Hark back to the final Match of the Day of the 2017/2018 season: it saw the opposite ends of the football supporting evolutionary scale, but in some kind of parallel universe.
Down at Wembley, we had the surreal sight of someone dressed like they’d failed an audition for a JLS tribute band walking down the stairs back to his seat at the Spurs game – carrying two massive buckets of popcorn! Meanwhile, 181 miles away at the Liberty Stadium we had the sight of a packed away end serenading a team that had just stunk the Premier League out for the previous nine months or so. Possibly more.
It summed up all that I hate and love about modern football, and yet gave me hope for the future.
Football stirs the emotions like nothing else on earth. That’s why going to see your team play association football will always be one of life’s great delights. And when you see them win it’s almost as if the previous nine months have never happened.
It would have been very easy and understandable if the Stoke crowd had turned after the Palace and Swansea games. After all, this is a club who shouldn’t really have been relegated last season; but we were, and it was entirely our own fault. No-one can point the finger at anything other than the things that we control for our own relegation. No ref’s decisions, no bad luck……just a culmination of poor decisions on and off the pitch which have ensured that we are now in The Championship as you read this.
But is that so bad? Really, is it?
They say that the Premier League is the place to be – but it’s not the only place to be. And it’s only a a footballing mecca to me if you’re mainly concerned about finances. Did Wigan or Accrington have more fun than we did last season? And it’s not because they’ve had success this year – it’s because there are far more things than the actual football match, and indeed, winning the match. It’s certainly not about the league you’re playing in.
I’ll repeat my thoughts from previous articles – I enjoyed 1992/93 far more than any other season, and I’ll be honest, I even in some morbid way enjoyed the Alan Ball years more than the season just gone. Because I felt a sense of connection and community, and matches and matchdays weren’t pre-scripted, and let’s be honest, bloody bland.
A lot of the Premier League, no matter what SKY tell you, is simply beige as hell. It’s any number of colours of beige off the Dulux Fawn Colour Chart, it really is. The main plus for me from our decade in the top flight of English football was to see a new generation of Stoke City fans inside the ground, proudly wearing The Potter’s colours during that time. Whereas a Stoke top used to be the exception on the streets and in the parks of The Potteries, nowadays it’s the norm. And the real trick now for the football club is ensuring that support remains, in a throw-away, want it now, drive-thru society.
I’ll be honest, I went through the full range of emotions last season. Anger gave way to acceptance of our fate, and then back to anger, bitterness, to tolerance, and everything in between. I accepted our impending relegation after the West Ham home game to be honest with you, with Newcastle knocking another nail in our coffin in ST4. And not grabbing a striker, any striker, in January all but consigning us to The Championship.
Ah, The Championship. A place we’ve not visited for a decade, and a place it’s still hard to believe and accept we’re now in, but in it we are. But every time I have a look at the teams in that league I get a real feeling of football supporting excitement again.
What would you rather have, an 8pm watching us at Palace or a weekend fixture in Sheffield; or how about a Monday night game at that amazing football-watching cathedral in Stratford or a Saturday 3pm in the brilliant, underrated city of Bristol? I mean, a few years ago, Norwich was the scene of one of my best Friday nights out with mates I’ve had in years. The second tier is choc-full of big clubs, ace awaydays, and we also have the chance of winning more matches than we lose. If it’s a one-season-deal, then it’s one that might just quench our supporting thirst. It could reinvigorate us to 2008/2009 levels in the stands, and don’t say that no matter what the football was like on the pitch, that season wasn’t a white-knuckle-ride of thrilling proportions, where every match was an event.
No, I accepted and embraced Championship football a long time ago, and that was reaffirmed for me at Anfield, around 13:20 on Saturday 28th April……
It was the day that I took my nine year old to his first ever ‘proper’ away match, certainly his first Premier League awayday. A couple of years ago we went to Brentford pre-season to see Bojan’s return to football action in the famous red and white stripes, but that doesn’t really count in the great scheme of things. I specifically chose Anfield for a few reasons….
He also got to have a walk around the ground beforehand with his great mate Harrison and his dad – both huge Liverpool fans.
He also got to see first hand the Stoke away following in full flow, asking me why so many blokes “Had a patch on their left sleeve, dad?”. As he’s only 9 he had to stand on his seat with my arm around him – safe standing eh, Mrs Crouch – which was fine until Ryan Shawcross almost won it for us at the death. Archie then got to witness and bear the fruits of what we’ve all been through – a seat surge that meant he ended up with bruised and grazed shins. We’ve all been there, but then we don’t mind taking one for the team if the team actually scores, yeah?
At half time of the Liverpool game, we stood together. He read the programme that he was given for free by a kindly home fan before the game, and I just looked around. Then, the PA bloke dropped Echo and The Bunnymen’s ‘Nothing lasts forever’ – a truly great song by a truly great band. But one I hadn’t heard for a while. It summed up our current situation at that time perfectly and acted as a calmer; that spoonful of Calpol, that first sip of an ice cold beer on a blazingly hot day, that sundowner on a Mediterranean beach…..it was just a perfect song for an imperfect time, yet a perfect time. If you get my drift.
“I need to live in dreams today……” is one lyric from the song, and yet when you’re midtable in the Premier League what really do you dream about, if anything at all? A cup run? Well, we’ve been knocked out by lower league teams in the last few years, so that’s a non-no? At least if we are near the top of the league, any league, we get to live in our dreams rather than just dreaming them?
During half time at Anfield, I watched as blokes my age chatted with their excited kids, and I listened to the chants of the away following echoing up from the concourse. But I also saw the corporate home sections empty en masse, and not regain their places upon the start of the second half and I also saw masses of daytrippers, absolutely clueless about what was going on in front of them……but I felt far more at peace with where my club was heading.
The Championship? So be it. I’ll be there with my lad, we’ll love it, and we won’t be holding big bloody buckets of popcorn, either! Nothing ever lasts forever? Supporting your football club does.