded to Messrs Sandoz and Durham that I felt that we would finish bottom six, and that if we had two poor transfer windows we had a real chance of going down. Nether really disagreed with me, but then again, I don’t really see how many really could. Because here was a team who scored few goals, had a dearth of strikers at the club, had just sold our best attacking player to a rival, and had shipped goals by the bucketload on regular occasions over the previous twelve months.
How could you be anything else other than fearful for us? As a good friend of mine and massive Stokie said to me “Bunny, we’re sleepwalking towards relegation!”. Blind faith is great, and I wish I could have had a slice f that particular cake myself, but I type this with no element of surprise involved at all.
Well, 2.20pm tomorrow might well be the time that the trap door alarm clock goes off to wake us up from our sleepwalking.
This article isn’t to finger point and blame. That has already been done and will be done afterwards by many, I’m sure. This isn’t being typed to simply moan and groan. That’s easy. No, this article is simply imploring you to remind the Premier League that we matter. Humble, little Stoke City matter. And we always will. If tomorrow is to be the day that we say goodbye to the Greed League, let’s make sure that what we are about and what we stand for isn’t forgotten.
Cast your minds back a decade ago. Yes, it hurts to know it could be over, but in that time we’ve: established ourselves as a decade in the top league; been fortunate enough to have witnessed first-hand some of the finest players and teams in our club’s history; regularly enjoyed kicking ST4 sand I the big boys faces; got to an FA Cup Final after winning the Semi 5-0; top half finishes; some great football; some great games; Europe and several cities you could only dream about watching your team in……
…..and we’ve boasted an atmosphere that visiting fans still hark back to, to this day.
“Where’s yer famous atmosphere?” won’t be sung at 90% of Premier League grounds. Because they’ve never had one. And whilst our noise dissipated into the Potteries air like long-lost kiln smoke some time ago, anyone who ever witnessed it will never forget it. One of the few crowds to make a real difference. Us.
I’ve spoken to and interviewed any number of Stoke players and opposition players about it. Do not for one minute think that our support didn’t make a difference. And whilst some of the self-titles we appointed ourselves were a bit cringy, they were deserved. As the poem goes, “Where the crowd became part of the team”.
Those were the days when going to the match was an event, and we have to get back to that mentality. Mid-table, satisfactory, and bland don’t get the pulses racing do they, and it’s possible that we’ve become complacent as a football club. After all, no threat of relegation or really affecting the top seven can only get the heart racing so much. But no matter what the league we find ourselves in come August, the biggest thing for me is getting back to home games being an event – and for that to happen, we need a team to connect with.
That doesn’t necessarily mean long throws, tackles flying in, the 80th minute roar, clenched fists and the like – but it does mean Stokies identifying with those who represent us. We’ve had some stunning players play for us and we’ve also had players who would admit themselves, did more of the water carrying for them. For every Fuller there’s a Wilkinson; for every Etherington there is a Dickinson; for every Bojan there’s an Allen; for every Arnie there is a Walters….and so on. The common denominator was that we identified with these players, be they artists or artisans.
The players who I have done down and called artisans are worth far more than the words I wrote above. I love those lads: Delap, Wilkinson, Dickinson, Allen et al, but they can play as well as dig in, and were possibly underrated as footballers. But not by me, and certainly not as blokes, they weren’t. And at a club like ours that’s important. I hate seeing my club and city downplayed – that’s why I’m straying away from the simple “Let’s fill the team with Jon Walters and Wilko’s etc…”. I loved watching our Stoke team outplay the two Manchester teams in the space of a few weeks. and play many teams off the park But when Stoke City were flying, most of the players had a connection with the crowd. A few still do, in fairness.
And when things are going badly in life, surely the very least you expect is commitment and giving a toss? I was taught that when bad things happen, work harder. Blood, sweat and tears, not Instagram stories and crap caps. I can’t remember Marc Muniesa wearing a Superman cap after we lost at Anfield that night, or Huthy in a bright silver puffa jacket and dreadful shades after a defeat, can you?
No, give us a team with steel, with skill and one that tries to understand how great it is to be playing for Stoke City. Let them get us: We do things slightly differently around here – we are a city that connects with others differently. We are a city that consists of six towns but one lovely heart and soul that puts people first. A proud, parochial city that has that rare ability – to laugh at itself. Our strength is also our weakness, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tomorrow, when you’re biting your nails and the person’s nails whose sitting next to you, I’ll be 94 miles away, in Sleaford. Only one thing matters more to me than Stoke City, and that’s my family. That’s why I’m there and not in the ground. My youngest lad is playing for the under 9’s in a tournament there all day tomorrow, and I’ll be totally honest with you – it was the easiest decision ever who to go watch on 5th May. Family always come first to me, and that would be the same if it was a Cup Final. Er, possibly!
That’s the choice I made, and one I’m looking forward to. Watching my kid’s enjoy themselves and do well is probably the greatest joy in my life, indeed, probably any parent’s lives. But whilst my eyes will be in Lincolnshire, my heart, mind and soul will be just off that North Staffordshirian fuel carriageway. Indeed, I went shivery as I just typed that.
I can’t control what happens in ST4 tomorrow and that is what really hurts me. Not being at the Palace game means I have no influence on it at all. I have some stupid, bird-brained notion that if I’m at the game, my voice amongst the 30,000+ will be heard and somehow affect the result.
How utterly daft that is, eh?
But times my voice by 30,000 and then a massive difference can be made. Why? Because we’ve made that bloody difference before, that’s why! Please do us proud tomorrow folks and remind everyone why folk had a sneaky little, grudging respect for us back in the days when we did make a bloody big din and boot sand in big-boy’s faces. The days when every home game was an event.
Ten years ago today, I stood next to my dad in block 23 of the Boothen End. We’d just watched one of the worst games of association football you could ever imagine. But it was the game that ended 23 years of pain and suffering. I thought it was a day when Stoke City mattered again. I was right, and also wrong. Because we always matter. Despite making it back into the big time that day my old man didn’t overly celebrate or go mad. Indeed, I don’t think he even went onto the pitch at the end. An hour or so after the whistle, we simply made our way home for tea, and then me and my brother and mates went out afterwards.
That day, my dad met the ultimate triumph with a quiet dignity that I hope I can match whenever we either do superbly or dreadfully on the pitch. Maybe people like him are at peace with the fact that Stoke City simply being in their lives is more than enough? Yes, we all want us to do as well as we possibly can, but no matter what the division we were in- he knew that he’d be there. Because he always was. So promotion was treated with a huge pride, but also with a touch of humility, too. He stood, looking at that away end in mourning on 4th May 2008, and acknowledged that “what they’re feeling is what we’ve all felt before, and I’m sure will again one day. Decent club, Leicester.”
That ‘one day’ is possibly tomorrow.
So, Crystal Palace may well be our last home game in the Premier League for some time. Treasure it and please, please do your best, to make sure that when an overweight, fed-up, grey-haired fanzine editor for gets back from deepest Lincolnshire to watch Match of The Day, no matter what the result, he will watch his beautiful club – but more importantly, hear them – with a knowing smile, a heart swollen with pride, dust-filled eyes, and hopefully a little of the dignity showed by his beloved dad.
If so, it will be a bit like the ending of that mega-ace kid’s film Babe, where the old, faithful shepherd looks down at his, er sheep-pig after the competition…….
“That’ll do me Stoke, that’ll do me……”