It’s pretty hard to write this without starting it exactly in the same vein as the piece I wrote on New Years Day about football in general, SCFC, and our manager……so, I won’t bother – I’ll start it exactly the same as I did five days ago!
It was a sunny mid-May tea time, and we’d just dismantled Liverpool 6 (SIX)-1 on the last day of the 2014/2015 season. As usual, I was selling the last few of the magazine whilst my youngest lad was getting autographs, a good hour after the final whistle. It was a surreal afternoon, and a surreal atmosphere. All I’d known since a young, young age was losing heavily to the red half of Merseyside and having my nose rubbed in it by the socially bankrupt youth of Stoke-on-Trent in the school playground the following week.
The original gloryhunters, the playground wasn’t full of Man United fans back then, but faux-Reds, resplendent in their shiny 70’s and 80’s liver bird tops.
I’ve always hated Crown Paints ever since.
So, here was my moment. We didn’t just hammer Liverpool in Steve Gerrard’s last match that day – we sent a message out to football: We were a player or two off seriously having a go at the top 6 or 7. We saw Bojan hobbling around pitch at the end of the game, and thought to ourselves “put that lad into this team and we are in serious danger of bloody winning something soon!!!”. The lap of honour at the end saw Stokies to a person staying behind and giving the squad and manager a humbling reception. A corner of ST4 owned football that day, if only for two hours or so. Only Peterborough away and Bolton at Wembley came close to how I personally felt that day.
So, I waited. Well, we waited. And waited……
Me, my kids, my mate Brad, and his daughter. Long after all the players had gone. Long after the media had gone. They came out, and I had to speak to them. It was akin to when I used to take the kids down to the training ground in the school hols in our first years in the Premier League, “good things come to those who wait” I’d say to my two eldest, and then he’d appear – Ricardo Fuller, and hour after every player had left Clayton Wood. We’d always have Ric to ourselves so could have a quick chat and as many pics taken and things signed as we wanted. And it was the same with Mark Hughes.
Hughes and his two lieutenants came out….
“Mark, can I just say thank you. Thank you for possibly the best performance I’ve ever seen from a Stoke team, and thank you on behalf of every kid from Stoke who used to get the p*** taken out of them at work or at school. Today means so much to us”.
He was a tough nut on a football pitch was Sparky, but he seemed genuinely surprised and moved by the emotion me and Brad showed that day as we both thanked him. He thanked us for our support, shook our hands, and wished us a great summer. We drove off the car park but would have gladly crawled the six miles home that day.
The key word in the above paragraph is EMOTION. It’s what football is all about and it’s what Mark Hughes was all about when he strode the turf, warrior-like for Manchester United. We hated him back then. He was everything we detested about Manchester United as teenagers. Cocky, classy, tough, and win at all costs – the ultimate passionate s***house, full of emotion and will-to-win.
A press conference or an interview last week, I forget which it was, saw our manager say something along the lines of there’s too much emotion about at the moment when it comes to views on him and Stoke City. That was it for me. Never, ever should emotion be a negative in football. Ever! At times, it’s all that we have as Stokies and football fans in general, have – daft, unremitting hope, and emotion. Because take emotion out of football and it’s not football. What it is, is what those clueless tools on the playground will never, ever know or show: supporting your football club is a bond, an attachment based on total love and belonging. We don’t ask for trophies. We don’t even ask for wins. We just ask for hope and for us to be in a world, well away from the 9-5 grind. We want a world of emotions. Football is just that.
They’re often stupid, totally fact-free emotions mind you, based on blind loyalty and little else. But they’re the greatest kind of emotions. Because for every 500 times they break your heart, you get a Liverpool 6-1, a Bolton 5-0, a Paul Ware free kick at London Road, a Sidibe scrambled winner against Villa…….
So, when Sparky wanted emotion removing from the current scenario he went all a bit Holden Lane Primary School 1978 on me. He made it personal. He was basically rejecting that stupid-yet-100%-honest and cringey, blubbering homage I’d paid to him after what I’d witnessed from his team in the 6 (SIX)-1.
Tonight isn’t a night for saying where it went wrong. Tonight, for me, certainly isn’t a night for celebration or rejoicing.
A manager who did so many great things for our football club has ben sacked. And a man has lost his job. What he earns means little to me, I’m a nice bloke and don’t like to see folk upset!
Hughes’ first two years in charge must mean that he is one of the very best managers in my lifetime of supporting Stoke City. Granted, it’s not got the entry field of a Grand National, but he turned a support that had big reservations at his appointment into one immensely grateful that Mr Coates employed him. His last two years are something for another article, another day.
Tonight, I want to thank Mark Hughes.
Yes, of course it was the right decision to let him go and many, many feel he has been unbelievably lucky to have lasted this long. But whenever we lose a manager is a sad occasion. It means we aren’t doing very well, and it’s a period of massive uncertainty. And we simply cannot overlook the impact he made when came into our club. The likes of Robbie Savage may just want to look at Hughes’ first two years – and that’s their prerogative. But the bigger picture has been clear to see for a long time, and this has been coming for some time. But we have to give credit where it is due, and I just wish it hadn’t come to the likes of banners and mass shouts of “Hughes out!”.
I feel old. Perhaps I’m getting to the end of my days watching football in the Premier League and seeing what my beloved ‘working man’s ballet’ has become? Seeking contact in the box, having a ‘right’ to go down when there’s minimal contact, VAR systems, fourth officials who simply get bellowed at, hundreds of instant replays putting incredible pressure on officials, SKY Sports News, social media replacing the pub after the game…….the list goes on. I quite like that we still have a chairman who is loyal in a drive-thru world, but I also have my views on when the manager should have gone, too.
You see, I’m confused. The only clarity in all of this, is this: As a supporter of Stoke City, it’s my duty to do my bit to help my beloved club stay in this division. Even though this division often leaves me cold. Economically, this city must have a team in the top league of English football. We’ve walked the walk of 23 long, hard years without top flight football. Tonight, I’m not going to look at the hierarchy, the new manager, or the players – just what can I do, as a humble supporter, to help get my team over the line? Lord knows, they need us. Time to do what we do best, eh?
The ground needs to shake again. Opposition players need to fill their Louis Vuitton pants in the tunnel at 2.55pm again. Emotion is what we do. And we do it so bloody beautifully well. Bring it on.